During his 20 years as a manager in the Christian music business, Darren Tyler followed a version of what’s known in evangelical circles as the “Billy Graham Rule.”
He—and members of the bands he managed—would never eat, travel, or otherwise spend time alone with someone of the opposite sex while on the road.
It’s a boundary that just makes sense, says Tyler. And it’s one he follows while traveling for his current role as pastor of Conduit Church in Franklin, Tennessee.
“My wife never has to worry about what I am doing,” he says.
The Billy Graham Rule has taken a bit of beating recently, after a Washington Postprofile revealed that Vice President Mike Pence follows a version of the rule. It’s set off a fierce debate over whether the rule safeguards marriages from adultery, harms women in the church, or is just plain sexist.
But most reports have neglected to mention that there’s not just one Billy Graham rule. There are four. They deal with money, sex, power, and lies and were part of something known as the Modesto Manifesto. Set up in the 1940s, the rules were meant to keep Graham and his organization away from the pitfalls that have taken down American celebrity preachers since the days of Henry Ward Beecher and Aimee Semple McPherson.
Crafting a strategy for integrity
It’s hard to conceive of Billy Graham as a rock star these days, now that he’s the beloved patron saint of American preachers. But in 1948, he was young, handsome, charismatic, and about to become a household name, attracting crowds by the tens of thousands. That’s been a recipe for disaster for more than a few celebrity preachers.
And in those days, traveling evangelists were looked upon with suspicion, especially when it came to money and sex. More than one resembled Sinclair’s Lewis fictional creation, Elmer Gantry—a traveling preacher who loved “whiskey, women, and wealth,” as NPR once put it.
“Traveling preachers would take up love offerings and just pocket them,” says Marshall Shelley, who co-authored a book on Graham’s leadership style and a CT contributing editor.
That led to a belief that traveling preachers were just in it for the money, says Shelley.
So in 1948, when Graham and a group of friends met to set up the ethics by which they’d run his ministry, money—and not sex—was at the top of the list.
“Nearly all evangelists at that time—including us—were supported by love offerings taken at the meetings,” Graham later wrote about that meeting. “The temptation to wring as much money as possible out of an audience, often with strong emotional appeals, was too great for some evangelists. In addition, there was little or no accountability for finances. It was a system that was easy to abuse—and led to the charge that evangelists were in it only for the money.”
Graham decided that the funds collected at his crusades would go to the ministry—not into his pocket. Instead he’d draw a salary, set by a board of directors. And most of the funds the ministry relied on were raised by local churches ahead of time—rather than in offerings during the crusades.