Thursday, February 21, 2008

male/female pastoring relationships

I was reading an interview with Kathy Escobar and Karl Wheeler the other day. They are the copastors of a church called the Refuge. The interview centered on the fact that Escobar and Wheeler are of the opposite sex, married to other people, and yet pastor a church together. Wheeler and Escobar are delighted to demonstrate that men and women can work together as pastors and that they each value one another's giftings in their pastoral roles.

One thing that struck me, however, was the discussion about the feelings of their spouses (in regard to Escobar and Wheeler working so closely together). The pair explained they made a rule that they would never "meet alone. For us, it just makes sense to always protect ourselves and each other, and ensure that no one can be suspicious. Just as importantly, it actually helps us live out our dream of always working in teams.

I understand that this team is in a unique situations, have unique spousal relationships and they are doing what works for them. They may simply have different personal comfort levels than I have. And while I am respectful and thankful for the unity they are bringing through their copastoring roles, I am interested in whether a rule such as theirs will set the tone for other emerging/mixed-gender pastoral teams. And if that rule should become a standard, what message would it send?

Let me first say I agree that there is strength in numbers on pastoral teams. And I am okay with paying a reasonable degree of attention to what "others think," yet when it comes to nonmarital male/female relationships in the church, I think this card has been played too many times, to the effect of keeping women outside the leadership circle. Lewis Smede was quoted in Rodney Clapp's Families at the Crossroads, as saying: "A covenant-keeper does not have to worry much or moralize a great deal about the proprieties of relationships outside of marriage. Within committment there is room for suprises, risks, and adventures. Loyalty is limiting but not constricting." In other words, when you have personal integrity before God and your marital partner, there's not a whole lot you need to be worried about. God sees your heart. He's got your back. He'll give you wisdom when you need it to avoid situations with shady folks.

I know one of my fellow co-pastors, A., would say there's a lot to be worried about, however. He was falsely accused at a former church for having some kind of extramarital romance with a single woman who he'd spent a marginal amount of time with. R. our senior pastor, sat in his office one day in a church down South and was shocked when the female parishioner meeting with him climbed over his desk, trying to get her skirt off in the process. (R. ran for the door.)

So I recognize the dilemma, but at what cost to the church is the articulation of and presence of a formal rule that bans the sexes from meeting with one another? What it costs us, I believe, is unity, and not only unity but the absence of about half the leadership gifting in the body of Christ.

On another note, I've NEVER heard same-sex injunctions of the kind that are issued to hetero meetings. Men should never meet with another man alone. (sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?) And yet why wouldn't it be of equal concern as the hetero meeting? We know that all sorts of extramarital homosexual interactions have occurred in Christian institutions across the board and throughout time. Yet there is no such injunction to "protect" ourselves in this way, in the same way there is no such injuction that Christians "protect" themselves from shoplifting by avoiding shopping, from gluttony by avoiding food, from falsehoods by avoiding speech. None of those solutions appear balanced enough to promote mental, emotional and physical health, not to mention societal well-being.

So the question is why? Why the rule about male/female relationships? I can only see one answer. I am biased, sure. But strongly opinionated that this inequity all stems from misogyny. Trickle-down-from-the-ages misogyny and and belief of our Christian fore-fathers and -thinkers that women are the source of all sexual impurity and evil in the world, able to disarm a man of his moral purity and all decision-making agency. I'm not joking about this. You can look it up. (try Saints Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine to start.)


ph0rman said...

I completely agree -- Christian culture spends too much time being fearful of possible sin than in being Christ-like (hang out with many prostitutes lately? ;).

I think you'd also notice, that in the world-wide context that it is primarily the American Christian culture that binds itself in this way. Culturally America is much more "uptight" with regards to sexual scandal than most anywhere else. It certainly seems very clear that the American church is greatly influenced by American culture (all the more by those who try to deny such influence exists).

julieH said...

I think the position has at least as much to do with "flee from evil" as it does protecting appearances.

Which I think also explains the reason for the male-female rule. That's where temptation has probably lies for MOST individuals in the church. Most men in the church are attracted to females, not men, AND vise versa. If you are attracted to people of the same sex, then you probably shouldn't meet behind closed doors with someone of the same sex.

