As a seminary student I have to take several classes that I get excited to take when I see them on paper. But then as I go through the semester I may begin to dread one of the classes. This semester, that class is Pastoral Care and Counseling.

Now, the reason I am no longer thrilled about this class is not necessarily that I do not think I have anything left to learn in this subject, because I do. It is because our class is taught by one of my seminary’s counseling program’s teacher, not our practical theology professor.

One issue that comes with this distinction is that she teaches the class as though we were going to be counselors. We learn things that would be illegal for us to perform, things that are simply not “pastoral care.” And I get where she is coming from, she is a therapist, that is what she does. Alright, so enough of things that might not be interesting to you.

So, within that issue lies a particular situation with what is being taught in that class. Our teacher told us during our discussion this week that under no circumstance should we ever give a hug.

It took all my energy not to pull the Costanza walk out.

But I was at a loss of words. Students were writing this down as though they were actually going to follow this ridiculous teaching. I understand her position as a therapist; she should never hug a client. That is a different relationship. But to tell a class of Masters of Divinity students to not give hugs to their congregants is simply out of touch.

Her advice was to give a hand shake.

I’ll wait for you to pick your jaw off the ground.

Okay, good. Now that we have composed ourselves.

When I went to Facebook with this “news,” it spurred a great conversation. But one of my friends, Tim Graves, had something very interesting to say. Tim ( said this:

OK, I continued to think about this while popping dinner in the oven & folding the clothes… A blanket one-size-fits-all no hug rule comes out of a theology of fear. It comes from fear of accusations of sexual impropriety, it comes from fear that we must have emotional boundaries with our parishioners, and it comes from a misguided modernist solve-every-problem with a rule mindset. Not every situation calls for a hug but many do. We are whole human beings created to find comfort in (appropriate) physical touch. If we turn to the scriptures we find a Savior who used touch to heal on a fairly regular basis. (I think there was only one who he healed from a distance.) I choose to follow Jesus.

A theology of fear.

This is where the church is now. We fear. And not in the way that the Puritans feared God. But in a way that churches have not feared before.

Churches have protection policies. Churches have to perform background checks on adult volunteers (which I think is a good idea).

But the church assumes the worst in people. The church assumes that all people are inherently evil. And yes, many pastors and lay leaders have broken ethical, sexual, and emotional boundaries.

But imagine with me. Imagine a church that does not live with a theology of fear. Imagine a church that lives with a theology of hope. That encourages it members to be close with each other and their pastor(s). Imagine a congregation where people do not have to be afraid of getting a hug from someone, even if that someone has a past that is less than appealing.

Imagine a church that has enough hope in it’s people that they would never break those boundaries.

I can imagine that. That is the kind of church that I hope for.

Even though Jesus never talked about what would become his Church, I think this is the kind of Church Jesus would want for us.

After all, Jesus did healing ministry by touching others, and by others reaching out and touching him.

Jesus washed feet, something that breaks many people’s comfort zones today.

Jesus touched the sinners, touched the sick. He crossed many boundaries.

He had hope that his touch would be healing for them.

Jesus was kissed by Judas, and he didn’t push Judas away.

Jesus gave and received kisses.

Jesus calls us to reach out to others. To give a hug when someone needs it.

Because sometimes, I just need a hug.


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3 responses to “Hugs”

  1. liz says :

    great post, jay.

  2. Michael says :

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jay. As a pastor who has given many hugs, and who has seen hugs “abused”–not in any sexually inappropriate ways, but as a form of false authenticity or intimacy–I find “hugs” a tricky social act. I experienced a pastor who gave everyone they met or knew a hug. And when that was coupled with a lack of effort to develop relationships apart from ministry “tasks” (will you serve on this committee?), the hugs grew to feel shallow and manipulative.

    I don’t believe our first physical act with a person, especially someone we just met or don’t know very well, should be a hug (prior, established relationships of trust allow for the vulnerability of physical interaction manifest in a hug).

    I don’t think hugs are absolutely off limits, either. They should not be entered into lightly, but neither should they be with-held when needed or called for (so long as hugging is something a pastor feels comfortable giving–some pastors may not be comfortable with that physical intimacy for various reasons, not the least of which might include physical/sexual abuse).

    I do think a handshake is a good first act (pick your jaw off the floor). I also think asking someone “can I give you a hug” or (more playfully) “are you the huggin’ type?” is a pastorally wise approach. And when in a conversation that involves tears or other deep emotional responses, various forms of touching (moving near, taking a hand, place your hand on the shoulder) may also be comforting, an expression of support, and a symbol of hope.

    I especially love and agree with your musings on a theology of fear/hope. I do think that Jesus draws us into communities of vulnerability where intimacy arrises. However, I do not think that Jesus is interested in creating intimacy for the sake of intimacy, or communities defined by how much hugging they do (which is why the rhetoric of “authenticity” can get on my nerves).

    No, Jesus draws us into the abundance of new life, and thereby orients what intimacy means in its various contexts. As a theologian and ethicist I admire puts it (I’m paraphrasing), “Intimacy, like authority, is an indirect good. It is not something we should seek out for it’s own sake, but something that comes about when we pursue what is true, just, and beautiful.” When we care about people, when we love and lift up people, we might find that hugs are called for and needed–and, like you, I believe we are faithful in entering into that vulnerable physical space with others.

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