Healthy Boundaries and the Billy Graham Rule

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Earlier this year, a guideline often known as the “Billy Graham” rule came into the spotlight when it turned out Vice President Mike Pence claimed to follow the rule—never meeting or eating alone with any woman other than his wife. The guideline isn't uncommon in evangelical circles, often presented as an easy way to avoid sexual temptation, inappropriate relationships, or even the appearance of it.

But for a vice president to follow this guideline brought some of the problems with the “rule” to the surface. If a man with significant political power can freely meet with other men alone, but not women, that raises questions about gender discrimination.

As Pence’s revelation brought the conversation to the surface, many women described how much hurt the evangelical rule had caused them personally. The intentions might be good—perhaps knowing their own struggle, a hard and fast rule is “easier” in a way than more fluid judgment calls—but can easily feed into sexism and discrimination against women. The “rule” is directed only at men—limiting their access to women—not the reverse, which makes sense, because there is almost no field in which women could realistically follow the rule strictly and still have a job. Women need just as equal access to trained mentors as their male colleagues, just as equal access to their bosses as male coworkers. Strictly following the rule would seem to cause gender segregation in work settings instead of equal collaboration.

Beyond the serious issues of potential discrimination, the rule raises other questions about sexism and the status of women. If a man literally can never be alone with a woman without an undertone of sexual inappropriateness, women find themselves in situations where they are made to feel shame and stigma simply for being a woman, as sexual connotations are added to situations that should’ve been neutral. 

I’m very sympathetic to the criticism of the rule. Although I know the intentions of those who follow some version of the guideline are honorable, I also know firsthand how embarrassing, even painful, it can be to be the recipient of the “rule”—as if my simply being a woman is a liability to others. As Laura Turner of the Washington Post puts it, “For men to categorically refuse to meet one-on-one with women is often dehumanizing and denies the image of Christ that each person bears. As the philosopher Dallas Willard wrote in “The Spirit of the Disciplines,” 'Alienation from them [women] makes room for harmful lusts.' "

The rule raises the question, does it help men respond to their sexuality and attraction to others in a way that respects and upholds women? Or could it infuse fear and shame into friendships between men and women, and subtly imply women themselves are the cause of inappropriate thoughts or behavior? As Turner concludes, “The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but 'flee from temptation' does not mean 'flee from women.' "

But the flip side of the legalism and potential discrimination inherent in the rule is the widespread problems of leaders openly ignoring any sense of appropriate boundaries in relationships with the opposite sex.  In ministry, for example, church leaders who abuse may pretend to be “progressive” by freely meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex in the church—as a cover for initiating the grooming process and using their power to cross more and more boundaries. It’s also true that in ministry a vulnerable or codependent person might want a relationship with a leader that crosses emotional boundaries, if not physical.

Thankfully, there are many other ways to be discerning and wise and prevent potentially unsafe or unhealthy situations, without strictly adhering to a one-size-fits-all rule. For example, meeting in a public place or having a policy of meeting in places with open doors and windows is often an easy way for meaningful relationships and mentoring to take place while maintaining clear transparency.  

Safe Church provides an invaluable set of guidelines to think more deeply about how to discern healthy boundaries for each relationship, which is “less about rigid rules and more about a way of thinking about relationship (power, rule, expectation, perception, etc.).” For example, reflecting on whether the person you’re ministering to shows signs of emotional dependency can help discern whether one-on-one meetings would be most helpful, or perhaps referring the person to a more professional support system. Similarly, a leader needs to think through their own motives and feelings within a relationship—if the leader feels “indispensable” in the relationship—as if only they can “help” the person they’re ministering to—this can reveal a form of dependency or mixed motives on the part of the leader, making the relationship about them and potentially crossing emotional boundaries. Thinking through whether you would say or behave in a certain way if your colleagues or friends were there at the meeting can help clarify appropriate boundaries.  

Each of us has the responsibility to be both loving and wise in navigating relationships in a way that nourishes and upholds the freedom, dignity, and image of God in every person we interact with.

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Participant

Great article discussing a necessary issue. But what about the power of gossip and innuendo that leads to the maligning of a person's reputation? I've seen a few cases of this where a pastor lost their reputation, position and even calling. This applies to any person in positions of authority sometimes for as little as an off-handed comment. The sensitivity to offenses, whether real or perceived, leads to muzzling and inability to communicate. 

The Billy Graham rule was set up to avoid any possible maligning when their team realized how prominent Billy could become and thereby a target for malice.

Guide

Thanks, Henry. Your comments point to how important it is for churches to have a clear policy in place for handling allegations of harassment or abuse, to avoid conclusions being drawn based only on secondhand information instead of a thorough and careful process for assessing each situation. Bonnie Nicholas and Safe Church are always available to help churches both in creating a policy and helping churches take any allegations through a rigorous and careful process before any definitive conclusions or further steps are taken. 

