Moving Beyond the Billy Graham Rule

by Leanne Weber | January 29, 2020

Editor's Note: This is a Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winner. Enjoy!

I am at the weekly prayer meeting that all church staff are required to attend. The leaders like it when spouses come too, but they understand that work and family obligations sometimes do not allow this. I am the only woman on staff whose spouse does not also work at the church. We are a one-car family, and my husband works at a group home forty-five minutes away from the church.

I take a deep breath and scan the room, hoping to see another woman or a couple that I can catch a ride home with after the meeting. Otherwise I must sit in my office until almost midnight waiting for my husband to pick me up because, although it is not official policy, church culture dictates that a man and a woman who are not married to each other should not be riding alone in a car together after dark. How would it look if someone from the church saw this? What if riding alone with a man who is not my spouse causes one of us to sin?

Usually I can count on at least one or two women being there—what Pentecostal church does not have a plethora of older women on their prayer team? But tonight is one of those rare nights when it is just me, our male pastor, and a few male deacons. I feel awkward asking if we can make an exception just this one night. I am tired and have two services to conduct in the morning. But will I sound too eager to ride alone in a car with a man? If I am rejected on the basis of propriety and avoiding the appearance of evil, will they go home and tell their wives about the hussy in charge of children’s ministry who dared ask to get in the car with a man who is not her husband?

When I was growing up, the “Billy Graham rule” was held up as the ultimate model of integrity. People thought it was wonderful that Billy Graham never got into a vehicle alone with a woman who was not his wife. People were amazed that he would flag down female staff members to check out his hotel room ahead of time, lest someone tried to plant a woman in the room so that he could be accused of impropriety (allegedly, this was attempted a few times). People were impressed that he and his wife lasted “till death do us part,” and that he never had to go on television and tearfully apologize for a scandal like some of his counterparts. His ability to remain faithful to his wife was attributed to the fact that he did not spend time alone with women. At all. No matter what.

What people today often fail to take into account when extolling this practice is that Billy Graham started his ministry in a different time. Traveling evangelists had a reputation for “falling into temptation” on the road. There were very few, if any, women on staff at evangelical churches in the 1950s and 1960s. It makes sense that there would also be very few reasons, if any at all, why an evangelist needed to be alone with a woman in any kind of professional setting.

Today, things are not the same. My own denomination has ordained women since its inception, and most churches I have been a part of have had at least one woman on staff. Is the Billy Graham rule still a practical policy to have on the books in light of this? I would argue no.

Let me make it clear that I do believe in the sanctity of marriage and the importance of setting boundaries with your spouse regarding how you spend time alone with other people. In our marriage, we both have friends of the opposite sex, and our position is that as long as the other one knows about it and would be welcome to come along, it is fine to grab a lunch or a quick cup of coffee with a friend. Other friends have different convictions, and we defer to the one whose standards are the strictest when making plans.

Working in a church is not the same as casually grabbing a bite with an old friend. It’s a setting that requires both professionalism and intimacy. On a day-to-day basis, church staff members are in positions where they need to be alone with people. If a church has a mix of male and female pastors on staff, there are going to be one-on-one meetings.

I would hope that lead pastors are consistently mentoring all staff members and not making exceptions based on gender, but unfortunately this is often the case. It would not be fair to a female lead pastor who is trying to develop her pastoral skills to be relegated to the spouses’ tea party or craft session instead of the pastors’ meetings at conferences simply because she is the only female. It is equally unfair to a male pastor who could be delegating some of his responsibilities to a female associate pastor, both to help her grow and to lighten his workload.

What happens if the youth pastor is female, and the father of a student stops by for advice and insight on a violent video game his son is interested in? How does she meet with him privately if she is strictly implementing the Billy Graham rule? How about when a female pastoral intern needs to clarify something in the sermon notes she has been asked to type up by a male pastor?

In my own experience, I am thankful that the Billy Graham rule was not taken to an extreme. The church where I served was not unreasonable; there were many times where I needed to meet with my supervisor to discuss issues that had no relevance for other staff members. We had a large number of single parents, where having both mom and dad in on a meeting was simply not going to happen. On the other hand, I was a member and lay leader in a church where any encounter between a man and a woman was suspected as having ulterior motives. Billy Graham’s name was not invoked, but “how men are wired” was discussed at length, and the responsibility of keeping men from straying was placed entirely on women.

In secular workplaces, it is expected that we will have both male and female colleagues, and it is also expected that everyone will treat each other with respect. There are policies and laws against any type of sexual harassment and discrimination, but “temptation” is not treated as the norm. While the secular workplace is not a utopia, and “boys clubs” certainly still exist, employees at least have their human resources department to appeal to if they believe they are being discriminated against based on their gender. No system is perfect, but in my husband’s place of work, it would be unacceptable for him to refuse to work with a female colleague because he is trying to “avoid the appearance of evil,” or “keep himself from being tempted.” From a strictly legal standpoint, sexual harassment and discrimination laws apply to those employed by a church, but as believers, shouldn’t we be held to an even higher standard in our expectations of how we interact with one another? I think we should.

What if we stopped treating each other with suspicion, and started seeing each other as truly equal in the sight of God? We are not breaking our marriage vows by rising above temptation and working together as men and women. We need to see our colleagues, regardless of gender, as equal coworkers and partners in the kingdom of God rather than as a “distractions.” We must dare to follow Jesus’s example from Scripture when he spent time alone with the Samaritan woman (which was two strikes against him!) without any thought of what others may think of him. Worrying about what others think is not the best way to set workplace or church policies.

Strictly considering the church, do we really want to employ men and women in our churches who are so fragile and susceptible to falling into sin that simply being alone with someone is enough to send them into a tailspin? Perhaps it is time to take a look at our hiring practices and make sure we are hiring and ordaining women and men of integrity who are committed to staying true to their spouse regardless of who their colleague is. Of course, there are going to be instances of impropriety, but I am choosing to be optimistic enough to believe those instances are in the minority. When setting classroom discipline policies in children’s ministry, I make the rules with the majority in mind, not the occasional unruly child who is not going to respond no matter what we do or say. Setting policies about how people in the church interact with one another based on a false assumption that every relationship is likely to become sexual is foolish and does a disservice to those who are walking in integrity and simply doing their jobs.

So where, specifically, do we go from here? How do we move beyond the Billy Graham rule without compromising propriety and integrity? For pastors hiring male and female staff, here are some ideas to consider:

  1. Encourage your staff members to set standards with their own spouse and to communicate those standards to others.
  2. Make it your policy to assume the best of your staff in all areas of conduct, including their interactions with the opposite sex.
  3. Assign tasks to staff members based on their gifts and qualifications, not their gender.
  4. Make a plan ahead of time to decide how you will handle sexual misconduct, harassment, and discrimination and put it in writing.

We in the church who continue to enforce the Billy Graham rule have fostered an atmosphere of distrust, not giving godly men and women the credit they deserve for doing the right thing. Billy Graham was an incredible man of God who was operating based on standards that he and his wife set together. Billy Graham set a policy that worked for the context he was in, not a policy for generations of ministers to come. It is important that we begin building an atmosphere of trust and cooperation between male and female colleagues in our society, but especially in the church. God has created us as equals and given us gifts according to what he wants us to accomplish. Common sense, respect, and personal integrity should win over suspicion and distrust every time.


Find more winning entries from CBE's 2019 writing contest here.