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November 11, 2013

When Men Misinterpret Pastoral Care

All our interactions should be marked by love—plus caution and wisdom


They met at a professional conference. Valerie was a young pastor, and Charlie was a recent college graduate interning with a campus ministry organization. He mentioned that he was discerning a call to ministry, so Valerie engaged him in a conversation about his vocation. He asked her some questions about seminary. And then he invited her out for ice cream after the conference. “I said ‘of course,’ recounts Valerie, “thinking that I would love to talk through vocational discernment more with any young person. In my role as a chaplain, I understand conversations and listening to be a huge part of what I do.”

Perhaps you see it coming, though Valerie didn’t, and I wouldn’t have either. During their conversation at the ice cream shop, Valerie referenced the role of her significant other in sustaining her ministry. Charlie dropped his cone and blurted out, “You mean, this isn’t a date?”

When I asked some female clergy colleagues if men had ever mistaken pastoral attention for flirtation, the stories poured in. Valerie’s tale was the mildest; that she and her accidental date were mortified by the gaffe was the extent of the miscommunication. Several situations escalated to the point that external authorities had to be called in—bishops, lawyers, even the police.

Women who experience this crisis of pastoral relationships speak of a newfound hesitance to reach out to the men in their congregations. Will her phone call to check in with a bachelor after his mother’s death be interpreted as a pass? If the third person who was supposed to attend an informal meeting cancels at the last minute, should she still meet the married man at the coffee shop as planned? If she smiles too warmly at an older gentleman during the Passing of Christ’s Peace in worship (or, heaven forbid, offers him a chaste hug), will he decide she’s actually secretly in love with him?

We know this happens to male clergy, but there is a difference: many of them expect it. It is common enough that they are warned to avoid such misunderstandings. Several of the women with whom I spoke had never been cautioned to pay attention to the way men interpret their pastoral care. Additionally, in many church cultures, women in ministry are a recent reality. It is still new and novel for men to receive spiritual guidance from a female pastor. “I have noticed that some male parishioners, especially the more lonely, light up when I connect with them,” confided Grace, an Episcopal priest. “They don't exactly try to come on to me, but I feel this slight aura of sexuality when they respond to my interest in how they're doing, or even sometimes just when I walk in the room. It's a tiny bit creepy sometimes, but I've gotten used to it. There are so few people out there with someone to listen to them or tell them they're special, even just in God's eyes.” Emily, also an Episcopalian, concurred. “I think there is something about the holiness and emotion of giving and receiving communion that can be misunderstood.”

None of these women engaged in unethical behavior. Clergy misconduct is a very real and damaging issue, but this is not that. Valerie certainly didn’t mean for Charlie to think she was asking him out. Grace isn’t being coquettish when she inquires about the well-being of the men in her church. And of course Emily desires to connect with her parishioners when she leads them in the liturgy of the Eucharist—as their loving and faithful priest.

Shelly, a Lutheran pastor, shared the most chilling story. She had been asked by the leadership of her small congregation to visit each of the members during her first year of ministry. When a gentleman named Mark started worshipping with the congregation, Shelly went out of her way to be welcoming—as is often the case with very small churches, new people receive a lot of attention from both church members and pastoral leaders. Shelly sat with Mark at a church potluck, but her intuition kept her from inviting him to meet for a one-on-one conversation. Her instinct was right. Mark handed her a love letter after a Lenten service, despite the fact that he’d met her husband. Shelly struggled to recount the complicated and frightening aftermath. As it turned out, Mark was mentally unstable. He took the rejection poorly, telling church leaders that they had been involved in a sexual relationship. Thankfully, Shelly had the support and trust of her congregation (and the local police, who were reluctantly called in to ensure her safety.) Mark has since moved on to a different church, and Shelly admits that she now reaches out in Christ’s love with a “thick layer of skepticism.”

We can ponder what clergywomen might do differently to avoid such situations, but there are limitations to the helpfulness—and even fairness—of that question. Yes, pastors of both genders should be judicious when ministering to the opposite sex. Keeping the office door ajar is always a good idea, literally and metaphorically. So is being mindful of one’s intuition, and having the wherewithal to identify red flags before they are in the rear view mirror. But the sad and vulnerable truth is this: There is nothing an individual can do to control the way her words and actions are interpreted.

The best-case scenario for women is that they will minister in congregations that cultivate healthy boundaries and strong lay leadership. If a clergywoman feels uncomfortable about the way one of her parishioners is behaving toward her, she might safeguard herself and her ministry by informing a trusted elder about her concerns. She may also consider calling a mentor for consultation. If subtly reinforcing appropriate boundaries does not work, she is wise to not be in isolation as she prayerfully contemplates a sensitive and effective resolution.

Just as men can offer meaningful pastoral care to women, so too can female pastors tend to the spirits of the men in their congregations—but we must be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Katherine Willis Pershey is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves as an associate minister at the First Congregational Church of Western Springs. She is the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family and a contributor to Disquiet Time, forthcoming from Jericho Books in 2014.

Related Tags: gender, pastoral, relationships


The first story about misunderstood intentions reminds me of one of my own. I didn't realize that my first date with my (now) husband was a intended to be a date. I thought it was a pastoral conversation about vocational discernment. He was asking me out. I immediately turned the conversation to a previous topic on the assumption that we were continuing to talk about his interest in attending seminary. When I ended warmly but firmly one hour later he was so confused it took him weeks to recover and ask me out again with a little more clarity about his intentions.

I once received a love letter from another female member of a congregation I pastored, even after I had clearly explained to her that I am heterosexual and had no interest in having that sort of relationship with her. I was engaged to my now-husband, whom she knew. She was not mentally stable and I eventually had to tell her that I could no longer be her pastor. All with the knowledge of the staff parish committee chair and district superintendent, of course.

This is so tricky and so often catches me by surprise. i remember going to an elderly man's home with other friends to help him clean after he had been ill. I was the last one to leave and when I went to say goodbye, he grabbed me and planted a very sensual kiss on my lips. Needless to say, I was both afraid and mortified. tough to be discerning, wise and loving!

After having my position as an associate minister abruptly ended, with no explanation given to me or the congregation, I heard there were some speculating that it was because I had inappropriate relationships with the elderly men in the church. I was horrified. I had provided pastoral care to several widowed men who were old enough to be my grandfather. If I met them for lunch it was at a very public restaurant that church members and others from our town frequented. It never ceases to amaze me the scenarios people can dream up when they don't know exactly what is going on (even when it's none of their business). Some of those guys were flirts who left the workforce long before sexual harassment and sensitivity training came on the scene. They were never overly inappropriate, but in small communities (and sometimes large) people like to find a story where there isn't one. I now do chaplaincy and don't think I'll ever go back to parish ministry.

Thanks for your responses. This has engendered quite a bit of discussion on various Facebook threads - it's sad how many people have experienced these tensions. One of the issues that was raised is that while these misunderstandings can go both ways, men do have a tendency to respond angrily to the "rejection", which really puts female pastors in a bind.

Grace, I am especially sorry that you were wrongfully driven from the parish. How heartbreaking.

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