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.
“They wanted to take whatever precautions were necessary to protect the integrity of their message,” said A. Larry Ross, who spent more than three decades as a spokesperson for Graham.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association later became a founding member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
Graham and his friends set up two other rules in 1948. First, they’d always seek to cooperate with local churches when setting up their traveling evangelistic crusades. They’d never criticize other pastors or churches. Running down other churches or pastors, Graham later wrote, was “not only counterproductive but also wrong from the Bible’s standpoint.”
Second, Graham’s ministry avoided “fake news” about their work. They were scrupulous in reporting attendance figures—often relying on data from turnstiles at a stadium or the reports of local official about crowd size. Any reports about number of conversions at a crusade were backed up by information cards filled out by converts.
For Graham and his associates, telling the truth even about the small things—like attendance—mattered.
In order to be safe, “we’d often round the numbers down,” Ross said.
All four rules worked together to help safeguard the integrity of Graham’s work, says Ross. That was the point.
“Mr. Graham and his close-knit team determined that integrity would be the hallmark of their ministry,” he said.
Following Graham’s lead today
Tyler says that the musicians he managed often played at Graham’s events. When that happened, he’d talk with staff members about how they handled ethical issues.
For those staffers, he said, the small things often mattered. Tyler recalls one staffer who put a picture of his family on the TV in every hotel room he stayed at—as a deterrent in case he was tempted to flip on a porn channel. Others would turn down upgrades at the rental car counter—out of concern that donors or folks who attended a crusade might see them driving a fancy car and wonder how the ministry was spending money.
At his church, Tyler tries to stay away from money matters. He doesn’t know how much individual members give and as long as the church hits its budget, he’s happy. The church’s books are open to any one who donates to the church. And the church files a 990 tax return for the Conduit Mission, a separate nonprofit that oversees its mission work overseas. (Notably, the IRS does not require that churches make their tax returns public. Ironically, the IRS recently granted the BGEA’s request to move from a nonprofit to church status designation.)
“If you don’t have anything to hide—why not be transparent?” he says.
Tyler also follows Graham’s rule for church attendance. They count attendance each week for planning purposes—especially for big events like Easter. Otherwise, they try not to talk about attendance numbers. There’s too much temptation among pastors, he says, to overinflate their church’s attendance as a point of pride.
“That’s why we don’t cook the books when it comes to attendance,” he says.
But not all of Graham’s rules fit today’s workplace, says Shelley.
For example, the rule about not meeting alone with someone of the opposite sex may not be appropriate, especially in a work environment where many women are in leadership roles and both sexes often work together on projects.
But finding ways for staff members to treat each other with respect and to create a team that has healthy ethics when it comes to sexuality, money, power, and honesty is still important.
“Graham was looking for a way to act with integrity,” Shelley said. “Whether you follow his rules or not—you still need to be looking out for integrity.”
Bob Smietana is a veteran religion reporter based in Nashville and past president of the Religion News Association.
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