I took a deep breath when Samantha came into my office (identity changed to protect confidentiality). Twenty years old, brown hair all the way down her back, and every bit of 5 feet 10 inches, she truly had “model good-looks.” She was wearing a ribbed, white tank top that was nearly see-through. The shape of her small breasts was evident, and you could trace the outline of her bra right up to the straps around her tanned shoulders. Her jean cut-offs were so short that when she sat down on my couch, I had to remind myself not to look down incidentally throughout session because of what was plainly visible. Every time she threw her hair over her shoulder, I caught a wave of honeysuckle and patchouli.
Actually, she was quite intoxicating.
Samantha was court-referred to my counseling practice for a substance use evaluation. Though the task was straight-forward and able to be accomplished in just a few hours, I know about a hundred counselors and pastors that would never have met with her once they got a look at her.
And at some level, I completely understand.
She was beautiful and exciting, but it wasn’t a holiday to have my senses aroused against my will, and certainly, against my better judgment. I felt drawn into what feminists call gaze – the notion that Samantha was there for me to watch, and as more object than person. Even in hindsight I’m unable to describe her fully without employing it – this was truly how I experienced her that day, a fact of which I’m not proud. I also felt legitimate concern for her welfare as a client and human. And I felt a strong degree of caution if she was aware of her impact upon me, and perhaps even more if she was not.
For many males in Christian leadership, all of these conflicted responses just aren’t worth the hassle.
But Jesus would never have turned her away.
“The pastor who refuses eye contact sends a clear message…‘You are seductive. You are a sexual vortex that I may get sucked in to.’ The slippery slope of my lust is your problem. And my ministry is too valuable to allow the likes of you to trip me up.”
Consequently, women’s attempts to solicit guidance from pastors are far too often met with aloofness, suggestions for an alternate plan like a “female mentor,” or just plain, old rejection. When male leadership in the church is the coveted resource, yet women aren’t allowed to take advantage, they must eventually feel as though they’re playing for the B team. Not because they lack the talent, but the anatomy.
Of course, this isn’t to say that women are never seductive, or never mean for themselves to be experienced as such. It became increasingly clear during my time with Samantha that she was flirtatious in a way that would have been hard to pass off as benign. But, even when a woman is seductive, I can’t figure out why that would dictate that I automatically refuse to meet with her, let alone all women, as if it was inevitable that I end up inappropriately entangled with every woman who seeks my help. If that’s true, as Thedinga points out, it’s clearly my problem, not theirs.
I suspect this perceived inevitability factor is one reason we cling rigidly to single-sex small groups, single-sex mentoring, single-sex counseling, and single-sex pastoral relationships in Western Christianity at large. The inevitability factor is tragic really, and men, certainly Christian ones, ought to be insulted by it. In a culture that promotes rape and sexual violence, we need to distance ourselves from a way of thinking that presupposes men’s inability to respond to our impulses in a holy, creative way.
I often remark to my graduate counseling students how weird Christians can be about sexuality and gender. I say this playfully, but I believe it to the extent that some of my largest influences in approach come from sources far outside Christianity.
Irvin Yalom is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, and the author of more than 13 books, including texts used as the gold standard in graduate counselor education. In 2001, the American Psychiatric Association awarded him the Oskar Pfister Award for important contributions to religion and psychiatry.
I had the distinct privilege of being present during Yalom’s keynote address at the 2012 Conference of the American Counseling Association in San Francisco. One of the things I like most about him is that he rarely says the right thing. And in so doing, he frequently just seems so right. You know, like Jesus. Anyhow, I suppose Yalom’s chutzpah has naturally developed from counseling people for an astounding 60 years.
In what is arguably his most synthesized work, The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists, he discusses the delicate interplay in counseling relationships between men and women with characteristic ease and obviousness.
Yalom considers a female client who asks, “Am I appealing to men? To you? If you weren’t my therapist would you respond sexually to me?”
Most men in Christian ministry shudder at the thought of being asked these kinds of questions. Like the rest of the world around it, Christian ministry has become about mitigating risk.
These kinds of questions naturally call for vulnerable disclosures on the part of the counselor or minister, and therefore we assume that there is a large risk in answering them honestly. Again, the inevitability factor, assuming that all women are seductive, and that all discourse with them will seduce, and that all honest responses to that seduction inevitably result in Thedinga’s vortex.
Somehow, Yalom puts all of this nonsense to rest:
If you deem it in the patient’s best interests, why not simply say… ‘If everything were different, we met in another world, I were single, I weren’t your therapist, then yes, I would find you very attractive and sure would make an effort to know you better.’ What’s the risk? In my view such candor simply increases the patient’s trust in you and in the process of therapy. Of course, this does not preclude other types of inquiry about the question—about, for example, the patient’s motivation or timing (the standard “Why now?” question) or inordinate preoccupation with physicality or seduction, which may be obscuring even more significant questions. (bold emphasis mine)
These more significant questions are generally the kind we hope to address in Christian conversation, but they only come at the end of a process involving mutual vulnerability– the kind of mutual vulnerability where we give more of ourselves than is comfortable, not because we’re flirting with the danger of implicitly seductive women, but because women are people, and ministry to them naturally requires giving of ourselves. You know, like Jesus.
