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Hugging Women (and Men) in Church

hugging in church

Last Christmas season, I had an interesting interaction with a female stranger at one of my oldest granddaughter’s high school basketball games. As you know, I have a white beard, ruddy complexion, and a portly figure. As a result, people often think I am Santa Claus. Children give me long stares, whereas adults tend to tell me that they have been real good this year, so they are expecting lots of gifts from me. As I was leaving the aforementioned basketball game, I heard someone say, “Look, Santa’s a Bengal’s fan” (I had my Cincinnati Bengals hat on). The woman came down from the stands and asked if she could take a selfie with me so she could show her husband that Santa roots for the Bengals. I said, sure. I thought that we would stand next to each other as she snapped the smartphone photograph. Instead, she put her arm around me and drew me close, acting as if we were best friends. I am certain the woman meant nothing by her warm, affectionate embrace, but it sure embarrassed me and made me feel uncomfortable. I quickly exited the gym, glad to be free of the woman’s perfumed embrace.

The sexual harassment of women has been in the news lately. I, for one, am glad that this issue is getting the attention it deserves. Part of the sexual harassment discussion has to do with understanding boundaries and treating others with respect. We should never lay our hands on people without their permission; even if we are innocently doing so. We should never behave in ways that cause others to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

This got me thinking about all the women (and men) I have hugged in church over the years. I hugged hundreds of people during my time as an Evangelical pastor. I viewed the hugs as a sign of love. Hugging is a common practice among Evangelicals. I suspect most former Evangelical readers know what I am talking about. It was assumed that everyone was okay with being hugged by non-family members. After all, the church was viewed as our real family, and families hug each other, so it was deemed appropriate for congregants, without permission, to hug one another. I wonder, in light of current discussions about sexual harassment, if it might be time to take a closer look at hugging in church.

I am not overtly emotional in public. I don’t hug my children, nor do I tell them that I love them every time I see them. My family knows I love them, not because of words or outward displays of affection, but because I am there for them no matter what; because, when they need help, I am always available; because when they ask me to do something for them, I always say “Yes.” I am, emotionally, very much like my parents. This drives some people crazy. People who are clap-happy seals needing verbal pronouncements of love tend to think I am uncaring or indifferent. For a long time, I felt guilty about not being emotionally exuberant when it was “expected” of me. Finally, I reached a place in my life where I realized that it was okay for me to be who and what I am; that the clap-happy seal crowd doesn’t have the right to demand from me certain emotional responses.

I hugged people in church because I thought it was expected of me. I never felt comfortable doing so, but I viewed hugging as part of my job description. I now wonder if there were congregants — especially women — who felt as I did. I wonder if these women felt they were being sexually harassed/assaulted in Jesus’ name. At the very least, the hugging violated the personal space of others. People should have the inviolate right to not be touched by others without first giving permission. While most church hugging is benign, I have no doubt that there are some men who are sexually stimulated when hugging female church members. I wrote about his several weeks ago in a post titled, Beware of Deacon Bob.

We have reached a place culturally where people have a right not to have their persons violated. In the case of women, in particular, many of them have had to endure inappropriate touching out of not wanting to make a fuss in public. Perhaps, it is time to make a fuss. Perhaps, men need to be taught how to properly interact with the fairer sex. The rules are quite simple: no physical contact without permission. Want to hug someone? Ask first. Years ago, when Polly and I were looking for a church to attend, we were repeatedly assaulted by well-meaning Christians who were way too familiar with us — people we had never met before. From hugs to interrogations about where we lived and worked, we often felt we were being mugged. On more than one occasion I wanted to tell the person interrogating us, I’m sorry. I don’t have sex on the first date. Of course, I was too polite to say this. I wonder if I am alone in feeling this way. I suspect I am not, that many readers have had their personal space violated time and again by well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people. How about we all agree to respect each other enough to keep our hands to ourselves. If you want to hug people you don’t know, ask them if it is okay for you to do so. If they say “Yes,” then, by all means, hug them, keeping your hands where they belong and not hugging them in a way that turns from friendly to sexual. In other words, learn what boundaries are and practice them.

