Irene and her husband, Doug, attend Second Evangelical Free Church in Brooklyn, NY.
Handled With (Almost Enough) Care
Reviews of Handle With Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry by Lore Ferguson Wilbert
Learning a New Way
Looking for a good, healthy, pure, ministering physical touch? See a nurse!
Who knew that a week after finishing Handle with Care, I would find myself in the hospital. There were nurses, both male and female, that cared for me, sometimes in the most personal ways, with a good, healthy and pure ministering touch. I think it struck me so deeply because I had just read this book and was wondering if it was possible to find or give this kind of touch in the world or the church.
In the world—or dare I say, in the church—where any touch suggests a sexual touch, I find myself questioning how to incorporate safe and ministering touch to those around me.
I grew up in a large Italian family where hugs and kisses were doled out easily and frequently. I came to the Lord in my late 20s and found myself confused by the infamous “Christian side-hug.” It seemed like my body was a threat in some way. Weren’t these my brothers and sister in Christ? I have brothers, but I never felt awkward or afraid to give or receive a real hug with them.
Wilbert puts it rightly when she says, “[F]or fear of sinful sexual touch, we limit all or most touch.”
After reading this book, I realized my experience is not everyone’s experience. Wilbert expressed how not all are comfortable with touch for a variety of reasons. I paused to think more about my expressions of hugs or kisses. I have had to ask myself the question that the author asks: How do I touch in a way that is intimate, pure, sincere and godly?
As a follower of Christ, I have to learn how to touch like He did. He touched across gender, religious and societal boundaries and let Himself be touched in the same way. Wilbert states that we should, “Allow His actions and His love for [us] to bear weight on how [we] give and receive touch.” A weighty task, but one worth pursuing.
For people like me, who are comfortable with touch, this could look like asking first if someone would like a hug rather than just giving one. To another, who may be shy of physical touch, it may look like being willing to touch and be touched with one or two close friends or family.
Right now, because of the pandemic, much of this is moot. But when we emerge from this, “Do not touch, keep your distance,” period in history, I hope we will look for God honoring ways to use touch. Wilbert has certainly given us much to consider, as we look at touch in marriage, as we raise our children, in helping those who have experienced abuse and as we interact with the single people in our flocks. May we all learn and teach others to be “good, clean, pure, trusted huggers.”
A Convincing Argument
The pastor of the first church I worked at used to warn me, “Don’t touch the women.” Probably decent advice for doing ministry without being accused of wrong, but not the best way to operate when people in your ministry need love and care expressed through touch.
In Lore Ferguson Wilbert’s book, Handle with Care: How Jesus Redeems the Power of Touch in Life and Ministry, she urges Christians to show love through touch. She explains this necessity through the various ways God’s care shows up in other people and showing the example of Jesus:
“[God] uses His people on earth as expression of His healing. He uses our hands and feet and bodies and hugs. He uses a hand on the shoulder of a brother at church, a squeeze that says, ‘I’m here, and I see you.’ He uses the shoulders of strangers touching in a row in a sanctuary to say, ‘You are not alone.’ He uses hands laid on toddlers and babies and little ones in prayer to say, ‘You are so small now, but God is with you.’”
This has been an important book for me because I never knew that other people need touch. During COVID-19 restrictions, I did not really notice anything missing in my life. While I still had physical contact with my wife and two-year-old son, not being able to shake hands or give hugs to others made no difference to me. In fact, I’ve always preferred not to give hugs. But this book taught me how many people in my own church need the touch of a handshake or hug.
As a pastor, how can I cultivate an environment of healthy touch at my church? How do I encourage my church to show love to each other through touch?
While the content of the book was helpful, one area where the book missed the mark was touch for men. In a chapter titled “Touch of Self,” in which she describes our needs for self-care, Wilbert shared examples of her personal need for bubble baths, Epsom salts and lotion rubbed on her cuticles, but she failed to mention specific examples that men might find more relatable. Perhaps a future revision of the book can include a “Note from Nate” (Wilbert’s husband) for men, offering more specific examples from a male perspective on the topic of physical touch.
Thanks to this book, I realize that my job as a pastor and leader in my church is to provide a safe environment for people to give and receive touch. Part of our church identity and culture should be that we are a “hugging church,” offering physical care to those in our community, but there should still be room for those who are uncomfortable or less inclined to physical touch to decline. Wilbert has convinced me that we all need “touch in life and ministry.”
Leading Like Jesus
By Cara Shelton
Lore Ferguson Wilbert’s book is a challenge to embrace “the power of touch in life and ministry.” Through examples from Christ’s own ministry, Wilbert exposes the mistake we make when we shrink away from physical touch as a meaningful expression of belonging, leaving a vacuum in the lives of those to whom we minister.
She confronts our perception of the danger of physical touch in a way that is beneficial to pastors and lay leaders alike, as they seek to form community within the body of Christ. Handle with Care exhorts us to better express our love and care for the family of God around us.
Pastors and staff are all too aware of the dangers of misused touch. Our society has so sexually charged touch that we have created moats around our relationships to protect both the minister and those ministered to. But what if those moats are so wide that they actually enforce distance between us?
Jesus didn’t hesitate to touch, as Wilbert clearly documents. She affirms:
“We have a unique chance to embody a godly, caring approach to this issue that neither withholds touch, nor forcefully takes it. And the key word there is caring. We need to teach how to touch with true care.”
Leaders who understand the value of relationship in ministry will appreciate the combination of Scriptural challenge and powerful experience in Wilbert’s exploration of the need for appropriate, caring touch within our communities.
Particularly, those who understand the importance of relationship-based ministry will benefit from the well of experience Wilbert draws on as she focuses on the human need for physical contact and details the results of that need going unanswered. While she explores the particular plight of the single believer, singles are not the only ones in our faith communities in desperate need of affirming touch.
Whatever one’s life situation, forming deeply connected lives with others naturally includes such touch. In fact, this would be a particularly timely book to recommend and read through with those preparing for marriage, as Wilbert transparently discusses differing needs for touch within her own marriage.
As I read, I wrestled. There is an uneasy abiding between the assertation that touch is imperative if we are to minister to the whole person and the juxtaposition of the near-constant revelations in the news regarding abuse within ministries. I have struggled under the instructions “Don’t touch,” reconciling that with both children and adults who are in obvious need of comforting hugs, handholding and encouraging physical contact.
To embrace each other will require reversing decades of pulling away and a commitment to learning what healthy, faithful touch means. Yet, Handle with Care details Jesus’s touch woven throughout His ministry. Dare we not follow?
Handle with Care is not a how-to guide, but rather the opening statement in a conversation with which the church must not only engage, but lead. It’s time.