It may come as no surprise to some of you that I am a pastor to a different kind of community.
I’m not ordained.
I’m not paid.
I’m not on a church staff.
I’m a pastor for those who seek for direction, help, support, care, prayer or a listening ear as they process what it means to love members of the opposite sex.
No, I’m not the Bible answer man for cross-gender friendships. Nor am I the one to seek if you’re wanting a list of what the appropriate boundaries are for love - as if having boundaries in place allows you to coast thereafter.
I have no doubt I have frustrated some people by not providing five (or six or ten?) steps to creating safe cross-gender friendships. But as Eugene Peterson has written, "Pastoral conversations are conversations between persons who are seeking intimacy."
As my friend, Kathy Escobar, recently noted, “pastor” is such a loaded word. Kathy talked about how the church has poured significant energy into creating pastors who are credentialed. There is much value and benefit in training pastors, but Kathy points out the need for embracing a wider meaning of pastor—a relational and communal depth to pastoral care.
She writes: “pastors are the people who are caring for, shepherding, loving, and journeying in close-relationship with people wherever they are.”
For the last 3 or 4 years I have journeyed with people who are on the way to integrating their sexuality, spirituality, marriage, friendship, and community. Since I published Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions in February of 2010, I’ve gained a new community of friends. It is true that this has become a passion of mine.
I’ve had many pastoral conversations with both men and women in this different kind of community during the past several years. Increasingly people seek me out as someone to talk with or pour out their hearts to me. I have endeavored to be a safe, listening presence.
Yes, this is a different community. It is not defined by geography or a neighborhood. It doesn’t meet together in a building. It doesn’t even meet together anywhere. It does fit what Liz Spencer and Ray Pahl identify in their book Rethinking Friendship as a “personal community.” This is not a community of place but of heart and mind. As Spencer and Pahl go on to demonstrate, these personal communities are real even if they don’t congregate at one location.
I’ve heard some truly great and beautiful stories. I can’t describe the joy that surges within me when I hear someone telling me their cross-gender friendship love story. It’s such a beautiful moment to hear the joy in their own voices as they tell me their joy when they discovered my book and found someone who understands them.
I’ve also heard stories of deep perplexity. They wonder how this is happening and how it is going to work out. Some have sought me out with a heavy burden of feeling all alone and isolated. They have this attraction toward a cross-gender friend. It may or may not be a sexual attraction but they are adamant it is not lust. They have no category for it, and friends think they are flirting with danger.
I’ve also heard stories of great pain. A cross-gender friendship has brought great strain to the marriage and the spouse is unwilling for it to continue. Or, they have their spouse’s support but their community is pressuring them and shaming them into a one-size-all-fits approach.
A common thread in most of these conversations is a feeling of isolation. They don’t feel their pastor or close friends would give them a nonjudgmental, compassionate ear. They don’t have an openness to share their cross-gender friendship love within their community or on Facebook. They have to hide it. I had one pastor tell me he would be fired if his community found out he had a close cross-gender friend and spent time with her alone. Others feel they can’t share their joy over their friendships.
I have journeyed with many friends at so many various places in their journey. I have those who call me for prayer. I have those who text me for prayer and for text advice. I have those who email me what is happening in their hearts—pain, anger, joy, etc. I have those who call me and want to think through and talk about it with a compassionate listener who understands.
Another common thread is a hunger for embracing intimate love and sexual integrity simultaneously. For many, this hunger creates anxiety and uncertainty. They’ve never heard about a positive sexual theology that honored the sacredness of the marriage bed but also was open to intimacy beyond it. They’ve been told that intense romantic intimacy is a zero sum game and if you open yourself up to intimacy with a cross-gender friend, it’s inappropriate or dangerous.
But they have a hunger for a sexual integrity which transcends the romantic myth. I have been greatly encouraged to see this hunger in singles and in those who are married. Love is what makes the world go around.
Still another common thread is their courage to go public with their love toward their friends. The vocabulary for cross-gender friends in private and public is extremely limited—unless one has a good and strong sense of self, a good sense of attunement, and desires to follow Christ as a counter-cultural practice of discipleship. In our current romantic-obsessed paradigm within the evangelical sub-culture the language of love between male and female friends is limited, perhaps nonexistent. Going public demands personal courage.
Some years ago, I made a commitment to go wherever the journey of friendship led me, believing that in doing so I was following Christ. I am just a pilgrim on this path saying yes to Christ and yes to love.
What I have done is follow the Apostles’ call to test all things—including the romantic myth and the danger story. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21(The Message): “On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and only keep what is good.” The Apostle John tells us in 1 John 4, “My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you.”
You’re not going to get a manual from me on how to do cross-gender friendships. What we must do is to test all things and hold fast to the good and the beautiful. That is my passion. The greatest thing we can do to help one another taste and see the richness of God’s extravagant beauty and goodness.
There are several broad themes that have shaped my own life and my pastoral conversations. I will be blogging on these in the days to come:
1. The quest for beauty.
2. The quest for sexual integrity.
3. The quest for communion.
4. The quest for justice.
5. The quest for mystery.
6. The quest for truth.