“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.