In a recent column, syndicated Washington Post commentator Kathleen Parker called attention to a Bloomberg News article about the #MeToo movement. The article noted how, due to #MeToo’s notoriety, and in light of several well-publicized accusations of sexual harassment and assault, some Wall Street men have become “so concerned about what they might say or do” in the presence of their women colleagues “that they’re steering clear of women in the workplace altogether. As a result, Wall Street ‘risks becoming more of a boy’s club, rather than less of one’” (Kathleen Parker, “The Inevitable Consequences of #MeToo,” Washington Post, December 4, 2018).
Something similar is happening in the Church. The work of the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune and of the FaithTrust Institute has educated many of us about the Church’s extensive problem with sexism and sexual abuse and violence. In the United Church of Christ (UCC), the number of fitness reviews, or formal examinations of authorized ministers’ fitness for ministry, that occurs annually due to ministerial sexual misconduct is relatively small (but, of course, even one per year is too many. See Elizabeth Dilley, “Fitness Reviews: Trusting Our Ecclesiastical Process,” November 23, 2015, and “Fitness Reviews and Ministry Experience,” September 25, 2016, in the Vital Signs and Statistics Blog). The vast majority of UCC ministers do not get into such trouble, and some male pastors are painstakingly scrupulous about avoiding sexual misconduct—and about avoiding women congregants and colleagues in ministry altogether.
“The [Bloomberg] article cited in Parker’s column focused on the various ways some [male Wall Street] executives have been ‘spooked’ by [the] #MeToo [movement] and are ‘struggling to cope’—[by] staying on different hotel floors from women [colleagues] when on business trips, [by] keeping their distance [from women] on elevators, [by] not dining alone with [women or] sitting next to them on flights, [by] avoid[ing] one-on-one meetings with women,” and when that can’t be done, by leaving their office doors open or “inviting a third person into the room,” and by avoiding “late-night open-bar gatherings (Gillian Tan and Katia Porzecanski, “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Cost,” Bloomberg News, December 3, 2018). Generally speaking,” Parker noted wryly, many of these new rules would be constructive, “but for the fact that young [professional] women need [male] mentors to advance—[since] female executives are scarce on Wall Street.”
“The [Bloomberg article] called these collateral adjustments the ‘Pence Rule,’ referring to Vice President Mike Pence’s personal rule of not [traveling, meeting, or] ‘dining alone with any woman other than his wife.’” Many religiously devout men follow this rule rigorously in the belief that the perception of sin is just as bad as the reality of sin.
As one male executive quoted by the Bloomberg article put it, “just hiring a woman these days is [risky]. What if she took something [the male executive] said the wrong way?” This is why, “many men across all industries now fear being alone with a female colleague.”
The new Wall Street rules are not very different from how we do church today. As in the business world, a backlash seems to have formed among some male pastors and church leaders—against women who might accuse them of sexual misbehavior. This backlash takes one of two forms: Some men openly disbelieve or contradict women’s experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Meanwhile, other men engage in a kind of rear-guard action, by readily asserting that they believe women’s accounts of sexual harassment and assault. They may tsk-tsk appropriately when women share their experiences of abuse, and they may profess concern for the safety of women in the church—and then they may avoid any further interactions with women congregants or colleagues, fearful that they themselves might be accused. I believe that this second kind of backlash is widespread, more subtle, and harder to overcome than the first.
Among authorized ministers in Mainline denominations—including the UCC—this #MeToo backlash can manifest itself in a kind of “boundary awareness chauvinism” that perhaps develops in reaction to the boundary awareness training they are required to take every three or five years. Some ministers come away from such training convinced that they must protect themselves through professional and social isolation—by avoiding friendships with congregants, and especially by avoiding friendships with congregants who are young and sexually attractive. They learn to follow the Pence Rule. And they learn the most basic rule of boundary awareness chauvinism: Forget about mentoring and coaching younger and newly-ordained ministers; forget too about providing significant and life-altering ministry to congregants; and forget about basic human kindness and about care giving. What is most important—the only thing that is important—is that male ministers never put themselves in a position where they are vulnerable to a sexual harassment accusation, which might result in a fitness review investigation against them.
To be clear, I believe that boundary awareness training is vitally important. And I believe that authorized ministers should be careful with hugs, and should have windows on their office doors. I do not believe that good boundary awareness training teaches male pastors to avoid interacting with women.
But I also believe that a kind of “boundary awareness chauvinism” exists in the Church—and it has nothing at all to do with good boundary awareness training; rather, it fosters a superficial and careless understanding of pastoral boundaries and of pastoral ministry itself. And it manifests itself in the weird, self-protective fears that are evident in some male church leaders, and in their careful avoidance of women congregants and colleagues.
On Wall Street, the #MeToo backlash is “hurting women’s progress. There aren’t enough women in senior positions to bring along the next generation [of women] all by themselves; advancement typically requires that someone—[a senior male executive]—knows your work, gives you opportunities, and is willing to champion you. It’s hard for [such] a relationship to develop if the senior person is unwilling to spend one-on-one time with a junior person.’”
This is true in the Church, as well. As Evangelical Pastor Ty Grigg writes, the Pence Rule—and boundary awareness chauvinism—“short-circuit dialogue, mutual relationship, access, and mentoring across genders. They frame relating with the opposite sex with fear. When the other gender is kept at a distance, there is less chance for mutual respect and trust to grow. Men’s fear and distancing create the kind of environment where inappropriate relating is more likely to occur” (Ty Grigg, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Billy Graham Rule and Love Like Jesus,” Missio Alliance,Witness, July 18, 29014).
And who says ministers or church people should “avoid the appearance of evil?” We get this misguided teaching from a bad King James Version “translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22: ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil.’” A better rendering of this verse is: “‘Abstain from every form of evil.’ There is no biblical basis for not doing something solely based on how it might appear to others.”
Jesus himself did not follow the Pence Rule. “He talked to the Samaritan woman at the well. He was left alone with the woman caught in adultery. He appeared to Mary Magdalene alone in the garden post-resurrection. There are multiple accounts of women anointing Jesus’ feet and head with expensive oils. One woman wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Jesus loved extending [his] presence and relationship to women.”
“Boundaries in any relationship are essential. But when the boundary becomes the [main] focus, the relationship turns into an abstraction. We dehumanize the other gender to protect the boundary.”
So let us resist sexism and the occurrence of sexual harassment, and sexual assault—on college and university campuses, in corporate offices and on the job site, in popular culture, and certainly in the Church. Let us also resist the backlash that is forming against the #MeToo movement—particularly in the Church and particularly among church leaders. And let us resist boundary awareness chauvinism—the mistaken belief, on the part of some male authorized ministers, that the best way to stay out of trouble is to avoid any contact and/or conversations with persons of the opposite sex which may be sexualized or may appear compromising.
Because as the Bloomberg article noted, “there’s a danger for companies”—and I would add, for denominations and churches—“that fail to squash” the #MeToo backlash. “If men avoid working or traveling with women alone, or stop mentoring women for fear of being accused of sexual harassment, those men are going to back out of a sexual harassment complaint and right into a sex discrimination complaint.” Sobering words.
(So, I’m wondering how the #MeToo backlash is affecting you and your ministry … Are ministers and church leaders in your church, denomination, or place of ministry exhibiting “boundary awareness chauvinism?” Do you see male ministers engaging in fearful behaviors–by “avoiding women at all costs,” or by following the Pence Rule? Is a #MeToo backlash evident in your church, denomination, or place of ministry–and what if anything are you doing to resist or defeat it? I welcome your comments.–Chris)
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.