Caring for Leaders in Erotic Entanglement, Part One

This week, as Rachael Clinton joins Dan Allender for our series about caring for leaders, they turn to a particular, pervasive, and oh-so-complex dynamic: erotic entanglements. Unless you’ve spent some time in a counseling program, that phrase might be new to you, and it might evoke the category of unwanted sexual behaviors, like pornography addictions or affairs. Of course those behaviors are all too common for leaders, including many pastors, but Rachael and Dan are quick to clarify that erotic entanglement is not always overtly, physically sexual; it often looks more like a subtle emotional connection, one that connects crucially to the tendencies of idealization and scapegoating we talked about last week.

Dan: “When you are in the presence of people who just give you joy, life, a sense of passion, there’s an erotic energy—and it’s not bad, it’s not wrong. Eros is a life energy, and it’s meant to fuel us. But where it begins to move toward isolation, disloyalty, misuse, ultimately there’s an erotic structure that begins to move into fantasy, into trying to borrow touch and engagement.”

Rachael: “You’re getting a kind of life from someone that exceeds life you get from anyone else. These kinds of idealizations are really an attempt to heal multiple parts of us that are related to the longing for a parent, a friend, a leader, a spouse. It’s coming from this place in us that is looking for healing, but there is a profound sense of idolatry that’s connected to it.”

Erotic entanglement begins with a deep desire—for connection, for healing, for intimacy—that then moves into a demand: You are the leader who will bring energy and movement where I have felt stuck, and because of that our relationship must be unique and unparalleled. Whether it leads to a physical, sexual relationship or remains in the realm of emotional intimacy, the idealization of that demand eventually leads to the disappointment of being failed by another imperfect leader. That oscillation between idealization and de-idealization, says Dan, is the oscillation between lust and anger.

A key category is idealization. I want perfect attunement. So we set leaders up to try and fill things that aren’t being filled in other aspects of our lives.

Rachael: “The fact that pastors don’t actually get training and learn about these dynamics is part of swimming in a system and not actually having the wisdom and the awareness and, then, the good stewardship of your power to know how to navigate these complex waters. Because no leader gets to escape this kind of erotic entanglement. […] We have to grow our courage to have these conversations. Because it is the water we’re swimming in.”

Perhaps it is so easy to avoid confronting these dynamics, or to write off this kind of conversation as not applicable to us, is because when we enter the realm of the desire for intimacy and connection, we are also entering the realm of shame. It can feel deeply disorienting to feel longing toward another person that’s not necessarily connected to age or gender or physical attraction, so we try to ignore it—unaware that it continues to grow when it’s unaddressed, eventually leading to physical expression or emotionally codependent isolation.

Dan: “If you’re a leader, people are depending upon you. They are leaning on you. And they feel shame in doing so, so they’re going to hide it. […] There’s so much shame about our need for one another.”

Rachael: “Oh, the places we’re hungry feel so exposing. It’s too shameful to say ‘I actually want you to be my dad,’ or ‘I want you to be the most special person in my life.’”

Awareness of these dynamics requires that we be boundaried people. That doesn’t mean never talking to people who might be attracted to you, or vice versa, which is really a way of pretending that the eroticism of our human needs will go away if we ignore it. Instead, holding meaningful boundaries means not getting seduced by the need to be always available, to be the superhuman leader who can solve all of emotional needs of the people you lead.

Rachael: “How do you honor your human-sizedness, and the human-sizedness of others? That takes the kind of maturity to be honest about who you are, to be honest about who other people are, about our beauty and our limitations.”

Dan: “Can we bless our own hunger and finiteness? […] Can we come to that in ourselves and in others without judgement, without disparagement, without shaming? If so, then we’ve created the very core thing: we’re anticipating, we’re better prepared, and we’re in a stance of honor. When we honor one another in that erotic hunger to be a beloved, to be chosen above others, and to be so connected that we’re bound to one another in life and death—that’s the very gift we receive from Jesus.”