By M. Marsh
“The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp” – Leviticus 13:45-46.
Leprosy. The very name of this disease evokes ancient feelings of dread. For thousands of years, those stricken with the condition have endured pain, disfigurement, and isolation as pariah. In Biblical times, a leper would be separated from friends and family, neighbors and strangers, wear identifying clothing, be commanded to loudly warn others of their proximity, and had little hope of cure. No healthy person dared risk contact with the infected.
One can only imagine how incredibly stigmatized those with leprosy must have felt. Because of a circumstance not of their own making, no person would dare to embrace the leper, pat their shoulder, or sit and talk in a room with them. Perhaps a passerby might offer a glance of pity, a nod of understanding… but incredibly few were brave enough to venture closer.
Because of the dire lifelong physical, emotional, social, financial, and irreversible aesthetic implications of leprosy, the ancient practice of completely avoiding close contact with those who had leprosy is understandable.
But… I don’t have leprosy.
You can embrace me. You can sit in a room with me and talk. You can console me, laugh with me, get to know me, fellowship with me, share life with me. I don’t have a serious communicable disease to which you might fall victim. Sadly, though, my diagnosis of having two X chromosomes has resulted in your interaction with me being somewhat akin to what I could have expected from you had I been a leper 2,000 years ago.
“What do you mean?” you ask. Pastor, you and others in the ministry are so preoccupied with being above reproach, with being careful not to have even a hint of impropriety that you have essentially made me and the women in your congregation feel like lepers in your presence.
A loose handshake or a carefully cautious side hug… an avoidance of phone conversations with female members of the church… wide open office doors, with chairs pulled to the very threshold for even the most confident of Christian counseling issues… present such cold impersonal formality. There is little of the warmth, discretion, and genuine compassion so desperately sought in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
We see how it could be, were we male. We quietly observe as you meet a man for a quiet breakfast in a meaningful time of fellowship. We note that when a man humbles himself in tears, you are there with a comforting embrace. When a Christian brother struggles with a trial in life, we note that he is able to seek your guidance behind a private, closed door. We know that you don’t avoid close personal contact with everyone… You just avoid close personal contact with women.
Pastors, I can already hear your responses to what I am saying! I have heard them all before in my nearly 50 years as a Christian. Let me offer my rebuttal.
• The Bible states that, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” ~ Ephesians 5:3.
Pastor, if your character and your walk with God is above reproach, then a Christian hug or the counseling of a woman behind a closed door (with a window) will NOT result in a hint of sexual immorality.
• It is a risk to speak with a woman behind a closed door without witnesses. She could claim anything and you would have no defense. You have spent too many years in college, too many years building a ministry, to take this sort of chance and lose it all!
Pastor, risk is a part of ALL careers… secular and in the ministry. An electrician takes a risk with every home he wires, a doctor with every surgery, a pilot with every flight, a police officer with every call. However, can ANY of these men and women avoid the risky aspects of their jobs and remain competent? No, they work every day knowing that the risks exist. They do as you do: They pray that God keeps them safe from most adverse situations and teaches them faith and patience through the dark valleys that may come.
• You wife is uncomfortable with you spending time alone with women.
Pastor, military wives aren’t overjoyed with deployments. The wives of firefighters don’t like their husbands having to run to a fire at 2 AM. But, this is the life their husband has been called to, and as the wife, they are affected as a result. There is indeed sacrifice on the spouse of any person in service to mankind.
• Because your wife is discreet (Because you have a female trained in counseling), you ask them to come into any counseling session that you have rather than meet with a woman alone.
Pastor, a few women will be OK with that scenario. Others absolutely will not. Which ones? You will never know, as they will not seek your counsel and will never mention why they haven’t. If a woman has an issue for which she yearns for the Christian guidance of her Pastor, she most likely wants only the audience of one. You may fully trust your wife and her discretion… you may know her heart for counseling… but all the other women in the church will not ever know her as well as you know her. Too, dependent on the topic, the women seeking counseling may be too ashamed to double the audience for her admittance of her trial. If a man’s counsel with you isn’t a group event, should a woman’s be?
Also, please understand. We SEE you every week. We hear your heart. We feel like with “know” you. You went to seminary. You study the Word for hours each day. You walk closely with the Lord. We want YOUR counsel. No matter how well intentioned, we don’t want the counsel of your wife or of someone that works in the secular world and has had 6 Wednesday nights of lay counseling training. That is NOT always sufficient or desirable for our need.
Think about the Catch 22 women are caught in. Most denominations will not permit a woman to be a Pastor, so there is no female Pastor for them to consider fully as their shepherd. There is no female Pastor to comfort them, to privately advise them, or with which to have fellowship. Yet, the male Pastor that IS permitted ordination is too afraid to be their Pastor in the same manner he is willing to be for the men of their church! What’s a woman to do?
Yes, hugging a crying woman at church could make one person raise their eyebrows. Counseling a hurting woman behind a closed door could make one person wonder aloud. BUT, to shy away from doing either is to be a delinquent in your responsibilities as shepherd! To leave that hurting woman uncomforted… to leave a troubled one without the Godly guidance you have to give because of the risk to YOU doesn’t seem very humble-servant-like. Live your whole life in such a way as to make those raised eyebrows and musings seem absurd ~ without a foundation!
Please remember Pastor, when you are openly, verbally, demonstratively, and proudly cautious about a loving hug, a private counsel, or fellowship time with a woman… propping open doors, mentioning aloud “no air of impropriety!”, or insisting on public meetings when no risk has been made evident, you leave your female sheep feeling like you fear them as you would a leper. I know that is not your intent.
Women have spoken of this situation privately together over the years, rarely brave enough to mention aloud to the Pastors themselves. Because of their reluctance to bring this to the attention of church leadership, there have been many years of missed opportunities for the Godly guidance of the shepherds placed over them. Which woman’s marriage could have been saved, but wasn’t because she made a decision without asking for your wisdom? Whose pained heart could have been comforted, but wasn’t because you were too afraid to call? Right this wrong, Pastors.
By the way, you will recall that Jesus modeled this FOR you already! Women LOVE Jesus for many reason—their salvation above all—but also for the clear demonstration He gave time and again of His love TRUMPING the risks that existed when He interacted with women. When Jesus spoke alone with the oft-married Samaritan woman at the well, He took a risk. But that risk hindered Him not. Mary Magdalene had to have 7 demons driven from within her, yet Jesus took a risk not only allowing her to work closely with Him and the disciples, but it was Mary-and Mary alone- that He first visited after His resurrection! The risks of what others might think existed, and He took the risks just the same.
I challenge you to pray about this Pastors… If I help only a few of you to realize that your actions to protect yourself make ½ of your sheep feel alienated and like they have no God-appointed shepherd of their own, then my efforts will have been worthwhile!
Serving As His Vessel,