The rules are not an excuse for not having women in ministry. Any public place, any home with anyone else around, any office with a window, or even a video surveillance system would still allow people to meet - privately enough to talk one on one, publicly enough that they have accountability.

You told some stories about people falsely accused, but I have also heard countless stories about people in ministry (and it takes two to tango) who fell to sexual temptation. If you want a biblical example of a spiritual leader who fell, how about David?

Our culture as a whole is probably more sex crazed, and lawyer crazed, than most others. I think it makes sense we'd be more uptight and have some stricter rules to keep us from temptation.

Should we be Pharisees about it? No. Are such rules bad? No.

There is an emphasis in the NT on fleeing from sexual immorality. 40 verses come up with you search for "sex", and they are all about sexual immorality. That emphasis isn't there for shoplifting or gluttony or falsehoods.

There are also the passages in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 about the weaker brother. We should be willing to put the good of others above our own good. Meeting publicly doesn't seem like a big deal to me.

just my $.02

David BG said...

yes, well said.

Ali BG said...

Heather, this is well-thought out and responsible writing. I'm impressed, especially with your thinking about same-sex injunctions.

H.W. said...

Julie, thanks for your $.02! I like what you say: "The rules are not an excuse for not having women in ministry. Any public place, any home with anyone else around, any office with a window, or even a video surveillance system would still allow people to meet - privately enough to talk one on one, publicly enough that they have accountability."

(Unfortunately, I suspect some churches/pastors' rules prohibit meeting "alone with a woman" even in a public place, even with a surveilance system, etc.)

For the most part, the meetings I have are just like the ones you describe. And don't get me wrong, it's not like I"m looking to be "behind closed doors" with someone of the opposite sex (other than my husband, and I suppose my father and my brother). However, as I just wrote that, I realized there is something unique about those relationships I have with my brother and my father (non sexual relationships) that socially permit me to be alone with them. Aside from social sensibilities, there is also a very established standard of purity between us. Even the idea of a physically inappropriate interaction with my brother or father would make us all recoil and say "UG!" And then my brother and I would probably feel embarrassed and not want to be in teh same room with each other for a while because the thought so freaked us out.

I guess I would argue that in the family of Christ, among mature believers, there ought to be those sorts of relationships, where the standard of personal purity in a relationship between two people of the opposite sex is so strong that there is no need for "rules" to prevent sexual misconduct, just as my biological brother and I do NOT need to talk about the possibility of my presence causing him to "stumble". It's understood that's not an issue.

I'm not naive enough to think this can or will happen between me and every man I encounter (Christian or non), but I do think the imposition of a "rule" has the potential to taint the waters, in much the same way the suggestion of sexual interaction between me and my physical brother would cause us both to feel some measure of disgust and shame at the thought.

About 8 years ago, an assistant pastor and I were both wanting to attend a regional conference that had to do with whatever we were ministerially involved in in the church. He asked if I wanted to go. I said yes. I turned out no one else from the church COULD go, so it was just going to be me and him in the car (a five-hour ride, I think). It was decided we would drive there together (stay the night in separate hotel rooms).
Even though the two of us, together with my husband and his wife were very close, my one reluctance to the trip was that I felt he sometimes came across as a little domineering in conversatoin. I was marginally wary of five hours of our personalities alone in the car together, but it wasn't a deal breaker. It was like what you do on family road trips, sit in a car with people you care about and put up with their idiosyncracies, you know?

In the meantime, HE was having second thoughts and told me he had to revoke the invitation to attend the conference with him because it would be wierd to be alone in the car with "another woman."

At that moment in my personal relationship with him was introduced quite a bit of confusion and shame--at least for me. As far as I was concerned I was not "another woman." I was Heather, close friend to his wife, friend of his, loyal to my husband, with a long history with this man and his wife of working together in the secular realm and in the church. The suggestion of the possibility of there being sexual inappropriateness between us was enough to make me recoil and feel sick to my stomach. And the fact that I was reduced to "another woman" status seemed to undermine all the intimacy and closeness of our couple and personal relationships.

