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September 13, 2010

Searching for Boundaries

Where do we draw the line between "appropriate" and "inappropriate" in mixed-gender small groups?



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Last week I offered women a chance to Stand and Speak regarding their experiences in small groups. And we have had some great responses and interesting disclosures.

One comment that caught my eye came from Jill, who said:

I haven't been in a coed group in a long while, but in the past I've frequently found that men in leadership of said groups don't quite know what to do with single women in the group. I'm no shy wallflower, and I think sometimes they've felt somehow threatened. I think male leaders find single women very different somehow from married ones. Maybe the married ones are accustomed to deferring to their husbands.

Well Jill, I can tell you that you have nailed the feelings of at least one male small-group leader. To say I "don't quite know what to do with" the women in the small groups I have led is right on—and it's not just the single women that get me confused and/or gun-shy.

To put it badly, I am often am uncertain where the line is between appropriate and inappropriate behavior regarding women and men in a group. And that means I usually act overly reserved just to make sure that I don't unintentionally do anything weird—which often makes me feel like I am not fulfilling my role as a group leader who wants to care about and support the members of my group.

These are the kinds of issues I am talking about:

  • Eye contact. When I facilitate a discussion, I like to demonstrate active listening my maintaining eye contact and showing positive body language to whomever is speaking. But it often feels weird to be staring into a woman's eyes for long periods of time.
  • Physical contact. Some people are huggers, and I understand that. I am not a hugger. That being the case, I often feel awkward when a woman hugs other members of the group upon coming through the front door, but I stay back instead of "coming in for my turn." Am I being offensive in doing so?
  • Hospitality issues. My wife and I pride ourselves on being good hosts, which means I am always on the lookout for someone who needs a drink or something to eat. I will give up my chair for a woman that doesn't have one. I will open doors for women. I try to welcome everyone into our home and take their coats if they have one. But I often wonder, Can these gestures be misconstrued as flirting?
  • Emotional support. Like most men, I react when I see a "damsel in distress." I have an instinctual desire to comfort or encourage a woman who is having a hard time. Obviously, I understand that it's not a good idea for me to put my arm around a woman and try to soothe her or anything—my wife is wonderful at recognizing those moments and offering comfort when necessary. But am I within appropriate boundaries to verbally encourage a woman? To pray for a woman? To have a one-on-one conversation where I am listening to her trouble and offering support/advice?

This has become a longer post than I intended, but I would still like to ask for your help on these issues, and on others that you can think of regarding men leading women within a small group. Wehre are the boundaries? How do we know what is appropriate?

In other words -- help!

posted by Sam O'Neal on September 13, 2010 1:52 PM

Related Tags: Boundaries, Gender

Comments

As I mentioned in my comment on the previous post, one small group got around the awkward physical thing by instituting the high-five/fist-bump greeting among group members. Then there was never the question of to-hug-or-not-to-hug.

There's always the side hug and other Christian hugs.

I think eye contact is perfectly appropriate. It's part of being a good listener. If you're in a group, it's not so much "gazing into her eyes" anyway.

The nice thing about hosting with your wife is that you can be hospitably without coming across as overly friendly or flirtatious. I mean, your wife is right there. Should be fine.

The emotional support thing...yeah, TOTALLY hand that off to your wife or another woman.

In general, I think most women have a "creeper detector." If you're not being a creeper...they'll feel comfortable around you.

1.Eye contact for communciation purposes, yes.
2.Physical contact, no. You're a married man.
3.Hospitality gestures misconstrued as flirting? On the No note, no, but could be as attention, which, may lead to a woman getting the impression that just because you gave her a glass of water, that you are her "romeo" now...that you like her; based upon however emotionally immature, or in her imaginations she may be.
4. Emotional support through verbal encouragement, and prayer,yes; one-on-one conversations, in appropriate settings, and not without your wife knowing, such as in a place where you can be seen with her, yet not heard. Advice, yes, as long as it is biblical, such as in a role of a biblical counselor.

I have to say I am so thankful for the men in my small group - all married, their wives attend, and even tho I'm single - they love me not like a leper, but lime the sister in Christ that I am. I have never once taken the men's good manners and hospitality as "flirting" - I'm not desperate, I'm simply single - usually when manners/hospitality are shown I thinkto myself "thank God for men who were raised well and know to display common courtesy.

As for emotional support - both emotional and physical - I am ever thankful for the men who are able and willing to offer me encouragment and advice from a male perspective - something I probably would not be open to hearing from any man on the street, but that I know I can trust coming from these men who are my friends. And I am even more thankful for the men who can offer me a pat on the back, an arm around my shoulder or even a hug when I am sad, hurt or angry. These men are reaching out in love - not romanticly - but in brotherly love. All people need the touch of others - without it we develop failure to thrive, depression, anxiety, etc. O e of Jesus' closest friends was Mary Magdalene - a former prostitute - you'll never cnvince me that He never touched or hugged her or offered her an encouraging word in times of emotional need.

If you're not a bugger that's fair and it's not rude to stand back durng hugging times - but you may want to consider why just seeng her uv other men makes you uncomfortable - it's not wrong of her to hg them and not wrong for them to hug her back.

This blog made me unexpectedly upset and emotional - why, why, why can't married Christians accept that there is nothing sinful or less than or wrong with single adult Christians? It saddens me to the depth of my soul - it truly does. And again, it makes me ever thankful for the men and women in my small group and at my church who readily and without a moments hesitation share Gods love with me in never ending ways - verbal and physical included.

My husband and I lead a mixed gendered small group. And, honestly, not one of these things has ever remotely occurred to me.

