Above Reproach, Not Unapproachable
Below is a guest post from Katie Persinger, The Summit Church’s Communications Director. She recently wrote this for Ed Stetzer’s blog as part of an ongoing discussion about adultery among pastors. I think Katie brings some excellent insights to the dialogue.
The classic argument about whether men and women can be friends is encapsulated (humorously) in When Harry Met Sally. We’re still having the same argument that they were.
A lot of people ask why it seems common for men of faith to fall to adultery. While I don’t fully know the answer, I believe many pastors and other Christian men are at a higher risk for moral failure because they do not know how to have healthy relationships with women who are not their wives.
With a lack of understanding of how to have healthy relationships, the result is either no relationship at all or an unhealthy one that leads to emotional or physical barriers being crossed. I believe there’s a middle ground to be found.
Paul gives some of the only biblical instruction on platonic relationships to Timothy: “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
We are in a family together, which means the “no relationship” model isn’t biblical. It also shows that our relationships should be ones that protect the family as a whole. A sibling relationship implies the ability to relate to one another and the ability to joke, laugh, and share on some level.
Please hear what I am saying. Protecting our marriages is of the utmost importance and boundaries are important in any relationship. I respect and am a firm believer in the general rules we put in place as Christians—never ride alone in a car with a man, never meet behind closed doors with a man, watch what you wear and say, etc.
Luckily, I work for a church where we have safe environments to collaborate, grow as a team, and have fun. I’m happy to be in a gospel-centered church where, regardless of any uneasy situations, we’re striving to be balanced, respectful people who are always growing.
Over the years, I have experienced a number of awkward conversations with men. Each time they happen I want to say, “Just because a person is a woman does not mean you cannot have a conversation with her!” Come on, guys, don’t flatter yourselves: she’s not into you!
I love my husband. Actually, that’s an understatement. I’m crazy about him. I think about him all day. I bring his name up in nearly every conversation I have. I respect him.
While I have a marriage built on a solid foundation, I’m not naïve enough to believe we are untouchable by sin and human error. We have to protect it. I also value the other women in his life. But my husband is also not exempt from this conversation. Other women make him nervous and uncomfortable. This conversation sends him running in the opposite direction. 😉
I imagine that you pastors feel the same way about your wife and marriage. But I go to work every day to an office where my peers are almost exclusively men. I must find a way to navigate through this. I have needed to navigate a bit of sexism, some awkward situations, and a few careful conversations. I get the sense that some of the men I have worked with find my very presence to be a threat to their purity.
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, yes, that’s not ideal. But is this really the problem? Does that sort of awkwardness put people at risk for affairs?”
Yes, I believe it does. A man who interacts with only one woman—his wife—develops a skewed understanding of “women” in general. The only male-female relationship he knows is a sexual one. So what happens when, despite his avoidance of women, he is forced to interact with one of us? There is often an unnaturally heightened tension.
Part of the reason for this is that guys feel like any relationship with a woman who is not their wife is inherently wrong. So they aren’t open about these relationships, or they feel ashamed of them, or they lie to others to hide them. Then, when things start to actually go in a direction they shouldn’t, the alarm bells aren’t going off in this guy’s head. They’ve been going off the whole time (wrongly) and he’s trained himself to ignore them.
Pastors, you have responsibilities. Women trust you. They are vulnerable with you as a spiritual leader and see you as safe. You are respected and put on a pedestal by your congregation. That puts you in a very vulnerable spot as well. When vulnerable meets vulnerable, emotions can be shared too easily.
How can we overcome this?
Again, I’m not a teacher or counselor who has a lot of answers. I’m better known for my questions. But there are a few things that I believe could start the conversation in your church:
▪ Hire more women. Teach healthy relationships in a controlled environment. Place more women in prominent volunteer roles.
▪ At The Summit Church, we have open workspaces and shared offices so that conversations among both men and women happen in open, safe environments. All of our doors have windows.
▪ Keep yourself away from vulnerable situations with women, but do not avoid them. You are still the leader of the church and should be accessible. Being above reproach does not mean being unapproachable.
▪ Pastors need to lead pastors in this. Address these things on your blogs and in your networks. Teach each other and hold each other accountable.
What about women?
Are we also at higher risk for moral failure if we are incapable of having healthy relationships with men? Probably. The difference between men and women is we’re not as often in a position of leadership where men come to us seeking our approval and help. We’re also faced with the reality of working with men more often. I’ve needed to learn how to effectively work with men and lead men in the roles I’ve been in. I have a lot of practice on the healthy side of these relationships.
By addressing some of these things, I believe we can avoid dangerous relationships without alienating the women in our churches and on our staff teams by having no relationship with them at all.