I guess I want to err on the side of making our "rules" of conduct spring from the passage in 1 Corinthians 1:16: "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view...therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" We are not slaves to a sin nature any longer. It's not who we are. We don't have to assume the possibility of us indulging in our sin all the time.

I would do everything to honor and protect the vulnerabilities of a man if it was an issue for him to meet with me in a particular context. And there are plenty of times my own personal radar tells me it's not a good idea to get too intimate in acquaintance with someone of the opposite sex (as well as the same sex). I would much prefer we rely on the HOly Spirit to guide our interactions with others. I think people will sin whether the rules are in place or not. and we will have to pick up as a community, support those individuals in their repentance and healing of the ways they've wounded their own families and our church communities.

Anonymous said...

thanks so much for your thoughts, this karl from the refuge, and i admit your words have given me pause. i cannot speak for kathy, but i will admit i am way more afraid of what others will think of me than i should. kathy is a great friend, but i do feel a bit more cautious than i do with other female friends, but only because of what others might say. when we started we were scared to death, not that anything immoral would happen, but we were already percieved as whackos, and we just became protective.
i do think that we have loosened up some now, but still we try to be flexible, honoring, and careful.
we are both commited to helping others experiece the joy and safety of co=pastoring, so i am game to ammending any "position" that needs to be.
thanks again, and blessings to you!
karl (blog)

H.W. said...

In the fifth paragraph in my previous comment, I say "physical brother." What I mean is "biological brother."


Emily said...

I see what you're saying, but I feel that it's a little unrealistic among most people. For families that have close friendships together like you described, then that would be a situation where both people make a smart decision based-on who they are and what the relationship is like. However, I don't think of these ideas as "rules" as much as simply honoring your marriage. I agree with Julie's above comment, along with the idea that temptation is where we least expect it, and usually in the places we leave unguarded. To me it makes sense that if I'm going to work closely with another male, there need to be boundaries in our relationship to safeguard and honor our respective marriages. Even if he grosses me out and I would never be attracted to him, I know my husband would feel honored that I choose to put certain space around me to protect myself of temptation. And I guess it comes down to the fact that I don't trust myself enough to NOT do that. Yes, I'm a new creation and all that, but I really blow it big-time sometimes. I feel like I have a healthy awareness of my own propensity to sin, and I want to protect my marriage from that before it ever becomes a possibility.
It does bother me when people are HYPER sensitive to situations like these to the extent that men and women can't even have a true friendship or healthy discussion for fear it would be inappropriate. I feel that takes away from the truth that we need each other and our souls were created for one another. However, I would be totally weirded-out to go to an out-of-town conference with my friend's husband and drive five hours with him.
Anyway, I see your point, and I do think it's a shame that it can become rigid at times, but I would much rather my husband be slightly rigid about spending time with other women than to deal with the aftermath of an affair. I think it's just a boundary thing.

H.W. said...

Karl--thanks for reading and replying. I hope you know your and Kathy's interview was a good launching pad for exploring more issues; I ended up at the M-word (misogyny) and I certainly don't believe the guidelines you practice are based in that. But your interview sure got me thinking more about the global issue. I appreciate your participation in the discussion. It sounds like you and Kathy were in a pretty sensitive situation when you started out, and I can say I've never had the experience of being so much under the scrutinizing eye of large numbers of people as I live out "ministry." If I had, I may have landed in a similar place you guys did, making decisions for appearance's sake.


kathyescobar said...

