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Church leaders learn to set physical limits

By Pat Gee

LAST UPDATED: 02:29 a.m. HST, Sep 18, 2010

Church leaders training to deal with sexual misconduct are presented with a case study in which a parishioner says of a minister:

"Chris makes me feel really special -- phoning and visiting me on a regular basis; knowing when to hug, when to listen, and when to share; and always complimenting me on my hairstyle, smile and overall appearance. Chris models compassion, sensitivity and servant-hood."

Is Chris' behavior appropriate for a minister, or does it overstep professional boundaries?

Al Miles, chaplain at the Queen's Medical Center, poses such questions at training sessions held twice a year to remind Episcopal church representatives that there is zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, no matter how subtle. Miles is a national consultant and author of "Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know."

Because of the frequency of sex abuse among various churches, the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii requires all leaders throughout the state attend the workshop, said Liz Beasley, canon (assistant) to the Office of the Bishop. A four-hour session will be held next Saturday at the Cathedral of St. Andrews by Miles, who has conducted the training with his wife Kathy the last several years through Pacific Health Ministries.

Surveys show 95 percent have found the training valuable.

"It's the little red flags that show something's wrong," Beasley said. "People have a hard time speaking up about it because it's not that blatant, but they know in their gut something is wrong. People may say we're making a big fuss out of nothing, but as Al Miles says: If you're uncomfortable with it, that's what matters."

In the case study of "Chris," Miles said he deliberately does not indicate whether Chris is male or female. The first question people ask is about Chris's gender, then age, and place of residence. They say that if Chris is a woman ministering to a woman or a man to a man, the personal compliments and frequent attention would be OK. Or if Chris is a grandmotherly type, it's OK. And "everybody in Hawaii likes to be hugged," he's told.

"But I know some native Hawaiians who told me they don't like strangers to hug them. Then I ask how many people in this room like strangers to hug them and no one raises their hand. I have to move people away from stereotypes, or the idea that 'no one gets upset if I do this in my home.' I have to remind them, this is not your home, this is a professional ministry," Miles said.

Full-body hugs, flirting, secret gift-giving and a minister's personal confessions during counseling are unprofessional. Incidents that could be misinterpreted include a male minister visiting a woman at home alone, so Miles tells people to take another person with them.

"I tell ministers: Never go under the (bed) covers to hold anyone's hand. It doesn't look good, even if there is no improper intention. ... We don't want people to misread things. We can't be too cautious in this day and age," Miles said.

The prevalence of social media encourages the casual nature of relationships, but Miles warned ministers (ordained or not) to think carefully before tweeting and texting. The ones struggling with boundaries are "those who try to walk the fence. They're still trying to be one of the boys or girls. I never get into a person's private life, but I tell them you have to be careful in the context of your ministry, (and decide whether) am I going to accept the authority I've been given and the responsibilities that come with it," he said.

Louise Aloy, a board member and Sunday school teacher at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Wailuku, said the recent training has helped her to speak up against or walk away from inappropriate speech or behavior. And she no long feels obligated to give or receive hugs from people she doesn't know. Instead of a hug, she offers a handshake or makes the peace sign with her fingers, saying, "May the peace of the Lord be with you."

"It's the shy, timid ones who put up with it. We say, 'No, you don't have to!' Everyone thinks it's part of the culture. I guess it's part of being a host culture, the aloha spirit and everything -- huggy huggy, kissy kissy!" But Aloy added, "This is how I taught my kids: If you don't like it, say it."

The bottom line, said Lindsay Kamm, a board member of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Lihue is, "It's being smart and using common sense. It's avoiding the appearance of anything untoward or not putting yourself in a situation, where there is not a witness, that could be misconstrued or used against you. The world we live in is so casual, so liberal, we have to be reminded to think of what could happen."

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