the Hope of Survivors

A Massage Therapist Looks at Pastoral Boundaries—Ray McAlister, MDIV, PhD, LMT

Sad Teen(From the April 2014 edition of HopeSpeak)

You're staying late at your church finishing your sermon. Suddenly there is a knock at the door. You open the door to find yourself facing an under-age church member of the opposite sex tearfully distressed over a recent romantic break-up. You are alone in the building as your secretary has left for the day. It just started raining outside, and the youth rode a bicycle. What do you do?

While in pastoral training, my seminary addressed issues like these to some extent. It wasn't until I started massage therapy school that I was most deeply exposed to principles of ethics and boundaries. The massage therapy profession, especially in Western countries, has had to recover from a past of being associated, often accurately, with the sex industry. In a field where clients are often naked under a sheet, maintaining high standards of professional propriety is paramount. In a world where the ministry professions are now associated, often accurately, with sexual impropriety, it might do clergy well to be educated in such a manner for their work. In this article, I will share principles from the Bible and from my experience in the massage therapy profession to show how clergy can live lives above reproach in that profession.

A Look at the Scriptures

Before this journey gets underway, I must make it clear that this document is not intended to offer legal advice. At least, in America, laws concerning behavior of clergy are les strict and are usually enacted long after they are in the rest of society. These ideas are designed to help one fulfill the higher responsibilities of maintaining upright character, avoiding unnecessary temptation, and shunning even the appearance of evil.

Let us begin by looking at the story of Joseph resisting sexual temptation in Genesis 39. It must be understood that Joseph was a slave, and so, certain options of escape were unavailable to him. He behaved as righteously as he could, and sets for principles from his experience for how ministers can in their situations of greater freedom.

When Potiphar's wife began making sexual advances at Joseph, Joseph responded with several measures designed to uphold purity. (Genesis 39:7-12) First, he spoke with clear words that he was unwilling to engage in such behavior and that such would be a sin against God. Even if he and Potiphar's wife were to consent to such behavior, it would have been a wrong against her husband, a child of God, and so, it would have been a sin against God. Then the text says that Joseph refused to lie beside her or to be with her. He made it a point to adhere to standards high enough to keep him away from tempting situations. Finally, when she grabbed him insisting he have sexual relations with her, he did the only thing he could: leaving his coat in her hand and fleeing. Unfortunately, for him, as a slave, she was still able to use the situation against him and have him thrown in prison. Nonetheless, Joseph did the best he could and would eventually be blessed by God for his purity of character.

Massage - Ray McAllisterBoundaries in the World of Massage

In massage therapy school, they teach about two different kinds of boundaries. Personal boundaries are limits I set in a relationship in order to protect myself. Having a limit concerning how many massages I do in a day would protect me from injury and burn-out. Professional boundaries are designed to protect clients. Refusing to divulge information about my last massage protects that person from a curious client who doesn't need to know. In many cases there is an overlap and a personal boundary ends up being a professional boundary. Making sure my wife is present when a female client comes for a massage protects me against accusation and the client from concerns of abuse. In Joseph's case, refusing to even be near his master's wife was a personal boundary as it related to Joseph's spirituality and a professional boundary as it related to the sanctity of his master's marriage.

When I started massage school, one of our first assignments was to write an essay describing our ethical boundaries we would have in our practices. I decided that I have no moral objection to massaging females, but that I would want my wife present to protect the client and me. All clients also sign a consent form that says they acknowledge that making sexual advances at my wife or me would result in the immediate termination of the massage. I even use professional terminology to limit confusion. I am a massage therapist, not a masseur, as the term, "therapist," sounds very medical. I do massages on a massage table, and I discourage the use of the term "bed" for the apparatus. As required by law, I obtain parental consent before massaging a minor and clarify with the parent or guardian exactly what is expected of me.

I was even taught how to recognize the beginning signs that I might be developing feelings for a client or vice versa. If I begin to greatly look forward to a certain client's presence or make extra and unusual sacrifices for such a client, it could mean that I should refer said individual to another therapist. Fortunately, maintaining all other boundaries properly has prevented this from being a problem in my business.

These matters are of highest importance to massage therapists. Not only do schools teach these guidelines, but there is an abundance of books on the subject of ethics and boundaries as they relate to massage therapy. Those preparing for licensing examinations are encouraged to spend much time studying ethics and boundaries.

Boundaries as They Relate to Ministry

Because the profession of pastoral ministry is plagued with so many sex scandals, it may be even more important for our "shepherds" to have strict personal and professional boundaries in their work. These will protect the minister from accusation and the congregants from being taken advantage of or made to feel uncomfortable.

Ministers should have well-explained policies concerning interaction with minors and those of the opposite sex. In America, a male clergy member should have a trusted female nearby when counseling a female, especially a single female. The minister's wife, a secretary, deaconess or retired female congregant are all possibilities. Everyone will feel more comfortable. A minister should not work closely with any minor without consent of parent or guardian. Jesus and the apostles never did their evangelism by "picking off" children from their parents for conversion.

Ministers must pay close attention to their feelings when doing counseling. A good understanding of transference and countertransference are necessary when helping any other person through a struggle and sorting out the unusual emotions and behaviors associated with both. The warning signs of developing feelings for someone are no different in pastoral ministry. A minister may need to refer a congregant to a trusted associate if the feelings just cannot be controlled. A relationship with an honest spiritual accountability partner can also be useful. The accountability partner might warn the minister if something just doesn't seem right about a relationship.

Ultimately, since clergy in general, don't have explicit legal guidelines to follow, it's up to the minister, in consultation with the Bible and other spiritual leaders, to develop the best boundaries for the situation. This makes this task even more important. Ministers represent God, and people will be drawn toward or away from God based on their experiences with their spiritual leaders.

As for the situation mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is no one solution that would work for all ministers in all countries. If the minister decides to let the minor into the church because of the rain, one possibility might be to call a parent or a trusted church member of the same gender as the minor and have that person listen in on speaker phone. That way, at least, there is a witness. This may be the type of situation where one must rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit for wisdom. Whatever happens, ministers must be as prepared as possible with policies in place to prevent scandal. It's human souls that can be healed or destroyed and the Lord's Name that will ultimately be profaned or exalted.

Dr. Ray McAllister is passionate about his relationship with God. He enjoys spending time in prayer and Bible study, writing poetry, and serving others. In August, 2010 He received a PhD in Hebrew Scriptures. In April, 2013 he was licensed as a massage therapist. Dr. McAllister is totally blind. He's the first blind PhD from Andrews University's seminary, and the first totally blind person in the world to get a PhD in Hebrew Scriptures. Dr. McAllister sees his blindness as an opportunity to more deeply see the beauty of God's love and guide others to do the same.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18