Pastor, You Have to Mentor Women, too

Lisa ordination“You have to avoid even the appearance of evil.”

“Make sure that there are some strong women that can mentor the girls in the youth group.”

“One mistake in this arena can cost you your whole career.”

It all sounded pious. It seemed like wise counsel. I certainly didn’t want to fall into sin or cause someone else to do so.

Probably the strongest example has been that of Billy Graham. “The Billy Graham Rule” was to avoid ever being alone with a woman that wasn’t his wife…not for counseling or a meeting or a car ride across town. It’s the norm for cross-gendered relationships among some groups of evangelical leaders. “If it’s good enough Billy, it’s good enough for me.”

In one sense this rule may seem pretty extreme. But the truth is that the rule has some analogies in the historical life of the church. Wesleyan class meetings were divided by gender. Monastic communities have been same gendered for the last 1700 years, though it isn’t unusual that male and female communities are built near one another and share ministry.

It’s not hard to make the case from Scripture either. Paul seems to suggest this in his instructions to women and the mentoring of young women. Some scholars suggest that the male and female disciples of Jesus traveled separately with Mary Magdalene as the leader of the first women’s group. The second century “Gospel of Mary” suggests as much and the Eastern Orthodox Church has long considered Mary this way. So on the surface it appears that there is good biblical evidence and historical precedence for putting distance between men and women in the church’s life.

There are also examples of men and women that pushed back against this tradition. In the 4th Century, Jerome was convinced that he should never be in a woman’s presence when the holy woman Marcella, reported to be Rome’s first vowed ascetic woman, convinced Jerome to serve as spiritual director for the group of women she led. Accusations of impropriety came but they knew that their community was honoring God with their work. And they were living such holy lives that no accusations could stand investigations.

Francis and Clare of Assisi also bucked the trend when they partnered together to start their monastic orders (the Franciscans and the Poor Clares). As far as we know, they were never accused of inappropriate relations in their own time. (Some biographers speculated years later but without merit.)

But these cases are the minority.

In spite of what might be an otherwise strong case to maintain these rules, I think it’s time that we rethink them.

I’m not saying that men mentoring men and women mentoring women is a bad idea. That should certainly happen and we might even want to continue to suggest that these are the primary mentoring relationships. In our ministry at the University of Indianapolis, our peer mentoring groups are same gendered. When I assign students with a faculty or staff person for mentoring, we almost always do so by gender. In five years, the one exception to this was with a student preparing for pastoral ministry: I assigned a male student with a seminary trained female staff member. It was an excellent pairing. I want my pastoral colleagues to consider making this a regular practice.

The two reasons are simple. First, pastors are not the pastor of only one gender (except those staff pastors that lead men’s and women’s ministries, but I bet even they willl tell us that their ministry is not limited that way). God doesn’t call any of us to shepherd half of the sheep.

Second, the implied prohibition to mentor women created by the Billy Graham Rule on the majority male pastors is limiting the gifted women that are called to pastoral ministry from receiving the mentoring and formation necessarily to fulfill their call.

Women across the country are hearing the call of God on their lives. Often they are begging for someone to invest in them in the same way that leaders are investing in their male colleagues. It simply will not do to have the pastor’s wife investing in this relationship. The pastor’s wife doesn’t know how to guide the board meeting. The pastor’s wife doesn’t know how to explain the complexities of theodicy. She doesn’t have an established routine for preparing sermons week after week. In short, she doesn’t know how to pastor (unless she is a pastor herself). So it’s not enough to suggest that a rising female leader will be mentored by the pastor’s wife or any other great woman in the congregation. She needs to be mentored by a pastor if she is to learn how to be a pastor.

Take the example of Jenny Rae Armstrong: Jenny is a 30-something mother of four that is currently earning her M.Div. and pursuing ordination. She is one of the best writers you will find in blogosphere. I have never heard her preach but if she can deliver half as well as she can write, then every church in America should want her as their pastor. Yet, she tells how she didn’t consider pastoral ministry for many years. When she finally did take the plunge to pursue pastoral leadership, she could find no one that would challenge her intellectually or professionally. You can read more of Jenny’s story and her call to action for pastor’s here. I’ve heard that story repeated many times over.

But this problem is not unique to the church world. Every male dominated profession has to deal with the reality that the future of women’s leadership depends upon men that are currently in these leadership roles finding ways to invest in future women leaders. We cannot imagine that only Christian leaders are concerned about whether people think they are having an affair or actually having one.

Kate Ashford refers the readers of her Forbes article to the wisdom of the Center of Talent Innovation for some best practices. They aren’t that different from the protections suggested by some in the church world. Have regular meetings at regular times without impromptu mentoring sessions. Meet in a public place where it is obvious that you will be seen such as the coffee shop near the office. Introduce your families to one another so that there is no mystery about your spouse or theirs.