Did you attend a hugging church?  Were you hugged without permission? How did this make you feel? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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  1. Avatar

    I have never liked people in my personal space. The whole forced thing, “Shake hands with the person behind you! Shake hands with the person in front of you! HUG THE PEOPLE next to you on the left! The right!! Jesus loves you!!” drove me batshit. Then I discovered I could sit in the back row with my pre-teen friends and suddenly have to go to the bathroom when all the hugging shit started.

    But that didn’t keep ol’ huggy Brother Wayne from tracking me down and groping, er *hugging* me later.

    I don’t like people in my space now, either. I am very affectionate with my family.
    But super careful about who I allow near me otherwise.

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    I think, for a lot of people, enforced, unwanted hugging (and kissing, for children) starts early. “Give Grandma a kiss!” “Come here and give Aunt Jane a hug!” We learn that it’s somehow rude to deny the adults around us these expressions of affection, whether we want to give them or not. So we kiss Grandma, who reeks of horrible perfume, and hug Aunt Jane, whose cigarette cloud could choke a horse. For some of us, the recipient of these unpleasant engagements is Uncle Bob, who always makes us feel uncomfortable because of where he puts his hands.

    So we grow up, especially if we grow up in a church community, dutifully hugging and kissing and enduring invasions of our space. And it takes a lot of mature reflection to realize that “I’d rather not hug, thanks,” or dodging a kiss, is NOT rude but simply a proper expression of personal boundaries. It takes a certain amount of fortitude to set our own boundaries, and even more to set them for our children, and not insist they engage physically with anyone they don’t want to, for whatever reason… and not apologize, but realize that it’s okay.

    I grew up in the Catholic Church, and during my tenure there was a ritual in the middle of the service where people shook hands with those around them and offered “Peace be with you”; the response was “and also with you”. I always tried to give my best professional handshake (well, as much as a pre-teen and teen might do) and be friendly but not too familiar. Kind of how I might greet the people who visited in my dad’s office. But the number of people around me who obviously hated, hated, HATED that ritual–and displayed it by offering dead-fish handshakes and greetings spit out of frowns–was very high.

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      A very important insight/observation! Thank-you for pointing this out, Karen the rock whisperer. If we begin by respecting children ourselves, we allow children the right to be respected and to choose. My maw-in-law used to pull that shit about hugging and kissing everybody until we shut her down and told her that children have a right to be left alone if they choose it. She thought we were being ridiculous and was heartily confused and offended. The punishment paradigm teaches us to disrespect children’s boundaries, as you say, and to force them. As the ‘Weinstein effect’ spreads far and wide, I trust we can connect the dots and see that respect begins at the beginning. We do not need to force our children, to teach them how to love or express feelings…. that is, unless we wish to control that expression and force our own lack of boundaries on the next generation.
      As for churchy hugs, our Baptist bunch were pretty hands-off. There were no ‘get up and shake your neighbor’s hand’ exhortations. I believe that as you move in the flavors of faith, as it were, you find the touchy feely stuff more prevalent among the whoop it up churches, the Pentecostals and the new-age flavors. Personally, I see it as group abuse, another way the church disrespects personal boundaries.
      You are a dirty, ugly, fallen dung-hunk but Jeebers just loves you and now I am going give you a big Jeebers hug! Now, how could anybody refuse such special loving???

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      I’m still a practicing Catholics and I still abhor the “sign of peace”in mass. Did you know it’s optional? It’s not even required. I don’t get it. It makes people like me totally uncomfortable (I’m a dead fish handshake) and it institutes pushing, pulling, and pinching between my kids every time.

