Visit our new site at

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Touchy-Touchy!

Our question today is a touchy one! How do you deal with parishioners who are touching or handling you in ways that are inappropriate or make you uncomfortable?

I'm a minister-in-training with the Church of Scotland and have been very aware of well, 'touchy-feely' parishioners/ folks visiting service. Now, I'm generally a tactile type, but... well there are limits!
Here's an example:
I was on placement at a central church in the city - and the only female on 'team', which was absolutely fine. Anyhow, it was a 'rugby' weekend when Ireland where playing Scotland. After the 1st morning service, 3 huge men [really, almost 7 foot high x 7 foot wide, they had obviously played rugger in their younger years!] came out of the service, whereupon one of them tucked me under his arm and said 'well, we thought we'd teach you all a lesson in how to play rugby.'

There were a couple of thoughts that came to mind:
1/ knee said guy in the groin for being way too familiar, in Christian love of course.
2/ knee him in the groin anyway just for boasting about their team winning!!
3/ respond graciously to the over-familiarity, because as a woman and as a professional, that's what we have to do.

Of course, I opted for number 3 and made a gently humorous and extremely gracious quip back with a smile, although I was inwardly fuming. All was fine and off they went.
However... they would never have done this to the male ministers. Why is it that some chaps think they can get away with invading a woman's personal space in such a way, when they would never dream of doing the same kind of thing to a male minister?
While I don't want to be stand-offish and cold, I also do not want to be literally man-handled. How do you deal with this subtle/ not so subtle sexism... and, should I just have gone for option one!!?? :)

Sue responds:
First, let me say that you handled this very well and with a lot of grace. Their behaviour was entirely inappropriate of course. After all these years I am still dealing with subtle and not-so-subtle sexism in the church - even in my uber-liberal denomination.

In my own congregation, two women clergy came before me, so my credibility was intact before I even stepped in the door. They understood and had no problem with women in ministry. They still have no issues there.

However, we are in amalgamation talks with a church that used to be Methodist and became part of the United Church of Canada in 1925. They have never had an ordained female minister. Ever. I'm preaching at their church (with both of our congregations) for five weeks this summer. Last week was week 2.

One fellow, who should and does know better, stopped me at coffee time and said, "That's a nice suit" - then he stepped his whole body back, put up his hands, laughed and asked, "Or is that sexist??"

Now, why did he have to add that? I pretty much pretended I didn't hear it, or understand it, and carried on the conversation briefly before moving on. I didn't want to start a scene in coffee hour by kicking him in the groin. :)

Another gentleman, the same day, at the back of the church following worship awkwardly shook my hand, had trouble looking me in the eye and said, "Thank you....uh....Miss." It wasn't his fault. He has no context in which to place me. There I am conducting worship in alb and stole - something he's not at all familiar with - and he stumbled on the exit. That gentleman I can understand. The other guy (the suit guy) knows better. That's the difference for me.

It's a matter of whether someone is just generally confused about how to receive you and honour your presence - as unusual as it may be to them - or someone who is just trying to get under your skin.

In the first case, I responded with gratitude. I wish I had a better answer as to how to respond to the ones who are just messing with my head. I do know, however, that this will come up at our summary meeting in the fall when we have both church councils together to talk about how the summer went. The Other Church, in our case, needs to do some intentional learning where women and the church are concerned.

Sunday's Coming writes:
You are entitled to have your own physical boundaries respected. Personally I wouldn’t worry about seeming ‘cold and stand-off-ish’ if this means that men don’t patronise you – it is up to you when you choose to let your guard down, not them. There’s also an important issue here that what happens to a woman minister in front of the congregation sends out important signals to all the people there (especially young women).

I have (even by quite close friends) been described as a ball-breaker, but I won’t put up with anything that I think sets a bad example: it is striking that I don’t have to do or say anything to impose this, people just seem to pick it up. (Psychologists might want to talk about eye contact or ‘bearing’ or other non-verbal signals).
In private of course I am as warm and friendly as the next person – but in front of a congregation I hope I am professional & I expect to be treated as such.

Just call me prickly!

As Sue makes clear, the issue isn't always one of physical touch - sometimes what a person says can be just as inappropriate. I'm guessing that many of us have dealt with suggestive or otherwise inappropriate comments from parishioners or colleagues. In some ways, this issue is no different from us than for women of any male-dominated profession. But in other ways, our situation is unique - we are expected to give and receive hugs, to allow for (and even nurture) a certain level of intimacy with people, etc. In short, our work is relational, which can blur the boundaries even more for people who might already be a bit confused about how to deal with us.

Our two matriarchs have offered some good thoughts. What about the rest of you? Any advice for our colleague?

We have some more great questions lined-up in the queue. As always, if you have an issue you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, please email us at


  1. This is a "touchy" subject for me as I am not a touchy feely person. There was once a man who would always try to kiss me on the lips when I was shaking hands after the service. I tried turning my head but often he was too quick for me. Finally I just told him "I prefer that only my husband kiss me" He was offended but I figured that was his problem

    Mostly I find I can deal with things by backing away - most people get the body language of that.

    Pastor or no, your body is not community property. Hey that was the topic of a blog of mine

  2. I'd like to recommend an excellent book on this and the broader topic it addresses:
    Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations by Karen McClintock

    This author gives some great practical advice about this very issue AND discusses how important it is to help congregations learn important lessons about language, boundaries, establishing a culture that creates safety for us all.

    The tendency to say "oh it's not so big as that" is countered by many case studies that show it actually IS. Hope this helps.

  3. Every church---whether led by clergyman or clergywoman--- needs to have a comprehensive sexual ethics policy. The process of developing and adopting the policy will in itself raise awareness of these "touchy-touchy" (or "talky-talky") issues, as well as provide pastors and parishioners with agreed-upon procedures for the future.

    I recommend two great resources in the United Methodist Church that could apply to churches of any denomination:
    [The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women]

    I hope those resources help! You're not alone!

  4. "All was fine and off they went."

    All was *not* fine. You were fuming inside and need to have a way to express that


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.