hey there, so appreciate the conversation & the thoughts, that people are chewing on the ideas and considering in different ways. when we originally wrote that article for CBE we had just planted the refuge. there were all kinds of backstory reasons why it felt appropriate to create a good plan for how to pull this off. now, two years in, we have mellowed in a lot of ways but not in the idea that karl and i don't meet alone regularly. it's not that we couldn't. it's not that sometimes we aren't in between things waiting for our next meeting. we're not hypervigilant and crazy about it. our spouses are both in on the conversations & have said that they don't really care. the reason i like it is that it forces us to rely on others than just ourselves--it models community, 3 strands are better than 2 anyway. plus it does protect me from unnecessary scrutiny (i know we're not supposed to worry about that all the time but in evangelical circles what we are doing is indeed pretty wacky). karl and i are really good friends. we spend a lot of time each week carrying out the ministry of the refuge. i am learning so much about brothers & sisters in christ and what it's like to work alongside and take out all of the weird sexual stuff that everyone is so afraid of in churches. it is so possible to do! but it takes a platform to communicate about it, a forum, a way of just addressing the reality of it all instead of pretending that "it's no big deal" that men and women work together alone. i don't believe in hard and fast rules. i think they can be so stupid. i believe in situational guidelines that can be applied giving the best shot in a given moment for a given situation. for now, this is where were have sort of landed for the given moment and i hope it does not ever deter others from trying it. i completely agree with you that women will always get the short end of this stick. i also agree that there's a total double standard. male-male or female-female are no "guarantees" against sexual stuff, either. i do think regardless, in the church, we need more and more models of men and women who aren't married working together, pulling it off in really healthy & good ways and demonstrating "hey, this is how it was always supposed to be."

ps: how'd you find this 2006 CBE article, by the way?

heather weber said...

Hi Emily--I think you are right to pay attention to your where you feel vulnerable. As you say, you feel the rules help protect you. I can't argue with that. It sounds like wisdom, and a decision you can arrive at based on your relationship with Jesus, your husband, and your history.

Hey Kathy--I think we may be saying somethign similar: not one rule applies to every situation. We do have to take our best shot, and still, I think, be counting on the Holy Spirit to guide us in our decision making.

I suppose I have, in a sense, arrived at the "it's no big deal" sentiment about men and women working together, but I know behind that are all sorts of qualifications (It SHOULD be no big deal, but I know it is a lot of the time). I wonder if the best thing for the body of Christ is to be having conversations like these. Instead of having churches formulate rules and impose them from on high, what if congregations were invited into conversations about these issues, about unity in the body of Christ, about the ways our forebrothers and sisters have succeeded at or screwed up working harmoniously together? I think if the body of Christ could explore these issues together (as we're doing now), give language to the problems and possible solutions, that would be a great start.

I found the CBE article because I googled you, actually =) I'd been seeing your name around and hearing bits and pieces of your story here and there, read a few of your blog entries and am excited at what you and Karl have been doing. I wanted to learn more, and the CBE article came up in my search!

Jemila Kwon said...

Excellent post.

I wonder if it is always possible to have 100% brother-sister, no sexual tension dynamic with someone with whom you haven't grown up. Clearly some people we wouldn't be attracted to anyway, and others, perhaps we may experience an initial ambiguity or attraction, only to clarify and come to a place of honest-to-God valuing each other as brother and sister in Christ without any other ambient energies.

Perhaps it isn't a clear-cut issue. I agree, Heather, it's all about listening to the Holy Spirit. Also important (and related) is being willing to let go of any relationship that is becoming inappropriate, before they cross significant lines, without creating rationalizations. Perhaps the problem isn't male-female relationships, but having the strength to alter their course or let them go if it gets to a point where that is the loving thing to do.

Another gray area is if there is an energy between two heterosexual people that could, if both were completely honest, be described as some level of attraction, yet without any coveting or wish to have or steal this person from their spouse or to engage in actions that would harm one's own spouse, what do you do with that?

heather weber said...

Hi Jemila,
If you're right about there always being some % of attraction between opposite sexes, I don't think it has to be a deal breaker. Since the attraction isn't the part that's sin and isn't the part that can be helped, necesarily. I think you're right though, that we have to be honest about where we are in a given situation and if our own personal attachments are increasing in an unhealthy way we need to take a step back/re-evaluate the situation.

I lvoe what you say about how we may experience an initial "ambiguity or attraction" and then come to "clarify and come to a place of honest-to-God valuing each other as brother and sister in Christ without any other ambient energies." I think the body of Christ lacks this clarity, for the most part, that male/female relationships outside of marriage can be something other than romantic or on the level of "casual acquaintance," as Rodney Clapp says in Families at the Crossroads. I love what he says in that paragraph so much, I"ll just quote it here:

"[S]eparation [of the sexes] serves only to reinforce the impoverished, overly narrow idea that a member of the other sex can be only a love object or casual acquaintance. When people saddled with such cramped imaginations have any feelings at all for a woman or man, they are faced with only two options: go to bed or never see each other again. This isn't freedom. This is tragedy."

