My cell phone gets me. If I type the letter “B,” it knows I probably want to text my husband. If I enter the word “World,” it suggests “Relief,” knowing I’m probably headed in that direction. My phone knows how to read the room and respond accordingly. It’s a skill much of evangelical Christianity has not cultivated, particularly when it comes to male-female relationships.
The Billy Graham Rule—the practice among male Christian leaders of avoiding being alone with women in any situation so as not to suggest the appearance of infidelity—often causes career marginalization for women ministry leaders. But might there be an alternative tenet capable of “reading the room” better? Can women achieve more nuance in their dealings with the opposite sex than this rule offers—more willingness to respond to situations as they arise, and read circumstances with a different set of lenses?
As a pastor whose husband is not a co-pastor, I need to be able to minister to all members of my congregation, male and female. I have to keep up with continuing education, training, and other meetings with my male colleagues. I can’t be hindered by false boundaries created to guard against anyone even thinking my behavior might be inappropriate—an impossible gambit if ever there was one. Like poor Harry and Hermione, I don't need reminding, “People will think you’re up to something!” if I counsel a man in my office.
Yet everyone needs healthy boundaries. To safeguard marriages and maintain integrity in our pastoral care—or other leadership—women require principles that get at the heart of our relationships preemptively. We can create guidelines for situations, rather than stringent rules collectively applied to all unforeseen events. Here are 8 guidelines I follow as I minister to men.
1. Cultivate your relationships.
For married women, healthy boundaries with other men are the result of a healthy marital relationship. This is where it starts and ends. The best safeguard against infidelity is focused time with your spouse. Work-life balance is hard, and relationships suffer when we don’t give quality—and quantity—time to the ones we love.
Infidelity doesn’t just “happen” when we get into a car with a man. It happens when we have left ourselves open to emotional need because of a lack of commitment to the work of marriage. In Harvard Business Review, Jackie and John Coleman suggest “scheduling” your spouse as well as actively bringing him into your work life—both suggestions I have put into practice. My husband and I talk about sermon plans and what gifts we see in church members. He is great at discovering alternative solutions I had not considered, as well as constructing sermon illustration ideas. Often, he will have noticed issues men are having before I will. My husband is an active part of what I do. (Conversely, I try to be active in what he does.)
For single women, taking care to fill emotional needs with healthy friendships can safeguard our hearts from feelings of inappropriate attachment to married men in our ministry. It takes work to seek out friends who will be those wellsprings for us, but it pays dividends in so many other areas as well.
2. Communicate with your spouse or accountability partner.
If I am meeting with a man for ministry or driving somewhere together, my husband knows about it. I don’t “check in” with him—we simply talk about our plans as a natural course. If I feel something is inappropriate or questionable, I talk it through with my husband. In general, spouses who communicate and are interested in what is happening in one another’s lives already have a relationship advantage over those who do not.
Nothing is hidden in this kind of relationship—we talk about everything. A fellow friend in ministry has an agreement with her husband that they will confide in one another if they ever feel attracted to another person. They have only implemented that rule a couple of times, but their vow not to hide a carnal emotion keeps their marriage completely above board. The National Healthy Marriage Resource Center suggests asking yourself if anything you say or do with another person is something you feel like keeping from your spouse—and warns this is a danger zone.
Counselor Dr. Chet Weld cites research suggesting “common ministry passions between the pastor and the affairee, which are not shared between the pastor and his/her spouse, is the biggest personal risk” for an affair—indicating a need for us to intentionally share our ministry interests and work with our spouse.
Single women can find a trusted friend with whom to keep a similar vow. Anything you feel odd about or desire to hide is a sign it needs to be shared.
3. Befriend spouses.
I will usually send a Facebook friend request to a wife first, and then to her husband. It offers her assurance I care about both of them as friends. Sometimes this isn’t feasible, such as if the man is single or if I don't know his wife at all. In most instances, I will make an effort to meet spouses and get to know them so everyone is comfortable and knows I support both of them.
