As a professional acrobat, M is, as you might expect, fit, strong, supple, athletic and attractive. When she posted on Facebook about having found a Science Fiction/Fantasy Writer’s Meetup website that featured a picture of her in the air on its front page—or, as she put it, “I found my butt advertising a sci-fi/fantasy writer’s meet-up,”—one of our mutual friends commented, “Is your butt sci-fi or fantasy?”
I had actually typed “Definitely fantasy,” and was about to click the Comment button, when the thought set in: “Wait a minute; I’m ordained now. I can’t say things like that any more.” And I left the comment unmade.
Opinion is divided on this little incident. My wife says I did right in not posting the comment--which, she maintains, would have been unbecoming in a clergyman. My seminary students, on the other hand, mostly disagreed; they were not seeking ordination, they said, in order to live a life in which they may not make innocently flirty comments to their friends.
So I’ve given this a lot of thought. I haven’t definitively solved the problem, but I have begun to form a set of guidelines around what is appropriate for people committed to a spiritual path--clergy or lay--to say to people. It’s a work-in-progress, so I welcome comments and suggestions.
1) Social media are difficult to control
Someone once told me that getting pictures off the Internet is like getting pee out of a swimming pool. It seems reasonable to me to broaden that advice to include comments.
M the aerialist and I are friends; we worked at the same theme park for several years. She knows from watching me perform that I am a floozy for a laugh and will not scruple to “speak more in a minute than (I) will stand to in a month” if it will entertain an audience. I had no apprehension that M would be in any way creeped out or offended by my comment. So my hesitancy had nothing to do with the fear of committing an actual impropriety; rather, it had to do with creating what is sometimes called the appearance of impropriety.
When comments can be seen by all sorts and conditions of people who may be anything from friends-of-friends to total strangers, or from fellow Christians to outright enemies of the faith, there may be no way of preserving the context and spirit in which a comment is made, or controlling how others understand it. If something we say could be misconstrued as it makes its way around the intertubes, let’s consider not saying it if it could, after it gets away from us, “bring the way of truth into disrepute” (2 Peter 2:2)—even if we meant it only in fun.
2) For teachers, clarity of role is important.
When the conversation in my high school Christian Ed. class turned to upcoming movies, I mentioned that I was looking forward to the new Noah film with Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson. Now, at the mention of Ms. Watson, I suddenly had the full attention of all the young men in the class. This made me feel old, of course—we’re talking about little Hermione, here—but had I felt at liberty to speak openly, I might have admitted that yes, Ms. Watson—whose father I could be by a wide margin--is gorgeous, smart and a class act; a very attractive young woman. But right there in Sunday School, it just seemed skeevy, so I bit my lip.
Self-disclosure can be a powerful tool for teachers, counselors, chaplains, and many other kinds of caregivers—but it must be handled with extreme care. Some of the most memorable classes I experienced as a student, and sermons as a congregant, were those in which the leader stepped out from behind the leadership role and spoke from the heart about his or her own feelings and experiences. But self-disclosure should always be for the benefit of those to whom the disclosure is made. If, instead of illuminating the topic at hand by exposing the leader’s vulnerable humanity, the self-disclosure hijacks attention away from the topic and onto oneself, it may be best not to self-disclose. Everything leaders do should be for the building up of those in their charge, and those who lead need to have the leadership role always before their eyes—especially when deciding whether or not to step out from behind it. “My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1)
3) Authority figures
Years ago, an adult Christian education classmate of mine had had an administrative job in a parish. When she returned from a lunchtime shopping trip with a bag of her purchases, her employer—the parish rector—asked her what she had bought. On learning that one of the items was a swimsuit, the priest asked her “jokingly” if she would model the item for him.
Never, never, never, never, never.
When one person is in a position of authority over another, remarks of a sexual or otherwise personal nature are never appropriate. The unequal footing may make it difficult for the victim to self-defend, and, in the case of moral authorities like clergy, may even make her feel guilty for trying to do so.
In relationships such as teachers to students, clergy or other religious or spiritual leaders to their congregations or disciples, employers to employees, managers to managed, law enforcement to civilians, or any other relationship with a built-in power disparity, the powerful are absolutely obliged to respect the boundaries and dignity of those for whom they are responsible. In the case cited above, there was a double inequality in play: rector-to-parishioner and employer-to-employee—so this priest is doubly culpable. With authority comes responsibility, and the obligation to model servant-leadership.
Jesus called them to him and said,“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
4) No hate speech of any kind is ever OK, for any reason.
Race, creed, color, socio-economic status, sexual orientation or gender identity—no one has the right to harass or belittle others for any of these things. Unfortunately, many people expect the churches--due to the headlines-grabbing behavior of some of the most rigid and judgmental among us--to do exactly that. Therefore, we must be all the more careful not to give anyone a reason to tar us with the same brush as those who claim to hate in the name of Christ.
This is true even when people outside the church engage in behavior that could reasonably be considered immoral. As Paul reminds us, it is simply not for us to judge them.
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)
That’s my list so far. What do you think?
 I should explain that, while my “home tradition” is the Episcopal Church, I am, by ordination, an Interfaith Minister, not an Episcopal priest or deacon.
 Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet, Act 11, Sc. 4
 Shakespeare, William. King Lear, Act V, Sc. 3