In Christian circles, there is a debate over whether it’s ok to meet one-to-one with a member of the opposite sex when one is in a position of responsibility within the church. Last week, the topic came up ten minutes before the end of our second lecture on gender and theology.
As the discussion progressed, it was clear that there was a strong opinion from some in the room that a male church leader meeting alone with a woman was really not a good idea at all. It wasn’t a unanimous opinion by any means – one woman spoke of feeling completely ignored after her vicar insisted her husband attended a meeting between the two of them, and then proceeded to only address the husband.
As she spoke, I became more and more frustrated. What would I do in such a situation, given that I don’t have a husband to take to such meetings? Married male voices in the room spoke of needing to be particularly cautious around single women, and quite honestly, I felt terrible. I am a single woman, training to be a church leader. I am not a Delilah, seeking to corrupt every married man that I meet (or any married man for that matter!). But that’s how single women were seemingly being painted.
Now, I’m not naive. I realise that we need to be wise in how we deal with our relationships with other people – especially when holding positions of responsibility, and especially in the church. Here are some thoughts/wisdom I have on the subject:
- Do not assume anyone’s sexuality. Potential issues may just as well arise with those of your own gender, as well as the opposite one. Obviously, this cannot mean a blanket “Do not meet 1:1 with anyone at all!” because nothing would actually get done. Therefore, we need…
- Wisdom. Be wise! If you sense that a meeting may be misconstrued or that you realise that for your own safety, extra people need to be around, then make it happen. Obviously, with children, young people/students and vulnerable adults there are legal safeguarding measures to be taken into account.
- Trust people. I’d like to think that I can be trusted not form an unhealthy attachment to a married man. I trust myself and those with whom I agree to meet. If I don’t trust a situation, I use wisdom. (See above.) If you don’t trust yourself to ever meet with someone of the opposite sex alone, I think there may be questions you need to ask of yourself.
When I spoke up in the lecture, aside from defending the honour of single women, I also pointed out the reality of parish ministry – there is a high chance I’ll end up as an incumbent in a church that isn’t able to provide a large staff team, and as a result there will be situations in which I have to have 1:1 meetings with members of the opposite sex. I cannot say to someone: “I’m terribly sorry, I can’t sit with you and plan your mother’s funeral until I find someone who can chaperone us.”
Right now, I do have some specific boundaries. For example, I don’t meet with the guys in my student group outside of the context of a church service or our home group. If they want to have a deep & meaningful, they can (& do) chat with the church’s male clergy. [Would I prefer to be doing student work in tandem with a male volunteer? Yes please!] But on the other hand, have I met 1:1 with my church’s male Rector, Curate, Worship Leader and Operations Manager? Yes. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t.
These ideas have far-reaching consequences. There are individuals who feel slighted, not listened to, or marginalised. Is that a good thing for the church to be doing? I don’t think so. It also has a huge impact upon the raising up of women in leadership – an issue that Jenny Baker wrote about brilliantly [do read the comments] and that I touched upon last summer in a post about women speakers at Christian festivals. In churches where there is a culture that men and women can’t meet alone, women lose out on mentoring experience from the men leading these churches.
Before writing this post (which took over a week to actually publish, thanks to deadlines and life), I asked Twitter for some opinions. What followed was one of the best Twitter discussions I’ve seen – especially given that it involved the church. (Twitter debates amongst churchy people can get horrid, it’s a terrible reflection upon Christians.) No one got angry, but instead answered my simple question with honesty, integrity and respect. The whole thing has been Storifyed, but here are some particular highlights, including the article by Jenny Baker mentioned above:
Sean, as befits an Ethics lecturer, had quite a lot to say on the subject, including the following (which was spread across three tweets, condensed for the sake of space!):
“I was lucky to have @Janie_Mo as my training incumbent, she wanted male curate to balance leadership of church but not many male clergy would deliberately pick a woman for same reasons – ‘woman as temptress’ stereotype to which the correct response is ‘don’t flatter yourself’!”
There is no straight answer to this debate. There can’t be hard and fast rules. But I’d love for people to stop and think about the impact and implications of their actions and decisions. If it’s never crossed your mind that it could be an issue, perhaps it’s worth taking time to think about it. If you’ve created rules for yourself, imagine what those rules feel like to those it affects. And most of all, don’t presume that anyone is out to ‘corrupt’ those they meet with!