Healthy Workplace Boundaries in a #MeToo Era
Should pastors adhere to the Billy Graham Rule when interacting with staff members?
At a critical point in the ministry of the recently deceased Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist and his team made a conscious decision to avoid interactions or meetings with women who were not their wives. They established what became known as the “Billy Graham Rule” to guard the ministry against even the perception of inappropriate behavior. This rule was supposed to safeguard team members’ marriages and ensure their ministry lives remained above reproach.
Today’s culture is struggling to maintain healthy relational boundaries. We’ve seen inappropriate conduct destroy careers, marriages, and lives in virtually every segment of society, from the media industry to the business world. There is also a reckoning in the body of Christ as the #MeToo movement has morphed into the #ChurchToo discussion. Recognizing these challenges should call us to attention. The Billy Graham Rule offers possible benefits but also raises questions regarding leadership dynamics and the ways in which we view one another.
Following are two perspectives on the possible value and challenges of adherence to the Billy Graham Rule.
Establishing clear and specific guidelines regarding interaction between men and women protects both ministries and marriages. Scripture commands us to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22, KJV).
Pastors and ministry leaders must be conscious and clear about the potential impropriety that can occur when men and women meet together without the company of their respective spouses or other third parties. A rule stating that leaders should not meet privately with members of the opposite sex establishes safeguards that benefit everyone.
Certainly, men and women will work together in ministry contexts. However, healthy boundaries reduce the likelihood of incidents or allegations that can damage ministry work and personal relationships.
When a meeting is necessary, a third party should also attend. Men and women should avoid riding in cars together, meeting alone (even in public spaces), or engaging in closed-door meetings of any kind. While this does not prevent pastors and members of their staff of either gender from engaging in work together, it may limit opportunity for senior leaders to train or mentor some staff members. Nevertheless, avoiding the devastation of impropriety, either real or alleged, is worth the trade-off.
The Billy Graham Rule offers possible benefits but also raises questions regarding leadership dynamics and the ways in which we view one another.
The recent resignations of prominent ministers with highly successful ministries should serve as a reminder of the importance of exercising wisdom and caution in this area. We can’t afford to risk even the appearance of wrongdoing. The potential cost to individuals and ministries is too great.
Certainly, this constrains how pastors and their staff, church members, and the general public engage in relationship, but it places a priority on the integrity of the leader, the marriages of all involved, and the work of the church.
The specific guidance of the Billy Graham Rule allowed Rev. Graham to live a life above reproach and have one of the most successful ministries of the modern era. Remaining above reproach for the sake of the gospel must be our priority as pastors and leaders, regardless of the potential sacrifices.
While the so-called Billy Graham Rule may appear on the surface helpful to pastors and other ministry leaders, its application can be as damaging to the men and women involved as any perceived impropriety their working relationships might generate. Imposing this rule in ministry contexts can create several problems.
First, it severely limits the ability of a senior leader to develop staff members through mentorship. When a man and woman can’t meet together in confidence as a mentor and mentee, it leads to disproportionate staff development and limits advancement opportunities for women.
Male staff members routinely have lunch and coffee meetings, travel together, and engage in other one-on-one interaction their female counterparts rarely experience. The direct and indirect development of staff correlates strongly to advancement within the church and broader ministry contexts. This puts female staff members at a significant disadvantage in their training and development. As a result, women miss out on recommendations and networking opportunities to develop their ministry calling.
Second, the Billy Graham Rule sets up an awkward dynamic between male and female ministers, creating a perception that women are dangerous or have impure motives if they want to engage in private meetings with men. In addition, it sets up the male leader as one who lacks either proper perspective on relationships with staff members or a lack of self-control to avoid sexually compromising situations.
Both scenarios objectify the people involved, but this especially impacts female leaders who are automatically suspect in their motives for wanting to be alone with a male leader. Rarely are women senior leaders subject to the same scrutiny as their male counterparts, which begs the question of whether the issue is more about power dynamics than sexual temptation.
Proper teaching on Genesis 1–3 and on Jesus’ interaction with women (including His one-on-one meeting with the woman at the well) provides a biblical framework for training pastoral leaders and congregations on healthy relationships between men and women. Such teaching is far more effective than imposing arbitrary rules that have unintended negative consequences.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 edition of Influence magazine.