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    A very celebrated preacher in the UK famously arrived home on a coach after a church trip. He got off the bus first and said goodbye to each person as they stepped off, with a hug. He was handsome and charismatic and women congregants adored him. It was mainly women aboard and one was his wife…she stood in line for a hug like the rest. I was suspicious of x-tian hugging ever after that. And around this time, physical displays of ‘affection’ became more common in churches. A church I had naively thought near-perfect had a rash of divorces, mainly involving members having affairs with the spouses of other members. It was almost an epidemic..and I always wondered if this sudden outbreak of inappropriately hugging contributed to the situation. And for years I attended a CofE church where we ‘exchanged the peace’ and gave limp handshakes to strangers…one of the dissonances I lived with. I hated it. There was always coffee after the services which seemed to me a much more normal and natural time to greet a stranger or catch up with friends.

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    I don’t like being hugged. My kids don’t either, probably because they learned that from me. We joke about it a lot, and occasionally my daughter will ask for a hug if she is having a bad day (and sometimes she hangs on to see how long it takes me to squirm away). Unfortunately we live in an area (NJ) where greetings with not only a hug but also a kiss or cheek touch are the norm. I despise that custom. Close friends know that a handshake is sufficient for me. I was the odd mom on my son’s soccer team who shook everyone’s hands (they got used to it). My husband comes from a huge extended Irish family in NY where hugging and kissing are the norm. There was even kissing on the mouth and I put a stop to that really fast, especially when it came to drunk uncle Paul who is no longer married to aunt Kathleen. I get made fun of a lot by certain family members but oh well, it’s my body.

    There was some hugging at the Southern Baptist church where I grew up but mostly of children, and mostly side hugs among adults. (My side of the family will only do side hugs). I was uncomfortable with hugging even as a child. My mom saw this, and having been molested at age 5 she understood. She told me I wasn’t required to hug and could politely say no thanks or offer a handshake instead.

    I still feel uncomfortable saying I don’t want to hug. It’s like I am breaking social norms just because I want to control what happens to my own body. That’s wrong.

  5. Avatar

    If there is anything in this world more beautiful full full full, than a child’s hug freely offered and taken, I have not found it. But I absolutely concur with ObstacleChick on this one, that each of us needs to freely control our own bodies and not have others make that decision for us. If almighty ignorant trespassing Gawds and preachers could get that through their heads, most religion would just evaporate under the sun’s rising and we would be free of it.

  6. Avatar

    I’m definitely a hugger, and am physically affectionate. Almost everytime I see my kids and grandkids, I tell them I love them.

    Years ago I would even touch people to make a point in conversation. This was almost unconscious. However, a co worker once shared that she was not comfortable with being touched like this.

    It hurt at the time, and I felt embarrassed to have made her feel uncomfortable, but this was a wake up call. I definitely think we’re all different in our temperments and personalities. and it’s important to respect the boundaries of others.

    I can see this even with my own grandchildren. Some are all over me, love to be hugged and kissed, or to sit on my lap. Others are much more reserved. Now I generally ask, “Do you need a hug,” or wait for the other person to initiate that.

    Also, I think I’ve become somewhat more reserved as I’ve gotten older, myself.

  7. Avatar

    Great and interesting post. I remember being horrified as a child at wedding receptions greeting line where stranger perfumed ladies gave me wet kisses. Physical contact is a violation, but then again it is a minor breech of space. Some people don’t even like handshakes, for example Howie Mandel. OF course while some things may be unpleasant they are essentially harmless. A bit like getting caught in a rain shower…you won’t melt.

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      Troy, please try to avoid defining what it is or is not for someone else. What you call a minor breech is not at all minor to someone else. Try to respect the other’s experience and not deny them by your ‘toughen up’ talk. It is clear how you feel about it for yourself. Why assume it is like that for me too or anybody else? It is not at all like being caught in a rain shower for me, not at all. And according to your memory of wedding receptions, it was horrible for you at one time. Surely you aren’t suggesting that those of us who are still bothered by it are acting like children? You won’t melt?