Thanks posting Monica! I appreciate your nuanced thought. 

Personally, I do not like to be in an enclosed space (like an office without a window) with anyone, men or women. Fortunately, most office spaces have windows in doors and are often places where others may walk by, which give it public visibility. Moreover, I cannot recall the last time I ate alone at a restaurant. Normally there are people around, this is not “eating alone” - it is eating in public, with a private conversation. There are many ways to work without gender discrimination in our communities, while maintaining healthy boundaries.

Guide

That's a helpful, comment, Eric - exactly. The goal is creating healthy spaces and boundaries that work equally well with both genders. 

"If a man with significant political power can only freely meet with other men alone, but not women, that raises questions about gender discrimination."  Gender discrimination?  Really?  Give me a break.  A woman meeting alone with a male pastor has more power than you think.  If she doesn't like the pastor, all she has to do is make an appointment with him and then say he was sexually inappropriate.  The accusation alone would destroy him.  The article above also points out that "it’s also true that in ministry a vulnerable or codependent [female] person might want a relationship with a [male] leader that crosses emotional boundaries, if not physical."  If the male leader sets firm bounderies, he also sets himself to be accused by the female person who feels rejected and wants to get even.  No thanks.  The Billy Graham rule is there for my protection and I'm going to use it.

Guide

Thanks for your comment - as I mentioned in the article, I think the intentions behind following something similar to the Billy Graham rule are honorable and good, and far better than a lack of clear boundaries. The question of discrimination comes up primarily when it involves coworkers, students, or mentees, of the opposite sex -- for example, if in a work, education, or ministry setting women have to follow different rules than their male coworkers. There are many contexts in education and the workforce where following such a rule legalistically would be very difficult, even impossible, without it raising at least the question of discrimination towards female coworkers. It's good to keep this in mind, because in such settings, it could be illegal for women to be treated differently than males, which makes a leader vulnerable to lawsuit. But as Eric pointed out, there are many easy way to follow the common sense principle behind the rule's motivations of wise boundaries - not meeting alone with alone in an enclosed space, having a workplace that has windows and open doors, for more serious one-on-one conversations meeting in public, etc. The goal of this piece was to point out the limitations of a one-size-fits-all rule, and help us think about wise guidelines such as those offered by Safe Church to think through our own personal guidelines with discernment. 

Participant

Maybe Mike Pence has serious struggles with a temptation towards infidelity and this is what he has to do to remain "pure and blameless." I applaud his actions to do this in the face of mockery from non-believers (SNL and Bill Maher have had their fun with it). This article speculates about his motives by accusing him of holding to a caricatured Augustinianism instead of showing the charity that a brother in Christ deserves.

Guide

Thanks, Mark - I actually agree with you that Mike Pence was treated unfairly in the coverage of his adherence to this rule. I too applaud his desire to protect his marriage honorably, and think we have a big problem with lack of boundaries to where following something like this rule is often better than the alternative. I did reflect on how potentially the rule itself could feed into implicit sexism, but was not at that point speculating on Pence's motives, more on how other women have experienced the rule when it was directed at them. My purpose in the piece was to point out that following the follow legalistically could cause problems and potentially raise the issue of discrimination (especially in work or education settings). It's helpful for Christian ministries and organizations to recognize that it could be illegal to require female coworkers, etc to be held to different guidlines than male coworkers.  It'd be better, like Eric pointed out, to have a principle in the workplace that applies equally to both men and women (only meeting in open spaces, etc). I think the Billy Graham rule arose from honorable intentions and points to the need for wise boundaries, but wanted to point out the potential downsides and highlight Safe Church's resources for thinking through more flexible guidelines. 

Community Builder

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments on this article! It is an important topic. It's more complicated than it seems on the surface, which the article itself and the comments clearly show. 

I know many women who feel that their leadership potential is stunted by the fact that they are treated differently than their male counterparts. There may be fewer mentoring relationships and opportunities available to them, especially in male dominated positions such as pastors. In our culture, networking with others is an important part of job advancement. So, women can feel at a disadvantage if they are not allowed the same opportunities for networking and building relationships. This is a real issue, more than just a perception. And it may play a part in the economic disparity found between women and men doing similar work. We must be aware of these cultural biases, and work toward equal dignity and opportunity for all people.

