A Ministry Couple Looks at the Billy Graham Rule
What it is, what it’s not, and where we go from here
A few years back, Vice President Mike Pence revealed that he follows The Billy Graham Rule. A contentious debate broke out in Christian and secular circles alike that continues to this day. Recently, a number of men and women have asked us to share our opinions on this. As a married couple in ministry, we’d like to have an open conversation among friends.
What exactly is the Billy Graham Rule? In his autobiography, Graham shares how as a young man, he held a small conference where leaders discussed problems facing the evangelical church. One of the issues was sexual immorality among traveling ministers. “After, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife,” he wrote
When we married nearly 19 years ago, we received as a wedding present the book Hedges: Loving Your Marriage Enough To Protect It, by Jerry B. Jenkins. It spoke not only of rules, but of protecting your heart to guard your marriage. We decided to live by some careful guidelines that we practice to this day. We generally do not meet, ride in a car or otherwise spend time in isolation with a person of the opposite sex who is not our spouse.
The Bible does not prohibit respectful, caring interaction.
It has been awkward and difficult at times, but rarely have we made exceptions, and when we did, we communicated about it ahead of time. We have had many people live with us over the years, and we never allowed them to be alone in the house with one of us. Sometimes they had to drive around the block 20 times until someone else came home.
We also trust each other when one person discerns something concerning about a specific individual. Spouses, as well as team members, can make one another aware of people whose boundaries or intentions may be different than our own.
Here is what The Billy Graham rule is not: prohibited interaction between men and women. In the last few years, we have been concerned by the extent to which some ministers have walled themselves off from women in the name of the Billy Graham Rule. Truthfully, in today’s climate, scandals are not confined just to interactions with the opposite sex. But these extreme rules seem to focus only on women, which makes it more suspicious.
The longer I have been in ministry, the more I have heard disturbing interpretations of this rule. Even more troubling, it has sometimes reduced women to a mere temptation, rather than sisters in Christ and professionals. In an effort to protect personal integrity, sometimes women are unintentionally treated without personal respect. Let me give a few experiences as examples.
I was recently in a meeting where a pastor stated, “Every interaction between a man and a woman is a sexual interaction.” As one of the only female leaders in the room, I felt degraded and embarrassed. Not to mention, I found it extremely narcissistic. This type of philosophy creates an environment that can make it impossible for men and women to work together respectfully.
Other friends have had men tell them they never call, email or text a woman, or even allow a woman to join a group going out to eat. This lacks a simple professional etiquette that is astounding and demonstrates an alarming policy of distrust.
Every one of us, regardless of the industry we work in, have a responsibility to maintain high moral and ethical standards. When I worked in banking, my colleagues treated me professionally, regardless of their faith or lack thereof.
There is a basic expectation of professional decorum that should govern all interactions, allowing people to communicate effectively in the workplace. In the business world, I was never treated as someone to be suspicious of simply because of my gender. In fact, I felt it placed no limitation or advantage on my ability to perform my job. It was a non-issue.
Over the years, the most important thing to me has been to be a man of integrity. This does not disqualify me from working with women; it actually enables me to work with women. I have women in pastoral and staff roles, as deacons, and also heading up volunteer teams.
On a practical level, our team makes sure there never are just a man and a woman on site when the church building is open. I leave the door to my office open when I have one-on-one meetings. In addition to any woman, I bring another person along for outings and meals. We bring women on staff retreats and district functions, and it just means one more hotel room. I value the perspective that women bring to the team, and I want to help them develop as leaders. It’s worth the extra effort to demonstrate that we value every member of the team, and we value one another’s integrity.
To be clear, we’re not saying we should abandon The Billy Graham rule, especially since we practice it. We’re saying that as a practical rule, we can implement it in a healthy way to function in the ministry together. Can we have high ethical standards? Yes, and we should. Can we also have healthy working relationships? Yes, we absolutely can, to the benefit of everyone.
When people from other religions come to faith in Jesus, one of the things that can be so freeing is the way men and women can interact as brothers and sisters in Christ. The Bible does not prohibit respectful, caring interaction. In fact, our Savior modeled it. Let’s be the example the Church and the world are looking for, and do as the writer of Hebrews exhorted: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” (13:1).