n10RRHyThis week’s question is about a lot of things — inclusive church and appropriate touching are two of those. What are the real issues here, and what’s a pastor to do?

Dear Matriarchs,

My question is about creating a culture of respectful touching — and not touching — in a congregation that is very friendly, even affectionate.

Our congregation is small but growing. We are being blessed with a variety of people who have been attracted to our congregation. Among them are several persons who are living with physical &/or intellectual &/or mental health challenges. We also have people who are living with the results of abuse, those who are immune-challenged as well as people who simply don’t want to be hugged or touched.

Last week, a parishioner expressed concern to me that an adult man with (what seems to be) an intellectual disability has been doing a lot of hugging in ways that are making some people uncomfortable. At the same time, some have come to me lamenting the dangers of “all this hugging” during the cold and flu season.

I have been wondering:
Is the best approach to address the behavior of the “toucher”? To get them to stop or tone it down?

Or is the best approach to teach/expect the “touched” to modify their behavior? To speak up at the time, to care for their own safe space as well as to uphold our published safe church policies?

How can we foster warm interactions that are also respectful of all the people? And what is a good pastoral leadership role?

Our Matriarchs have had quite the interesting conversation over this one. Let’s listen in:

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath
The Matriarchs have been feeling challenged by this one and I think my dawdling to answer has something to do with the fact that these conversations are sometimes difficult to have. The only real way to help your over-hugger is to speak with him directly. He simply needs to be told that people have varying comfort levels and he needs to ask if he can give a hug before hugging others. He also needs to hear that not everyone will want to receive a hug and that’s okay. This may be a hard conversation to have but it is certain to be the most effective.As to the issue of colds, flu and contact – that’s easily resolved by an announcement to remember that some folks are especially prone to those germs and we need to keep them to ourselves.

Martha Spong
Dear Pastor of a Growing Congregation,

A growing congregation will always have growing pains, and an effort to welcome people I would suggest multiple approaches to your dilemma. No one should be compelled to receive unwanted physical touch in church, no matter what their reason is.

First, take the guess-work out of relating to the man whose hugging is perceived as crossing a line. Take an interest in his circumstances and see what else you can learn about him, because that can help guide what you do next. His own capacity to pick up social cues will be key in communicating with him and setting needed boundaries. Be prepared to be direct if that is the communication style he understands.

Second, check in with yourself about the people who are complaining. Are they genuinely concerned about health, or are they expressing prejudice against a person who seems different?

Third, communicate the idea of respecting appropriate boundaries in the simplest ways possible. Whenever you have the opportunity, say out loud that we have a range of preferences for greeting one another and help congregation members develop awareness of each other’s needs and desires.

You might say something like, “When we greet each other with Christian love (or Christ’s peace), we might offer a smile, a wave, a handshake, a touch on the elbow, or a hug. We want everyone to feel welcome, but we don’t want anyone to feel pressured.” You can use flu season as your reason for naming it, but be prepared to keep doing it when that season is over.

Outside of worship, you might facilitate a conversation about how we greet each other and reasons why people will have different boundaries: health, life experiences, personality. It could be a great way to raise mutual understanding.

Model the behavior you want to see in the congregation. Over time you can create a culture of consent.

Kathryn Zucker Johnston
First, Martha really did a great job on this. I affirm what both she and Heidi said about communicating with both the “over-hugger” and the folks looking for boundaries on the hugging. I do call b.s. on the flu/cold season stuff. Those who really have immune system challenges are well practiced in how to handle themselves and others. This is a boundary issue, the particular season is secondary.

With all, you’re going to have to be bold and forward, and flexible in your own communication style. Prayers ascending and congrats on the growing congregation!

Julia Seymour
I can only echo what my colleagues, especially Martha, have offered. My minor sprinkles on an already substantial cake are this: we often let falsehoods pass as “niceness” in the one place where honesty should be the way of life. Be kind and honest with yourself, with the out of bounds toucher, and with the complainers. Kindness- gentle honesty- is the fruit the Spirit helps us to bear in the places that need it. You have my prayers as you do this work.

Dee Eisenhauer
I would add to the list of alternatives to hugging a polite bow with hands in the prayer position (a “Namaste” type gesture so elegantly practiced by many Buddhists) and a hands crossed over the heart as a symbol of not wishing to be touched, which is a gesture I have seen in communion services where someone would appreciate a blessing but doesn’t want to participate in the sacrament for whatever reason. You could do a children’s sermon practicing many options to help get people on board if that works in your context. One other thing: I am acquainted with a mildly cognitively impaired young man who likes to hug longer than I like to hug. But I just hug a little longer than I like, because so what? I can deal with a little discomfort, because it’s meaningful to a lonesome, awkward young man and I know he is not being lascivious. I don’t know if it’s possible or appropriate to put a more generous frame around an extra-long or extra-big hug with your young man, but it could be seen as an opportunity for generosity and patience.

Thank you, matriarchs, for offering your your wise and wonderful counsel! You have helped to identify important issues and offered some excellent pastoral leadership strategies.

Does any of this sound familiar? What are some other approaches? Add your own experiences and ideas in the comments below.

What sticky situation are you facing in your life and ministry? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and receive some support and advice.

Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

One thought on “Ask the Matriarch: When is friendly too friendly?

  1. We too have had this issue come up. Our “option” to those who prefer not to hug is to state in the bulletin that if they are uncomfortable with hugs, they can remain in the pew as a sign they don’t want to be hugged. And yes, we had one of those over the top huggers, and yes, he had to be spoken to, somewhat strongly, in order for him to “get it.” At another church where I was regular pulpit supply, and most of the congregation was elderly and vulnerable, we did “fist bumps” during flu season — and laughed about it.


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