I was just trying to be nice. Pastors are supposed to be nice, right? And to listen; pastors are supposed to listen, especially to their elderly parishioners who have just suffered the tremendous loss of a spouse’s death. I was trying to be empathetic, to be present in pain, to offer support. To be alone after fifty-some years of marriage must be awful. When he started calling more often, I didn’t worry about it.
Being single, I know well how lonely and depressing it can be to eat alone every night – how mealtimes can become an endless march of boxed, dried, frozen, canned, microwaved convenience food eaten on the couch. I’m in favor of meals eaten with other people, on principle, and I frequently have meetings at local restaurants rather than in my office. So, when he asked if we could meet and talk over dinner sometime, I didn’t think much of it. A good pastor can share a meal with a parishioner, right?
Then he said he’d pick me up at my house. Something uncomfortable twitched in me. “No, I’ll just meet you there.” He was just being polite, I was sure; he’s of a different generation. But other red flags kept popping up in the way he talked about our meeting: “You pick the restaurant, something nice. I want to take you somewhere you’ll really enjoy.” I tried to push back that feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but every time I did, something else told me that his expectation was that I’d be something other than a good pastor. By the time we actually had dinner, I was no longer sure whether a good pastor would try to be there for him in his grief, or lay down a firm boundary line and cancel. I chose to go through with it.
And that’s how I ended up awkwardly seated at a restaurant, sliding my chair away from his, drawing the conversation to his grandchildren who are my age, having a minor argument over the check when I insisted on paying it from my church expense account, and in a moment that exemplified the grace of the whole event, tripping over my chair while attempting to avoid physical contact. I still have the bruise to show for it.
I should have known better, should have been clearer, should have asked him to come to the office to talk. I know all of this. I also know that my natural response is to try to be helpful. Screw the boundaries, I’ll go where I’m needed, and deal with the fall-out later. Nothing really bad happened, after all – just a little awkwardness. But this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself the object of misplaced attention from men in my congregations, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. There has to be a better way, one not so bruising to my knees or to the pastoral relationship.
I’m tempted to say that we single clergywomen are vulnerable to this sort of thing, and I guess it’s true that we are fairly easy targets for people looking to fill a void in their lives. We’re nice. We listen. We’re empathetic and present and supportive. We’re unattached, and appreciation can easily shift toward attraction. We tend to be pretty aware of our vulnerability as single women, and cautious about issues of our own safety.
The other vulnerability, however, is in our congregants, especially those who have been widowed or divorced or gone through some other major life shift and are looking for stability and companionship. The average person does not understand why it would be inappropriate to start a relationship with their pastor, especially if, say, their pastor is a young woman who they might be having trouble ascribing authority to in the first place. They’re not necessarily aware of all the dynamics of the relationship between pastor and congregation. They may not even be aware of their own internal “stuff” that is being funneled into this attraction.
It would be really nice if they were aware of all of this, but they’re usually not. And it’s not their job to be. It’s not their job to know or set appropriate boundaries. It’s ours.
It still feels wrong to me to say, “No, bereaved man who maybe just doesn’t want to eat one more meal alone, I can’t have dinner with you because of the outside chance that you might think it’s a date.” At the very least it seems impolite. But then I think about falling over my chair in a restaurant, about the confusion and awkwardness, about how my ability to really support him in his grief is compromised because of it. Just to be on the safe side, next time I think I’ll say, “How about we meet at the office; what time is good for you?”