Churches Need Hugs and Consent, and We Can Have Both

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

One of my earliest memories of church is of being held in the arms of the minister. I am in a pink cotton dress, and we are standing in the front foyer, my parents smiling nearby with that "it's okay—don’t be afraid" look on their faces. The minister leans in close (he might have even kissed me on the cheek), and says to me, "I love you. Do you love me?" "No," I answer, with a preschooler's bluntness. People around us laugh. I want to wriggle away, but don't know if I can without falling, and somehow I know that saying, “Put me down,” is the wrong thing to do.

Looking back, I don't have any reason to think ill of this minister. I've heard nothing but positive things about him. I think he was probably an affectionate man who wanted to hold a cute kid and felt he was sharing Christ's love. But I am left with a feeling of great discomfort when I think of the awkwardness of that moment, his inability to read my cues, my inability to tell him no.

In our culture of consent today, parents are encouraged to take more precautions with imposing adult affections on children and to prioritize their physical comfort level over accommodating our ideals of politeness. This means more and more parents are not requiring their children to kiss or hug their elders if they don’t want to. It’s important for children to know they can say “no” to unwanted physical attention: teaching children they can assert boundaries around their bodies is part of empowering them to stand up against bullying and physical and sexual abuse.

I think of another church memory, this one from high school. It's the end of an emotionally and spiritually intense youth retreat. We've made new friendships and connections with that fervor only teenagehood can create. And now it is time to go home. At the end of an emotionally charged song, we all run around hugging each other, leaders and students, unabashed huggers and reserved arm-crossers, and say goodbye.

For me, this last one is a good memory. But I think of the kids who would lean against the walls at these moments, awkwardly creating intentional distance to shield themselves from unwanted affection.

There are so many beautiful forms of physical affection in Christian cultures. From the laying on of hands to the passing of the peace, I’ve witnessed many wonderful moments of sharing hugs, pats on the shoulder, handholds, and handshakes. The Apostle Paul even instructs Christians to “Greet each other with a holy kiss” (2 Cor. 13:12). But what do we do when those expressions of familial love are confronted by societal messages of consent?

In the past couple years I've seen a change in how ministers and leaders, particularly male, interact with people. There's far less hugging, and when there is hugging, it's usually initiated by the congregant. And I'll be honest: I think we've lost something. We've lost a freedom to say things like "we're a hugging church. That's just how we do it here." We've lost a sense of unbridled affection for each other.

I mourn this change. I grieve that I can't throw around hugs at youth group the way my youth leaders did when I was a teen. I grieve that huggy churches might have to reign in their unreserved culture. I think we need places to engage in safe physical affection between friends and community members.

But when we create church cultures where consent is prioritized, we make church cultures that are more welcoming. This might seem backwards for those of us who literally throw our arms wide open to everyone who walks through our doors. But in a fallen world where we are prey to sin, boundaries need to be put in place to keep us safe. Sadly, we know that churches have been the site of great abuse, and many have excused or covered up their atrocities. We need to create cultures where people can opt out and where we read people’s body language. We want to protect people from the unease I used to have when a church elder regularly squeezed my waist, the un-belonging experienced by the person who doesn’t like to be touched, the fear brought on for the survivor of abuse who is triggered in environments where touch is expected rather than offered.

We still need hugs in church. I remember particularly when I was single and grieving the loss of my mother, how important the passing of the peace was to me during our campus ministry worship services. I needed those embraces from leaders and ministers, the affection of spiritual leaders in the absence of my own parent. Sometimes those would be the only hugs I would get in a week. Hugs can boost our immune system, reduce our stress and anxiety, improve our communication, and build our sense of community.

But meeting these needs can only be done in the comfort of a church culture that promotes safety and respect for people's boundaries. It's important to ask before hugging. It's essential to teach church leadership to consider the power dynamics involved in their relationships. When I am training children's ministry leaders, I encourage lots of safe physical affection: high-fives, hand shakes, a pat on the back. I also encourage reading kids’ cues, as for some kids even a high-five is uncomfortable. And when it comes to hugging children, I wait for them to initiate.

Perhaps this time of distancing can provide space for us to reflect on how we are teaching and breeding affection and consent in our churches. For the time being, we share the peace from a distance. But when it is safe to reach out our hands again, let's continue to do the sometimes awkward work of navigating what it means to encourage affection and to teach healthy consent.

So ask for hugs. Extend a hand rather than grabbing one. Pay attention to others’ body language and don't assume their withdrawal is just shyness. Cultivate spiritual atmospheres of listening and attentiveness to each other's needs. Greet each other with a holy hug and share Christ's love—just ask first.

About the Author

Melissa Kuipers writes fiction and non-fiction. She is also director of discipleship ministries at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ont.

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