Ask a YCW- Boundaries Edition

Post Author: Askie

Dear Askie-800px-Love_you!

I can’t be the only YCW who sometimes receives inappropriate romantic attention. How do I handle parishioners who have crushes on me? And what do I do when I feel attracted to a parishioner?

Looking For Love

Dear Looking,

You have asked two very different, but related questions, so let’s start with the first.

Being a pastor of a congregation full of people gives us the potential for immediate intimacy with each individual- one of the greatest gifts of the pastoral relationship is being invited in as lives begin and end, blessing newborn babies and anointing the dying, presiding over the happiest and saddest moments in the lives of, at least initially, strangers. In moments of extreme emotion, normal social contracts can break down- you would probably never embrace someone you’ve just met, but when you’ve spent the last hour sitting vigil with a parent by the hospital bed of a child who might not pull through, such a physical comfort seems appropriate when the doctor comes with news, good or bad. An arm around the shoulders of someone you have only sat in finance committee meetings with makes sense when he is telling you about his struggle with addiction, or she is telling you she is afraid of her abusive spouse, or whenever words just fail us and only physical connection seems to be the appropriate response.

But what do we do when that reassuring touch is interpreted as something more? Being in a pastoral relationship means the privilege of access to the lives of those we serve, but it also means the relationship is at its heart very one-sided. Yes we all have responsibilities to each other as members of a Christian community, but one of us in that community is being paid to be there- and this is where the confusion can set in. Askie was once pulled aside by an older member of her first congregation, and given the advice not to say she couldn’t meet on a certain day because that was her day off, but instead to say she was busy that day. Mentioning that she got a day off, the member cautioned, made it sound like this was a job to her. Even as a brand new pastor, Askie balked. This was her job, after all, and to pretend like she was providing care for these wonderful, lovely people simply as a kindness in some sort of reciprocal friendship was an unhealthy subterfuge, one that if perpetuated could lead to exactly the sort of thing you are asking about. The old cliche about good fences making good neighbors is very applicable- good boundaries make for good, healthy pastoral relationships for everyone involved.

If you feel like a parishioner is crossing the line, it is up to you to reinforce that line. It might not feel like it all the time, but as pastors we are the ones with the power and the responsibility. Hopefully you have not had to experience it directly, but think about the stories you’ve heard of a pastor who gets too involved with a member of his or her flock-  the wayward member might get publicly embarrassed, but the pastor loses his or her job, and possibly his or her ordination status.  Whether we feel like it every day or not, we are in some way representing God in the relationship, and that means we don’t come to the relationship as equals (and most likely never can- but more about that later.) So if you have a congregant who you suspect has romantic feelings for you, you can handle it passively by making sure to never be alone with that person or avoiding them for a while, but the graceful thing is probably to have the painful, awkward, embarrassing, holy, hard conversation about what you sense to be going on, and why it needs to stop.

If you find yourself feeling an attraction to a parishioner- first know that you aren’t the first, you won’t be the last, and there is no shame in the feelings. We work with some pretty amazing folks who are as passionate, if not more so, about God as we are and who are blossoming into lives of greater faithfulness and integrity and glory. If romantic love is respect and admiration coupled with physical attraction, it makes sense that this could happen. And it will probably happen more than once in the life of your ministry. But what you do next is key- to your ministry, your own spiritual health, and the wellbeing of the object of your attraction. You tell someone, ideally someone like a bishop or a therapist or a spiritual director, someone who will hold you accountable and help you think clearly about the next steps you will take. It isn’t completely alien for a couple to meet when one is the pastor and the other a parishioner. Askie’s denomination used this as its primary method of getting young clergymen married for centuries, if novels are to be trusted as reflecting the true state of things, and no one batted an eyelash (except the marriageable daughters and granddaughters of the parish).

However, remembering that power imbalance mentioned a paragraph or so ago, you can only be someone’s partner if you stop being his or her pastor. If you want to give a relate ship a go with someone you met this way, you need to go through the appropriate channels to arrange for him or her to receive pastoral care from someone else. She or he will probably have to join another congregation until you two figure out what you are doing. Other people will have to be involved in this decision making process, and you will have to be ok with that. These are the vows that we make when we accept holy orders, and they are as much for our own protection as for others. Good boundaries make for good relationships.



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