Here’s an email from a pastor who writes in to ask about one of those tricky pastoral dilemmas that pop up from time to time. He asks: “Is it appropriate for pastors to hug female members of his church, and single women in particular? What does appropriate pastoral affection toward the opposite sex look like?”
That is a good pastoral question — or any Christian question, I suppose. Let me just start with three Bible pointers, and then I will talk from my own experience what I have learned.
Is There a Holy Hug?
1. The Bible speaks of a holy kiss, from which I infer at least this: There is such a thing as a holy hug.
“The Bible speaks of a holy kiss, from which I infer at least this: There is such a thing as a holy hug.”
2. The Bible also says: Treat younger women as sisters and older women as mothers (see 1 Timothy 5:1–2). In other words, the atmosphere of the church should be a safe family place for healthy, wholesome family affection.
3. The Bible says, “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15), which means that we need to know ourselves. If our thoughts are impure and our hearts are impure, then a hug may be impure. So the issue is a deep heart issue, and we need to be doing more there before we start getting strategies in our head about doing the right kind of hugging.
On the basis of those three points, and from my experience, here is what I have learned. I have hugged — good night, what? — thousands, hundreds of women, most of them right in front of the church after a service or after a speaking event. Lots of women with tears in their eyes, having been transformed by something I wrote, say, “Can I just hug you?” What are you going to say? And I have talked to a lot of women and a lot of men about the experience of being hugged, and here are some things I have learned to take into consideration.
How to Wisely Show Affection to Others
1. There are lonely people in the church who don’t have a spouse. They don’t have many friends that are close. One woman told me, “There are women in this church who have not been hugged by a human being for ten years, and they need to be hugged in a holy way by a holy, mature man simply to feel fully loved in a holy way.” And I think that is right. We are family. And families have bodies, and bodies are not just sex instruments. That is important. And it is probably more true for women than for men, but it is true for men, too. It ought to be anyway. Bodies are not just sex instruments. They are instruments of trust, instruments of affirmation, instruments of holy affection. That is number one.
2. All of us should grow in our ability to discern what the other person needs and wants and is accustomed to. Don’t force your way of hugging on others when they are uncomfortable with it. That is a very delicate balancing act as you meet a person for the first time. I think this calls for extraordinary discernment: in split-seconds you are making a judgment call here. In general, I would not take the initiative to hug a woman who is not taking that initiative with me, unless there were significant relational precedents that established that is what we do when we meet. And there is a kind of mutual understanding of what it means.
So, there might be a friend that you haven’t seen for ages, and when you see each other you don’t need to ask, “Hmm. I wonder if a hug would be appropriate here.” It is a given, because you know her and you know you have a long history together. In general, though, I would say: Let the woman signal that a hug would be appropriate or welcome.
3. Adapt to the kind of hug being offered. Now this, too, is a gift of sensitivity. There are all kinds of hugs, sideways hugs, lean over hugs, one arm hugs, two arm hugs, minimal contact hugs, lots of contact hugs. Let the woman set this. Don’t ever communicate as a man any kind of aggression or any kind of sexual attraction unless she is your wife.
“Establish a healthy place at your church where people, especially women, feel safe to hug or not to hug.”
4. Learn quickly from the kind of hug that just happened what is going on. I have sometimes gotten hugs that felt to me very inappropriate. Learn from that and put your guard up and don’t go there again. She comes to see you, don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t give her the opportunity for that kind of hug. Now that is a delicate judgment, because maybe she didn’t mean that. But we have got to learn how to discern. Don’t welcome it. Avoid it.
5. Take the setting into account. I am always more at ease hugging another woman when my wife is present. In private, say, she comes to see you in your office. You leave the door open or there is a window. In private, I am very wary about putting myself in a position of hugging, and I wouldn’t offer it. I wouldn’t offer it. She may ask for it and you may grant it, but you would be very wary and very careful about the setting, and you would minimize privacy in those settings of counsel.
6. And the last thing I would say is, don’t be so stiff and so wary and so cautious that you can’t hug. There are cultures and there are persons who feel treated badly without a hug. And if you let your principles or your prickliness hold you back in those settings, you are not as free as you should be. We should sometimes speak other body languages besides our own for the good of another culture or another personality.
So all in all, I would say this: Establish a principled and emotionally healthy and happy place at your church where people, especially women, feel safe to hug or not to hug.