4. Praise healthy relationships.
If you are married, let the church know your commitment to your husband. Model to them how a married couple holds one another up and respects one another. Model affectionate behavior. The men who come to our church see clearly I am not looking around—and also that I respect their marriages and expect to see them respect their wives.
Even more than this, demonstrate examples of healthy male-female relationships. Show the congregation how you or other women interact well with male staff members. Talk about how you work together as a team. Use examples of co-workers you know who interact in a healthy manner. In other words, normalize teamwork between genders. Assume it is expected, and teach people how it can work well.
5. Assess the situation.
If a man wants to meet me to talk about youth group volunteering or a job issue, that is what I do as a pastor, regardless of gender. However, I am not likely to counsel a man with marital issues alone if he is within ten years of my own age. (The 10-year limit is flexible, but it allows me the grace to tell a 50-year-old “no,” and a 30-year-old “yes” with a good explanation.) Since our church is small, chances are I am going to be friends with both spouses. If a man is unhappy in his marriage and is already my friend, I do not want to put him in any situation that might make him feel a greater emotional attachment to me, which baring his soul in counseling could do. I also do not want to have marital secrets that he and I have shared, but his wife—also a friend—doesn’t know about. In this instance, it is healthier to counsel both people.
As with any person, I will look at the context and make a wise decision based on it—not gender. If I know the person to have a history of sexual abuse, serious family of origin issues, or pornography, for instance, I will meet in a public place or with another person.
6. Keep basic physical and emotional boundaries.
I hug my male church members—in public. I would not do so in my office. An office is naturally a more intimate, private space, and more restrictions apply. I will counsel over the loss of a loved one, but I will not listen to endless complaints about a wife. There are lines not to cross, and we should know them before we need to know them.
Some of my female colleagues mention how they arrange their offices—setting chairs several feet apart or with other furniture between them—creating an actual physical barrier that says, “This is a professional area—not personal.” I have an oversized desk designed for teamwork and brainstorming, but it also creates a limit that clarifies my professional position and intent. One friend of mine rises to meet her male colleagues and church members at the door so she can choose her own level of closeness and take command of a situation.
7. Stay humble.
In seminary, one concept our spiritual formation professor emphasized was this: those pastors who accept their fallibility are less likely to fall. Those who think too highly of their own righteousness, he said, are the most vulnerable. I adore my husband and cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would be tempted to be unfaithful. Yet I cannot be willfully blind to the possibility, or it could blindside me. Humility is key. I admit before God and to another person I trust that I am not immune to sin. I ask them to hold me accountable and make inquiry from time to time. In fact, I have asked my entire church to tell me when they see my walk not matching my talk. I would rather hear it to my face—in relationship—than secondhand.
8. Refuse to listen to fear.
Statistics can unnecessarily alarm. Yes, pastors succumb to adultery. Yes, we need to be vigilant and guard our hearts and minds. There are statistics claiming anywhere from 3 to 40 percent of pastors have committed sexual sin. Obviously, we have some work to do to find the truth and correct the sin. It is real, but we honestly do not know how real.
I also know good, godly men and women. If I cannot love and respect all members of the congregation equally, what kind of leader am I? I refuse to lead with fear as a basis for why I do or don’t do something. To fear people is to send a terrible message. It is to tell my congregation neither they—nor I—can be trusted to be holy, which is contrary to what I preach every week. It is to tell the men I serve they are not first the image of God for me, but men.
I want my congregation to know I do not fear relationships with them—men and women. Fear is simply not a healthy way to lead people. Giving in to fear is usually a signal I have not cultivated the first and most important relationship—with God.
No one “falls” into infidelity, nor does it just “happen.” Inappropriate relationships begin in our hearts before they ever happen in our offices. Guarding our hearts with communication, transparency, and dependence on God are the best boundaries for healthy relationships.
Jill Richardson is a writer, speaker, pastor, and mom of three. She likes to travel, grow flowers, break into random musical numbers, and read everything. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, Earl Grey, the Cubs, and dark chocolate. She blogs at jillmrichardson.com.