When I saw the posts title, I thought it would have more to do with the content of discussion. In our group, it's not the mix of genders that's the problem. It's the mix of relational statuses: married, dating, and single. What we find is that the single and dating people often want to mine the marrieds for information that could boarder on inappropriate. And, yet, who else will teach these people about what it means to date in a Godly manner, or what to expect from marriage? How do you answer the question like: Should I ever be alone with by boyfriend/girlfriend? How important is physical chemistry in picking a mate? How do I avoid leading a guy on if I'm not interested, or vise versa, show him in a Godly way that I am interested?

We value the singles in our group. We encourage them, and reassure them that their singleness is a calling -- just as much as our marriedness is. In fact, we often tell them how envious we are that they are so free to pursue God and ministry b/c they don't have the distraction of a spouse or children. But, often, we also struggle with mentoring them through some of the grayest, most uncomfortable areas of dating and relationships.

As a single female I really appreciate that our small group is mixed gender, as well as mixed in relationship status and ages. We have several married couples a couple of single women and an occasional single man in attendance and it has been so good for me that I would never give it up for a singles-only group.

In answer to your questions, the group should openly discuss its purposes frequently. Remind group members to treat each other as brothers and sisters in the Lord and encourage deeper relationships between women with women and deeper relationships between men with men.

It is polite to look at someone in the eyes when they are speaking to you, not looking at someone for any reason is insulting. However, if you frequently find a woman tracking you down for private conversation before or after any teaching times or at other events, then you may want to exercise caution. While more often than not it would be innocent, it is better to maintain strong boundaries.

When it comes to moral support, simply state tell her that you will pray for her before she gets into too much detail and immediately either suggest that she talk to one of the other women in the group or call one of the women over to join the discussion.

If a woman is constantly asking your advice or seeking moral support, suggest that she speak with one of the women in the group or suggest that she set up a meeting with you and your wife to disccuss it away from the group setting. But always emphasize that your wife would be present. If someone makes you uncomfortable, recruit your wife to try to become a deeper friend to that person and to run interference if necessary. Most women would not seek a romantic relationship with a close friend's husband, though it does happen occassionally.

As for physical contact, if a hugger approaches you, extend your hand for a warm handshake, maybe followed by a pat on the shoulder. If they try to hug you simply set the boundary...not I won't hug you because you're a woman, but state "I'm not really much of a hugger" and gently expect that boundary to be respected.

Continue being a good host, but if a specific woman makes you feel uncomfortable, make sure that when you offer her a drink, etc. that you include others in the offer and are on the way to deliver someone else's drink when you give one to her. Occassionally it may work for you to ask your wife to get a drink, etc. for that person so that you are not the only one making her feel welcome. Women do not necessarily view basic courtesy as flirting, though it seems that men sometimes do. While you may prefer to offer your wife special courtesy in things like opening the door for her, she would probably not be insulted if you held the door open for someone whose hands were full.

The biggest signs to worry about are if a woman seeks you out for questions, advice, or even prayer requests at every opportunity, if she follows you around on a regular basis, if she makes negative comments about your wife or marriage (even if they are veiled as positive comments), and if she makes it a habit of touching you. While accidental contact sometimes occurs, if she lets her fingers touch yours every time you hand her a drink or she touches your shoulder or arm often, then it may be time for you and your wife to have a gentle conversation with her. Do not accuse her of anything immoral, but simply tell her that you have noticed the accidental touches and that it makes you feel uncomfortable or that you are concerned that others in the group will read something into it. In case the touches are innocent, it would be good to bring out how you are trying to protect her reputation so she does not feel ambushed. Never have this conversation without your wife's presence!

I'm in my mid 40s and have never been married because in my area there just have been so few Christian men available. My choices have been to be unequally yoked or unmarried. My experience has been that single Christian women rarely try to start relationships with married men. Actually, the few affairs I have heard about in churches have always been between two married people, so once you have established your personal boundaries with women, apply them universally.

One thing that really stuck out to me about this article is that the original writer wondered whether it would be appropriate to verbally encourage and/or pray for a woman. My answer to this would be, of course it is! When is it ever inappropriate to pray for someone, anyone? I would say that's the most appropriate thing you can do, and it's a good default for when you don't know what else to do. As for verbal encouragement, as long as it doesn't move into her fishing for compliments and you validating her (instead of encouraging her to find validation in God), I would say this is okay, too. Everyone needs some encouragement sometimes - we are called by Paul to edify one another - build each other up. I think you know the boundaries of what is appropriate and what isn't - it isn't that complicated. For example: if she is feeling discouraged by body image issues -

a.) "Oh, you don't have to worry about that. Anyone can see you're a beautiful woman."
b.) "Psalm 139 talks about how each of us are fearfully and wonderfully made. God thinks you are precious and beautiful - find the self-esteem you crave in your Father who loves you."

I think it's fairly easy to see which is appropriate and which isn't.

I'm also thankful for encouragement, support & prayers received from men, also hugs, personal listening and advice, even when part of this was not the best.
I think what is seen approriate may vary a bit in different cultures and depends on persons as well. E.g some advise to avoid one-on-one talks totally. I would just say to keep them in a place where you two may be seen by others and to avoid dealing with one woman too much. Rather encourge and if needed help her (e.g to introduce to someone, to involve another woman to your counceling talk) to have deeper relationship with women. It's good to know and keep your own boundaries, where you are comfortable and safe.
Important is also to emphasize her relationship not with you, but with God. (Instead of saying "Jesus loves you," a man once said me, "I love you, spirtually" - what a storm of feelings it produced in an inexperienced love-longing young girl!)

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