a million possibilities…

My last blog for Fuller I think just began a needed dialogue about women and leadership. I think I get started on this conversation once every 2-3 months. The blog specifically mentions a number of questions that are left in front of me.

So, instead of just hypothetically referring to questions, I got a novel idea: name them. (I know, I’m sooo creative, aren’t I?) Well, in my amazingly creative attempts to avoid my philosophy class for a fifth week in a row late at night, I found myself reading Richard Mouw’s blog. For those of you not living at Fuller’s campus, he’s the President of Fuller. If I recall correctly, I had just returned to Pasadena after a two week vacation and was then, again, avoiding a paper. (The blog talks about his theology of hugging.) I won’t get into a lot of his blog – you can check out..

But the question I’m currently left wrestling is certainly correlative. What is my theology of touch? Yes, touch.

When I was working in Indiana, I learned during my interview what the rules at this church were for touching adults and students. Now I clearly understand that when we’re working with minors, there are certainly laws that we must and should abide by. Duh. But here’s a snippet of the rules I dealt with there:
– never front-hug a man (student or adult)
– side-hug is the only appropriate way to hug a man you’re not married to or dating
– you can turn a front hug into a side hug very easily
– never initiate a hug with a male student or adult
– you can hug girls however
– never ride in a car alone with a male student
– never ride in a car alone with a male, period.
– if a male student needs a ride home, make sure you get another student to ride with you if you’re really stuck (in which case it would have to be a female, otherwise you’d end up with needing another student to help out with that one)
– never go to lunch alone with a male from the office or a church member – let alone a student
– you can be alone one-on-one with females as much as you’d like
– there are windows in the pastor’s offices so that we have accountability if there is a woman in there

Now I will certainly admit that I broke nearly every single rule. But here’s the reality:
– I’d been alone in the car with a male student, I believe, only once, and it was totally because the parent asked me to bring their child home from church. I felt okay with the situation, as did the parents. But, there was a part of me that still sensed guilt.
– Both bosses and I had driven alone in a car – though only once with one of them. A few more times. Each time, I felt a certain sense of fear and guilt, again. As though I was the bad person, and that I was dirty or bad for being a female and therefore breaking a rule. Clearly I was at fault for having breasts.
– I mastered the art of the front hug turned side hug and hated it, but did it because I had to
– I loved it when a student was too quick and hugged me too fast before I could turn it into a side hug.
– One of my bosses hugged differently depending on who was around.
– I successfully hugged every male on staff, but never hugged the Sr. Pastor or HS pastor front-hug until I left the church two years later. (P.S. it was a side hug on both my return to In.)
– Male students would ask me all the time why I side-hugged. I wanted to puke every time.
– I hated to talk about driving anywhere with students, because I always had to figure out driving so that I wouldn’t end up with a male student in the car alone.
– One of my bosses one day in the car with the other specifically stated in the car: “You should know that I promised my wife that I would never ride alone in the car with you. It’s not you, but it’s the agreement we’ve reached.”
– I felt guilty every time the door shut in an office with a pastor (we had no female pastors – I was, in essence, the female pastor at the church aside from the 62 year old Children’s Director).
– All of the pastors were men (after 7 months – we had a part time Congregational Care Pastor who was 60 and single. I’ll admit that the men even would comment on the struggle to work with her – which to this day makes me sad that I didn’t stand up for her better.).
– All of the administrative and non-leadership positions on staff were women. Most were termed “coordinators” or “administrators.” Gag me.
– At my farewell with the elders of the church, the Sr. Pastor made a comment that had me in tears the rest of the night: “Libby’s done more pastoral ministry with the men and women of this church than probably the rest of this staff combined. We have a lot to learn.” I think I was more in shock that he was willing to say that my ministry included the male students!
– Some of my deepest conversations were with male students – and I always ended up having them in public spaces so I knew I couldn’t get in trouble, or in my office, or at on mission trips where there was far more flexibility on space issues.
– I had a conversation with a boss my first year about the difficulty of working at this church where I was one of two full-time women and and eight men in full-time ministry. I spoke to how challenging it was to sometimes feel validated as a woman, to not feel ostracized because I never was invited to the lunch meetings with pastors, because as a woman (and single) I wasn’t allowed to be a part of the male bonding sessions. He told me later in the conversation that, while he’s sorry to say it, there’s no way that he could work under a woman. (AWESOME! Thanks!)

I cannot express how dirty, ineffective, degraded, ostracized, ugly, dumb, useless, and token-ized I felt at times, when it came to recognizing my gender. I often felt that the gender roles that they required of me, and especially in regard to touch made it sound as though I was the person that either would cause someone to stumble (um, hello, that’s doubtful), but also because I have breasts, I’m also untouchable.

I certainly carried those feelings into seminary and have at times, significantly struggled with reteaching myself that those are straight out lies. But the reality is that a lot of women feel this way when we’re told that we have to do the right thing for men only. Isn’t there a give and take in life??

As I relate it to touch, I really do wonder how this all affects the church and people. What do we really say about the human body if we say that we have to be so careful about how we touch and interact with one another, to the point of making the other feel dirty, untouchable, or simply bad? Is it sinful to touch someone of the opposite gender? Is all touch sexual? Does it matter the difference between interpretation and intention?

I’m pretty sure that Mary Magdalene and Jesus front-hugged. Gosh, if not, I quit.

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5 responses to “a million possibilities…

  1. … and one more possibility … the failed hug.

  2. I was just thinking of this today. How no one really touches anyone else. Somehow I always feel compelled to break the touch barrier. I’m actually contemplating asking Eileen for hugs occasionally just so I can be touched by someone else. I know it’s “professional” and all to not touch, but screw that. We’re people and just like little kids will die if they aren’t touched, so will we.

  3. haha, Kristin – that’s HILARIOUS!

    Jen – wow, that’s interesting… I feel like there’s touch EVERYWHERE, but we just have to figure out the “right” one, which just pisses the hell out of me… i mean, I guess it shouldn’t – but it always feels like I’m at fault, as a woman…

  4. lib-
    be radical in your ministry and hug people from the front and spend time with them in cars, offices without windows, mountain tops, wherever! Jesus broke those barriers all the time! I love this blog. I love you…. in a front hug kinda way riding alone in a car with you with tinted windows kinda way!

  5. I know I obviously haven’t had YOUR experiences, but I have run into some similar things. When I worked with the youth group back home, I had to be careful of what type of touch occurred with the female students. I don’t recall even “side-hugging” with them, so careful were we about boundaries. We wouldn’t even email a female student without cc’ing the youth pastor’s wife or another female staff member.

    Course, we weren’t so much going to make them stumble (yeah, right). We had more issues of propriety regarding abuse and such. So maybe there’s that stupid double standard at work again.

    In personal life, I got a lot of nuthin. Good blog, though. Figured out any answers in the 2 weeks since you wrote it? 🙂 — Derrick

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