Since the onset of COVID-19, most congregations have limited all forms of physical touch, including the passing of the peace, hugs and handshakes. This reset has provided an important moment for our collective reflection about the intersections of touch and the church.
We are not yet living in a post-pandemic world. Adherence to minimal-touch guidelines remains the recommendation of public health officials. That being said, we can now begin to imagine a world in which coronavirus is no longer part of our daily vocabulary. How will we take what we’ve learned and allow it to inform future congregational best practices related to hugs and handshakes?
As you and your congregation discern what physical touch will look like moving forward, here are some themes worth considering:
Practice self-awareness. Self-awareness is one’s ability to recognize one’s own thoughts, feelings, values and actions, and their impact on other people. Conversations about physical touch in congregational life are most fruitful when we practice self-awareness.
I often hear compassionate, well-intentioned people describe themselves as “huggers” and then proceed to initiate hugs without pausing long enough to become aware of the preferences of the other people involved.
Hug enjoyment is a neutral human preference. It isn’t good or bad. Church can be a place where hugs are neither required, nor prohibited — in times of pandemic and in all other times, too. Think about your own assumptions and preferences related to hugs and handshakes at church. When we’re self-aware, we’re more open.
Give people opportunities and language to express their touch preferences. Congregations can and should build cultures of consent in which all members are empowered to engage in church in ways that feel safe and life-giving.
As congregations, we usually assume we’re giving people space to be themselves. But if we look more closely, there’s often only one “right” answer presented when it comes to hugs and handshakes. When it comes to physical touch before, during and after worship, it’s useful to provide real, meaningful alternatives for those who prefer not to touch. Normalize these options by incorporating learning moments into the life of the congregation in which the whole community develops the awareness that all people have touch preferences, and it’s important to honor those preferences.
Note that power is at play in all systems (including in church), and those dynamics have immense impact on physical touch. If a person with more power is requesting a hug from someone who has less power, the person with less power may not feel comfortable saying no. It is incumbent on congregational leaders to recognize the relationships between power, boundaries, and all forms of touch.
Give yourself permission to have preferences and share them. Many people have never been given the opportunity to really think about their feelings about hugs and handshakes at church. Most folks just do whatever other people are doing. You get to have preferences, and it’s OK if those preferences change. You are a beloved child of God if you don’t like to shake hands, and you are a beloved child of God if you do like to shake hands.
Before you dive back into business as usual when it comes to the passing of the peace, hugs during coffee hours, and handshakes during the receiving line after church, take time to thoughtfully reflect. How might this moment be an opportunity to become a congregation where a culture of consent is prioritized and practiced? Who from your congregation and community might you invite into the conversation? For most of us, the topics I’ve explored today represent new areas of learning that we haven’t thought about before. We benefit from the expertise of others.
COVID-19 changed the way touch looks at church. Let’s use this next season to wisely reflect before we step back into default settings.
"Holy Everything" is a weekly column by Emily Carson. She is a Lutheran pastor. Visit her website emilyannecarson.com.