Four months into a new ministry position (not in the church I currently serve), I reached out to my colleague. “Let’s grab lunch someday,” I suggested. Other staff seemed to come and go freely from meals and meetings, swapping ideas, covering ground together. I worked closely with this particular man, and we needed to forge a solid, professional relationship. I wanted to understand what motivated him, how he came at the ministry issues we were facing, and what his wife and kids were like. Spending the noon hour over a burger seemed a good plan. My invitation, however, was not accepted: “I won’t go to lunch with you. It will send the wrong message.”
He donned a pejorative tone and went on to explain that in Christian organizations men and women do not eat lunch together, nor do they ride in cars together, meet in an office with a closed door, or sit together at meetings. “Sorry. It’s how things are done.”
Having served in ministry for over a decade at that point, I was offended. I had never actually been served what is often called the “Billy Graham Rule.” I, of course, knew it existed, but it had never directly impacted me before. The “rule” goes something like this: to avoid temptation, or the appearance thereof, it has been said that Billy Graham never meets with a woman alone. Graham has done his best to avoid solo encounters with females—whether over lunch, prayer, dinner, a meeting, or any other occasion. He recognized that even a whiff of scandal could have unraveled the celebrated work of his crusades. I do not envy the tremendous scrutiny he has faced, a strain of skeptics and critics wondering if this famed evangelist is legit. For Graham, this rule has worked.
From Billy Graham to Jesus
Somewhere along the line, though, Billy Graham’s personal decision for his ministry became a “rule.” Under the power of fear and misunderstanding, Graham’s rule became indicative of how men and women should lead together in Christian organizations and ministries. At times, this rule has actually taken priority over the way Jesus related with women. Think about it: Jesus met alone with women like the woman at the well. He allowed a “sinful woman” to wash his feet with her hair. He consistently met with women, encouraged them in their faith, and partnered with them for kingdom work. Why are our churches, ministries, and Christian organizations less inclined to follow Jesus’ lead than Billy Graham’s?
The fact is that most Christian organizations have more male than female staff—especially at the top. When the Billy Graham Rule is enforced, then, female staff aren’t able to work effectively with those in the top tiers of leadership. Women are marginalized and cut out of opportunities to network, share their ideas, and advance in the organization. Even if women are invited to speak up or are represented at important meetings, the real decisions are often made over coffee, a long lunch, the hour-long car ride after a seminar, or 18 holes on the golf course. When women are erased out of these moments, organizations suffer.
Adhering to the Rule also infuses tension and fear into the DNA of an organization. Consciously or unconsciously, staff are told to view one another as temptations and threats rather than colleagues with brilliant minds and gifts for the kingdom. This actually makes working together to accomplish common goals more difficult.
The Rule also reflects negatively on the men who enforce it—a fact that many don’t consider. I honor what my colleague was trying to do when he made this statement to me. He was trying to do what he felt was right and protect both of us. My immediate reaction, though, was one of embarrassment for him. Instead of finding myself impressed by his fortitude and upstanding nature, I wondered if he had a secret attraction to our female staff members. I suddenly mistrusted him and worried about his relationship with his wife and family. The heart of the rule was to protect us from worrying about sexual temptation in the workplace. But enlisting the rule did the opposite: Now I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Many women who experience the Billy Graham Rule for the first time have similar reactions. Rather than praising the man who issued the edict, women wonder whether they should be worried about their coworker. Worse, the Rule actually makes many women nervous to be in any room with men, and they may begin to obsess over how to be appropriate and not appear to be a temptation—what they should wear, where they should sit, and more. Is this how men want to affect their female colleagues?
Who will model healthy work relationships?
The day my colleague threw down his edict, I dashed back to my office red-faced, grabbed my car keys, and headed out to grab a sandwich. The deli line was out the door, so I had a chance to stand and contemplate the crowd. Men and women stood side by side, scanning the menu and discussing chipotle mayo, smoked turkey, sales figures, and leadership strategies. These men and women worked for secular organizations, and they were free to swap ideas in public, learn more about their colleagues, and share a little banter outside the office. But me? I worked for a Christian organization. I stood in this line alone.
True, women and men do not always work together with integrity, but having the rule will not prevent this. If Christian women and men cannot model how to honor one another and serve together with integrity, who will? If we continue to hide behind the Billy Graham Rule rather than engage with our colleagues of different genders, we will miss out on the contributions that men and women bring together to the places we serve. Rather than let fear and mistrust inform our partnerships, let’s choose mutual respect like Jesus modeled when he chose to work alongside and honor women—even if that means going out for lunch.
Tracey Bianchi serves as the Worship and Teaching Pastor at Christ Church of Oak Brook (in the burbs of Chicago). For more musings like this, check out her latest book, True You: Moving Beyond Self-Doubt and Using Your Voice, or her website: traceybianchi.com.