My Experience with the Billy Graham Rule

There has been a lot of discussion about the so-called Billy Graham rule (or the Modesto Manifesto) since the Washington Post published an article about Vice President Pence’s use of it in his public/political life. As a pastor for 38 years I used a form of that rule, but with some contextualization and flexibility.


Some background first. When Graham was thrust into the national spotlight he sought guidance from others, as traveling evangelists were often seen as hucksters and manipulators, somewhat like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man or Elmer Gantry in Sinclair Lewis’s novel. The advice Graham received and fashioned into his rule served him exceedingly well. There was not been a hint of sexual or financial scandal in his six decades of pubic ministry. That is notable; his conduct was exemplary.


I adopted two parts of his rule. The first was not to have a meal with a woman other than my wife or immediate family members unless a third person was present and/or my wife knew about the meal (its purpose, place, and time). The second was never to touch church monies in public or in private. That two-part rule became part of the culture for our church staff and served well.


There were others cautions we took. Every office, study, or meeting room door in the church building had a window in it, with no shades or blinds. Thus, even if a woman and a man were meeting on valid church business, they could be seen by someone walking in the hallways. Further, when I would be meeting with a woman for church work in my study, which I did often, I would tell the office manager or another staff member that I was meeting with a certain person and the meeting should be over at a certain time. In most cases I could be interrupted by the intercom, a phone call, or a knock on the door (in most cases the door would be left open). If a woman sought pastoral counsel from me, I wouldn’t deny it to her, but would use these precautions, without exception.


There was room, however, for exceptions. My associate and closest working partner for 25 years was a woman. It made sense for us to drive to some meetings together, even if a third person were not coming. We would tell other staff members and/or our spouses where we were going, why, when we were leaving, and when we were expecting to return. If a meeting ran longer than planned, we would call one of those persons and explain why. One day a woman in the congregation called me in the late morning from her home, telling me that she had just found out that she had cancer. Through tears she asked to meet with me right away. She suggested a restaurant near her home. I called my wife and told her, as well as telling the office manager. I had lunch with that woman in a public place. If anyone I knew had come in, I would have greeted that person, but not told any details unless that woman directed me to. I would do that again, as it was an exceptional circumstance. If she were married (she was) and her husband were available (he was not at that moment), I would prefer to meet with both of them and suggest that.


I commend Vice President Pence for seeking to live in covenant faithfulness with his wife. I think his rule is far better than the rules, or lack thereof, some presidents and too many leaders have used or use in such matters (I am thinking of presidents from both parties, current, in the recent past, and in the distant past).


Church work and political office are special cases, different than most other business and workplace settings. When there is a hint of sexual or financial indiscretion from political and religious leaders, the press generally seizes it, and well they should. Those two professions, essential and vitally important in civil life, demand a level of trust based on character and integrity for optimum effectiveness. Businesses and other workplaces need to do their own contextualizing.


However, there may be unintended consequences. There are valid concerns when such a rule keeps women from information and access they deserve and need for doing their work effectively. There are valid concerns when such a rule allows an “old boys club” to operate behind closed doors. When the Graham rule is used in those ways, it is counterproductive to trust based on character and integrity and misses the spirit of a workplace where modesty and grace prevail. The reality is that in most church leadership settings men are in the dominance, numerically and in terms of office-based influence. That is changing, but slowly. There is a stained-glass ceiling. While Billy Graham is to be commended for avoiding any hint of sexual scandal, were there any women (other than his wife and daughters) regularly involved in his inner circle of friends and advisors? I expect not. The top level of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was and is dominated by men.


I have two concerns about what the Graham rule about gender guidelines does in perhaps an unintended way. The first is that gifted and called women may be kept from opportunities to influence the shape of ministries and participate in them as full partners. The second is that men and women, in general, see and experience life in different ways; we need each other’s perspectives and are better when we have them.


The principles undergirding my application of the Graham rule include these:

  1. Standards for sexual purity are not based on mistrust, but on reasonable modesty.
  2. When people in church leadership fall into sexual (or financial) indiscretions, the ramifications are enormous. Church membership is voluntary; when those in leadership break trust, congregations suffer. Regaining trust is a long journey.
  3. The right application of such a rule should never be the excuse for relegating women to second-class status or service.
  4. Women and men need other for wholeness and deeper perspective. Women and men tend to experience and understand life from different perspectives, not in competition, but complementing each other.
  5. God calls women and men to all roles of servant leadership in the Church. We serve as equals and partners in shared ministry. When this happens we reflect the original mandate given Adam and Eve to bear the image of God together, serve God together, and bear witness to our shared humanity and dignity.


I thank Billy Graham for his life of humble service and for using a rule that kept his public ministry and private life free from scandal and embarrassment. Finally, I am thankful for the strong and capable women of character and integrity that have enriched and informed every aspect of my life, public and private. Being the husband of one such woman, father of two such women, and co-worker with more such women than I can readily count has made my life fuller, richer, and better in every way.


(My early thinking in this paper has been shared with Kate Kotfila, my pastoral colleague of 25 years. She has contributed to this final edition, which has made the paper better than if I wrote it alone. But it is my work and she is not to be blamed for any parts that may be troubling to any readers.)

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