The difference is that these guidelines are set up just on the other side of allowing meaningful mentoring relationships. Billy Graham’s Rule has no such space.

It’s time to stop sexualizing every relationship between male and female. If there is any place that these relationships should be able to happen, it should be within a community of those who radically follow Christ. It’s time for male pastors and leaders to set up relational boundaries that are on the other side of the Billy Graham rule for the sake of the church’s future. We need the women leaders that will be at the heart of that future.

For all that I have written on Women in Ministry.

If you think the Bible says that women should be pastors, see my series: The Bible Says Women Should Lead.


  1. Cassandra Wright says

    For most of my life, some of my best friends have been men. I have never been in a situation of mentoring, but I worked along side my male boss with no one else for years. I spent many hours with our male veterinarian when my cat was sick, we became friends. He would often spend the night, and be there in the morning after my husband left for work. In all of these situations there was never a thought of doing anything we shouldn’t have been doing. I think that it is just ridiculous that mature Christian men and women have to set up these barriers. If we cannot trust and respect each other, what does that say about our relationship with Christ? No, we are not fully sanctified yet, but this sets our sights so low. One of my complaints for years has been that the Mars/Venus approach to relationship and sexuality is absolutely opposite of what God intended, and certainly not what the Man said when he saw the Woman. There is no good reason for us to not see each other as equals, brothers and sisters. We are much more than sexual creatures. The world may see man and woman that way, be we should not.

  2. says

    ^ Preach it Cassandra!! Thank you Pastor Gibbs! I’ve been preaching this for years! now I am once again laity, and once again being ignored by pastors with wives who feel threatened! In God’s name, what about Christian integrity?? Boundaries are essential, but good grief! A male pastor can’t meet a female church member or leader in a public place for lunch!? I’ve had pastor refuse to give me a ride home in an EMERGENCY, refuse to counsel me if there was not another woman present, not be able to do visitation if a person of the other gender wasn’t present! Hey, GUYS!! It’s not 6th grade and I don’t have COOTIES!! Even as a pastor I was treated like I was second class by some male pastors. Oh, and SINGLE women??? don’t EVEN go there! Single women, laity and clergy alike, are not hugged, touched, affirmed, helped, or in anyway included as equals by male clergy! Exceptions are rare and if there are any, I would love to hear about it!

    Women, especially single women, need an affirming male presence in their lives to help them see that they are not broken vessels cast aside, that they have worth and value to Christ’s Church and to the world. They need a male HEAD, to guide them in the absence of a husband or father. Without that leadership, they will flounder and many will be lost. Include your wife in that relationship, build a relationship of trust. Use wise boundaries, but not to block them out, to protect them like the sheep that they are. The shepherd doesn’t use fences to keep the sheep away, but to protect them from predators. The shepherd sleeps in the sheepfold with the sheep, not isolated from them. Boundaries are to protect from harm, not keep people out!

    GO! Meet her for lunch! Fix her sink! Change her oil! LISTEN to her! TEACH her! Develop her into the leader she was meant to be! Take your wife if you have to!

    Men, MENTOR your WOMEN. ALL of them!

    Am I passionate about this? You betcha!

  3. says

    As a female pastor, I say Amen!!! It saddens my heart that the majority of men have so little faith in God that they think they cannot control themselves around women. God gave each and every one of us the strength to resist all temptation. Besides that, why is sex on the minds of so many Christians? God did not create us for sex, He created marriage for sex. He created us to worship Him and have other sisters and brothers in Christ. I don’t think it’s the women that mentoring, it’s the men. Men need to see that women are half the population. Men owe their very life to a woman. And we all owe our lives to Christ.

    • roze4jesus says

      Totally agree with you. As a female pastor I have a lot of men to care for in my congregation too. We are a community of believers that live radical lives for Christ. All of us men and women together made this community. We are God’s Holy people, His Kingdom on this earth. In Eph Paul writes, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” We must not be afraid of what people will think or say. When we come to Christ, its not about us anymore. We live for Him, “For me to live is Christ.” How can we become imitators of Christ if we only counsel or care for one gender. Many women followed Christ all through His ministry. They were on the streets with Him.

  4. Alice says

    This sounds great, but still leaves the question I have…where do I find someone to mentor me as a female with a call and heart to preach but no one to guide? Like Jenny, I have put off the call to ministry but know that if I do not move I and I alone am to blame for my lack of obedience.

    My pastor is great. He has granted me the future opportunity to preach, but quite honestly, I am scared and could use encouragement and guidance on the little and big things that I will need to learn that someone else has already learned. Taking online classes has allowed me to earn my degree and learn a lot, but has not afforded me personal relationships or hands-on experience. The people with God’s fire in their belly and the practical experience I am drawn to as possible mentors either are too busy or have the issues as above with the stigma that men should not mentor women.

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