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.)