I really experienced what he described as true. From the earliest I could remember, any attachment I made to a male in my peer group was immediately translated in my mind to a romantic attachment. I didn't have any other templates to fit the feelings I was having into. Hadn't seen hetero non-romantic relationships demonstrated where there was an obvious mutual value and love of the other as a brother/sister in Christ. So, it's taken me some growing up to figure out that being married to one man doesn't mean I can't enjoy friendships/working relationships with other men.

I love that the body of Christ is discovering options other than "sexual partner" or "acquaintance", arriving at clarity, as you say.

I'm not sure what to do with the last scenario you painted. Do you have any thoughts on the subject? I've never been in a situation where a man (other than my husband) and I confessed mutual physical attraction to each other. Historically, I haven't had a big struggle with physical/sexual lust. It's not been on my top-ten of sin-issues, but I know that it is for many women and men, so I'm not sure I'll have the best solutions to offer. I can say that sometimes I've had to pay attention to the possibility of perhaps an unhealthy emotional attachment forming to other men (or women, too), but I'm lucky, I guess, in that I've noticed it right away, and worked it out with God or distanced myself from the situation a bit until I knew what was going on.

To be honest, most of the impulses to attach myself to someone emotionally in an inappropriate way seem to spring from a sense of disatisfaction somewhere else in my life, a sense of need, or longing. For God, usually, or for healing from my own brokenness. I know this may sound cliched or cheesy, but when I've been honest with God about the feelings I'm feeling and ask him to meet whatever the true need is, I've found peace.

I know I'm not defining "inappropriate" and "appropriate" emotional attachments. I'm not sure I can. Usually it's subjective, something the Holy Spirit is drawing my attention to, and I don't always have languge for it.

That said, I'm sure my experience in the arena of sexual struggle is tame and that it will take someone with a lot more depth of insight to offer up ideas for solutions.


Carrie said...

Hi Heather, this is Carrie Grummons (I used to attend vineyard of I.C. before moving to Cali with my hubby nearly four years ago...I don't know if you remember me but I managed to some how stumble on your blogsite...)

Your post really hit me, especially as a woman seeking full time service in ministry. I have had my frustrations with people reading into my friendships within my church and my school. As a woman in a predominantly male social circle (enrolled in the m.div. program at a conservative seminary and serving in an E'Free church) it's ridiculous to avoid close friendships with men. I would be very lonely if I did this.

However, I can understand being careful with making sure no one could accuse me of something I am not doing. I faced this when Sam was deployed in Iraq for a year and I was seen in the company of one of my classmates, who happened to be one of my close friends. It frustrated me that people would read into something that wasn't there, but what frustrated me even more was that it was the "Christians" who were the ones making the biggest fuss.
At the same time, however, I would hate for someone to think that I was having an affair with someone I worked with and use that to fuel the fire more that all Christians are hypocrites. Therefore, I am careful to not meet with men one on one in a place that is not very public, or to be alone at church with a male. I also make sure that whoever it is I am working closely with that I involve his wife as much as possible in knowing who I am and getting to know my husband as well.

I don't necessarily think that Christians who want to flee from the appearance of evil are trying to keep women out of church leadership roles, I think that we are simply super sensitive in a time of sex scandals in the church and are trying to flee from the appearance of evil as much as possible.

Anyways, I'm happy to read that you are the proud mommy of two amazing girls now. I remember when we left you were pregnant with number two. Feel free to check out our fairly new site to see how we are fairing in Cali.

Adey said...

Heather, I don't know enough about blogs to know if you'll ever see this since it appears you wrote it a while ago. But, thanks for the thoughtful post. It all gets very convoluted. I don't like the idea of making choices out fear. I suppose, as in any situation, there are tensions and real humans with differing vulnerabilities. But, ugh, yes, so much of the time it is women that get relegated to "private or home sphere" because of something unsafe out there, or the threat of "the woman, herself!!! As a woman leader of men and women it would be a challenge for me to lead men without ever being alone with a man. Rules rather than wisdom seems to bring with it death.
I am heartened by your words.