How does Yalom, an atheist existential psychiatrist, get this so right, but men in Christian leadership get it so wrong?
Growing up, my father and I talked a good deal about women, marriage, and sex. He’s a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, as likely to talk with you about flowers and fig trees as he is baseball or politics or God. In describing what it was like to remain faithful to my mother, he talked about it being rich, rewarding, and the right thing to do. But he never pulled punches.
“Just because you put a ring on your finger, it doesn’t mean you stop being attracted to other women.”
He was right.
It’s worth stating that I’m not pathologically attracted to my female clients, and I don’t size-up females that come through the door.
But I am healthily, reasonably, attracted to some of them, in this sense that my dad was talking about. And I’m not just attracted to women who come to my practice half-naked and bathed in essential oils, but also to anxious college students, overwhelmed moms, depressed housewives, struggling newlyweds, recent divorcees, and so on.
As it was for my father, the challenge is to remain faithful. In this case, to the ministerial call of Jesus Christ to proclaim Good News to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.
But doing this with women can be complex for men – for me – as complex as the confluence of emotions I feel when I’m alone with them in my office. In many senses, it’s more about me than them.
This complexity is a fact butchered in discussions by many Christians addressing male-female ministerial relationships. It makes men out to be monsters, women to be seductresses, and, again, the relationships between them to lead inevitably to sex or romance.
Or, perhaps worse yet, the other end of the discussion minimizes the reality of sexual chemistry in intimate settings, making lofty appeals for higher order thinking and interaction, but with no practical suggestion on how it might be accomplished. This kind of response is often pervasive in more “progressive” Christian discussions – the kind of people who know what gaze means without having to consult Google, and who easily engage in social critique at coffee shops and on blogs. They have the right idea, but no field experience. It’s more innocence than malice.
So, let me make it simple. And let me make it practical. And let me start with me.
Since I’m a heterosexual male, if I’m going to minister to women effectively, including the women to whom I’m sexually attracted, it requires a frank conversation at the outset about what really goes on in my heart and mind. Here’s how that conversation might start out:
I am attracted to many of my female clients and students.
I have been titillated by stories of sexuality and intrigue in females who seek my help.
I am sometimes most attracted to the women who most need my help.
I feel helplessness when around women who are overtly seductive.
I am nervous about the position of power in which I am placed as a therapist and professor.
There are many more disclosures I could make along these lines, and where one goes with the conversation once these disclosures have been made makes all the difference in the world. The Western church has almost unilaterally gone to shame, avoidance, and control. We chastise ourselves for our impulses and we knee-jerk to create external boundaries to limit their impact.
Safeguarding ourselves from the possibility of sexual indiscretion is actually very wise. Yet, when we create structures without doing the difficult work of investigating and understanding the impulses we’re guarding against, we negate Christ’s admonition that adultery begins in the heart – that’s the thing we’re trying to guard against. In short, we fail to see that the core of the problem is us, not them. It’s like the alcoholic whose solution is to avoid hanging out at bars, pursuing an external fix for an internal problem.
To boot, structures of shame, avoidance, and control run the risk of creating a prison of their own. In a ministerial sense, avoiding one-half of your congregation (usually more!) in one-on-one ministry just seems crazy. On a personal level, men who have tried to live a life according to Every Man’s Battle can attest to the exhausting nature of trying to control themselves by “bouncing eyes” every time they see an attractive woman. It’s hard to do that and look into a woman’s soul at the same time.
Many men in Christian leadership aren’t responding creatively, vis-à-vis Yalom, because they’re never able to have this kind of frank discussion. They’re prevented from doing so because it would carve at the joints of their inner worlds which are under tight lock and key.
It is a painful fact indeed to realize how poorly prepared most Christian leaders prove to be when they are invited to be spiritual leaders in the true sense. Most of them are used to thinking in terms of large-scale organization, getting people together in churches, schools and hospitals, and running the show as a circus director. They have become unfamiliar with, and even somewhat afraid of, the deep and significant movements of the Spirit.
Some forty years later, not only are many ministers out of touch and unfamiliar with the movements of the Spirit in their inner lives, but our churches have institutionalized the trend – a man who is familiar with his inner life is often no longer a desirable candidate to be a pastor. How could he be? A pastor reared in a system of shame and control who has not learned to shut out his inner life is more dangerous than one who has, tortured by shame but unable to ignore it. His suppression eventually becomes bedlam, and bedlam eventually erupts on the front page of the morning paper.
Back to Nouwen.
But how can we avoid this danger? I think by no other way than to find the courage to enter into the core of our own existence and become familiar with the complexities of our own inner lives. As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work.