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        Brian, I think I made it clear that I understand the discomfort people can feel when their space is violated. That said this is a classic rendition of a “first world problem”. I do think we need to toughen up. I suppose it is a wonder of modern civilization that we can dwell on such trivialities.

        It would be sad if Bruce refused any more Santa photos, though perhaps the lesson of the encounter is clear: communicate if you have a hang up about people violating your space (Howie Mandel does this routinely). Otherwise don’t complain. Example: Hey Santa is a Bengals fan, will you take a picture with me?! Answer: Sure, just don’t grab me too hard I need my space. (something like that but with a bit more tact.)

        • Avatar

          By saying “Communicate if you have a HANG UP (capitals mine) violating your space”, you are trivialising the experiences of other people. As for “first world problem”, that’s another example. YOU live in the first world, don’t you? Are you saying that no-one in the first world is entitled to complain about anything?

          As a child in a family where the parents had very few boundaries (and who didn’t go on to discover any) I was routinely expected to “give Nan a kiss” and “give Aunty so-and-so a kiss.” I didn’t feel comfortable with either of these people, and the first of them was a bully of whom I was often afraid. By insisting on this physical contact, my parents were saying, “Your experience counts for nothing. You WILL pretend to feel affection for these two people, because they are important and you are not.” For you, Troy, someone kissing/hugging you might never have felt like a violation but bear in mind, for many of us, that is exactly what it is. No-one is ENTITLED to physical contact with me, and I take a dim view of anyone who thinks that they are.

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            Eloquent… your hx is one I share in the first person and I concur regarding your perspective. I wrote a poem once that addressed this very experience, children being used by adults to pleasure themselves. You have stated the experience very well here. Thank-you, Rachel.

        • Avatar

          Discomfort? I get flashbacks to being sexually assaulted when people touch me without asking. My partner has chronic pain, and being touched makes it worse (for a couple of days). We would really rather not suffer when people with no understanding of our experiences won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

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  9. Avatar

    My former parish had an usher who insisted on giving me a big, wet kiss on the lips whenever he’d see me. He was in his 70’s and I thought for a while that maybe he was mistaking me for one of his relatives or something. I was in my 30’s. I finally just stopped making eye contact and avoiding him.

  10. Avatar
    Bruce Slater

    This has been a big problem for us since our daughter turned 14. She has recently told of us of 3 creepy men at church who always come up beside her and and hug her, recently she said that she doesn’t want to go to church as one of the men is really creepy and puts her hands on her. This usually happens when I am not with her. Interestingly enough these men do not hug me or her mother. The Pastor hugs which gives these men free licence to do so and we have felt like victims at times.

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    Hi Bruce Slater,

    It sounds like it’s time to help your daughter avoid these unwanted hugs and touching Bruce. She’s warning you things aren’t right. She’s waving a red flag saying, help, this is not right.

    Have you any plans in place to equip yourselves and your daughter to stop this unwanted touching?

    If she can’t be safe at that church, doesn’t that tell you something?

    Will you support her wish to stay away from there?

    They aren’t hugging her when her parents are with her because they know it is wrong.

    It’s not interesting that they don’t hug you and your wife. They’re not turned on by adults. They are taking advantage of your daughter.

  12. Avatar
    Danny Lynn Trussell

    I love hugs. Hugs are healthy. In our populous cities, it’s hard to be friends with everyone, and we become distant untrusting. Then we don’t want hugs. We distrust people. With so much “me too movements” we fear sexual harassment. But some people are just high touch. They are not being sexual, just high touch and they love people very much.

    Then there is the difference in personality types. Some are naturally high touch. Some are naturally low touch. Some people actually feel pain when they are touched. High touch people feel warmth when the are hugged.

    Maybe we should try to understand each other and try to reach each other according to their needs.

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