At the same time, I applaud men for considering the issue carefully and taking steps to protect themselves from false allegations of inappropriate behavior, which is also a valid concern. It's a valid concern for women leaders as well. Anyone in a leadership position needs to consider how their actions are perceived and how they might be understood by others. Leaders should be an example to others, and in Christian ministry are called to be above reproach. It seems also important to note that Jesus was as concerned about our thoughts and motivations as he was about our behaviors (See Matthew 5). And so, it seems that knowing yourself is also important in making these kinds of decisions. If being alone with a woman, or a man, causes one to lust, than for sure, avoiding that situation all together is wise and good. Better yet, is being able to treat all people with equal dignity and respect - may we come to that place in our leadership. And I believe that an important part of that is maintaining a safe environment, which may mean meeting in public (you can have private conversations in public places), having windows in the doors, etc. And every leader should have those who can hold him or her accountable - so that when temptations present themselves, he or she has a place to go with that struggle. We need to hold our leaders accountable, in a gentle and restoring way - because our enemy is working overtime in this area. Our hope rests in our God, who is stronger, and is also always working on behalf of his people, his bride, the Church.

Honest conversation about this issue is a good step in the right direction. So, thanks again Monica for the article, and also to all those who weighed in with comments.

Guide

Thanks for this comment, Bonnie. You worded so beautifully exactly what I was trying to say. 

Thanks very much for this excellent piece of work Monika!  

As it happens this issue is not at all academic or hypothetical in my little corner of the world:  I work (mostly) alone in the upstairs of a church building that is regularly empty between 1/2 and 1/3rd of the work week.  In the past with 'safe-church principles' in mind, I worked with a fabulous female intern, and had to restrict her schedule to times in which we knew that Church staff would be in the building (office with an open door).  It was probably the strongest internship we've ever had, but there were very clear limitations due to the scheduling.  At the end of the internship the young woman was deeply complimentary about the experience but recommended that women not  serve in our office unless something could be done about the schedule restrictions.  That has, since then, restricted our intern pool significantly - this is deeply unfortunate.

So, Monika, given this article, and the deeply significant need we have for the full participation of women and men in our work, is there anything creative that we can do to make our place more Gender inclusive and fully appropriate from a safe-church perspective?  

Mike Hogeterp

Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, 

Algonquine Terrritory, Ottawa Ontario

 

Participant

Thanks, Mike, for relating the experience that exactly describes the dilemma we all face. We men either treat women as full equals without any boundaries and thereby provide the context needed for full implementation of their gifts; or, we place limits on interaction to prevent misinterpretation or even exploitation by less charitable persons. In well-populated, professional settings the first is easier to implement but in informal contexts with fewer people interaction between genders always seems to have traps that we need to avoid to maintain integrity in ministry. It's not just a matter of male hormones or propensities but includes that of community realities.

One of my concerns in my first response was to the sensitivity to such limitations being perceived as offenses. I really don't know how to deal with that. Somebody may be able to develop a way to accommodate every need.

Community Builder

I'm wondering if there was any conversation with the intern, and with others about this issue. I can think of various options off the top of my head, and in good conversation with others I'm sure there would be a lot more. What about flexible work hours, working offsite, or alone in the building when you were not there? Or, what about an office with a lock on the door? Same sex relationships must also be considered in safety planning. Has this been an issue with male interns or only female interns? If it's only seen as an issue with female interns, then that's a problem in my mind. There might be other ways to work around the concerns of having two people alone working together in a church building - a video camera in the office space? A quick-dial emergency phone number? And the trust level in the relationship must also be considered. I don't believe that completely risk-free ministry is possible - it is our responsibility to minimize risks as much as we are able. And I often say that risks must always be weighed against benefits in determining the best course of action; and if you're going to error (it's human after all) error on the side of safety. 

Guide

I think Bonnie's voiced all of the suggestions that come to mind for me too - I really like the idea of cameras if it is important for the internship to take place in the church building. If it still feels uncomfortable/unhealthy or potentially unsafe for a small number of people to be working together in the church building, which can be heightened if they're of the opposite gender, offsite meetings nearby feel like a good solution. Your questions highlight how important it is for all churches to spend some time brainstorming and strategizing to have workable solutions like these in place allowing equal opportunities for all people regardless of gender. We might not be able to eliminate all risk, but I honestly believe with some planning it is possible to open up many more opportunities for both men and women to work collaboratively in a healthy environment than we might've assumed. 

Community Builder

BTW: Safe Church Ministry has a webinar, Healthy Boundaries in Ministry Relationships, which includes handouts, that could be a helpful tool to begin discussion for church council and/or staff members and other ministry leaders. Transparent discussion might lead to greater understanding of some of the underlying issues involved, and/or be helpful in creating policies to help meet the various needs that are expressed. Regular ongoing Boundary and/or Ethics training is required by pastors in many denominations - a good idea I think.

Thanks all, your reflections are super helpful to us!  

 

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