The goal of such an undertaking is to consecrate our inner lives, not to shame, avoid, or control them. As Nouwen would later remark, “The great question of ministry and the spiritual life is to learn to live our brokenness under the blessing and not the curse.” After all, it seems realistic to think that Jesus Christ, being fully consecrated, still had sexual impulses toward the women to whom he ministered. And I’ll bet he didn’t spend all of his time with them eye-bouncing. Interaction with a savior bereft of eye-contact hardly seems likely to have earned the devotion of prostitutes and adulterers.
When we embark upon the ongoing task of consecrating our inner lives, our ministerial experiences can be likewise consecrated, person by person, experience by experience.
Several years ago, I worked with a woman who I first met back in high school. I remembered her clearly because I was so attracted to her back then. I’d always thought she was nice, smart, funny, and very easy on the eyes. I was happy she was coming to see me all these years later, and knew that at least part of my happiness was the personal pleasure of getting to reconnect with someone I once (and still) found attractive.
I could’ve shamed myself for feeling this way as a married, Christian man. Worse yet, I could’ve refused to see her.
Instead, I allowed my experience to be consecrated. While completely protecting her confidentiality, I discussed my feelings about seeing her with my wife and asked for her prayers. I’m fortunate to be married to a woman who recognizes that my willingness to discuss this with her is itself evidence of my trustworthiness.
I discussed things similarly with my counseling mentor, a licensed professional with 30 years experience, and had some straight-talk with him about how I felt. I didn’t hide anything, and he didn’t shame me.
All of this helped orient me to the task of remaining faithful to the call to minister the Good News. Be ye attracted, and sin not.
As a result, I used my regard for her to move toward her emotionally and spiritually in therapeutically appropriate ways. To the direct extent that she was attracted to me as well, that reality afforded me an extra measure of influence with her, in the same way we give voice to those we’re otherwise attracted – movie stars, athletes, scholars, etc. We might not like admitting this, but research has proven it over and over, as has our penchant for listening to celebrities wax eloquent about this thing or that. As for me, I treasured her deference, and strove to act in a manner worthy of it.
More directly, I was able to call upon my attraction toward her as part of our therapeutic process. Once, when remarking on her desire to be safe and “unnoticed”, a tendency that had not paid off for her in her marriage, I recollected about when I first “noticed” her in high school, painting a picture of the qualities in her I admired as both a female and a person (imagine that!). In so doing, I hoped to affirm her in the same sense I suspect Jesus Christ affirmed the woman with the issue of blood, the woman who anointed his feet, and countless others we know and don’t know about. He noticed them, and in a way that no one else could, in that he saw them completely. So, I let my client know that I noticed her in this same way, in the hopes she might allow herself to be more noticed in her marriage, to the end it might produce a more satisfying and lasting bond.
Seems simple, I suppose.
Later, when she and I talked through all of this, I even brought up why she’d come to see me at all, having been aware of the attraction between us. What did that mean for her? Her marriage? Her relationship to God? To me? I believe these are more significant questions like those to which Yalom referred, and the kind Jesus asked so masterfully of men and women throughout the gospels.
But I could never have asked them, she could never have explored them, if:
I’d refused to see her simply because she was a woman.
I’d presupposed she was there to seduce me, and that it was inevitable I’d acquiesce.
I’d had seen her as a mere object of my affection.
I’d been unfamiliar, unwilling, or unable to investigate and understand my inner world.
I’d minimized the complexity in our interactions, or lacked a practical approach to work creatively with them.
In advocating for men in Christian leadership to work with women, none of what I’ve suggested here is meant to imply that men and women ought to be naïve, or ought not to take care to ensure the nature of their relationships is appropriate. Obviously, there are many examples of both men and women who have used their ministerial positions to transgress the boundaries of someone entrusted to their care, and of those who’ve solicited the help of ministers and counselors with ulterior motives.
And it isn’t as though I’m suggesting there are no relevant external measures we ought to take when men and women work together one on one. My approach included the creation of structures – the insurance policies I took out by discussing my feelings with my wife and my mentor to start. But it’s important to note that these structures were motivated by love, not fear. They allowed me to work creatively with my experiences, and to bring them out from the curse and under the blessing, ultimately to a place of consecration.
Writing about this subject is difficult and somewhat frightening. It’s remarkable to read the diversity of opinions on this subject matter.
My thoughts on owning and being mindful of my experiences may seem like nonsense to a Christian community so accustomed to a misguided form of “denying the flesh.” To some of them, this may all seem like an elaborate justification for my personal counseling methods, or playful dancing with the Devil.
I don’t suppose there is any way to avoid this criticism. Even Jesus was accused of being in cahoots with Beelzebub.
The truth is, Jesus was in total alignment with the Father. He did nothing of his own accord and only what he saw the Father doing. Jesus ministered to women one on one, saw them completely and completely human, without assumption. He was fully conscious of his own responses, able to consecrate them without shame, avoidance, or control.
Shouldn’t we do the same?
This post is part of an ongoing series called, A Therapist Goes to Church.