The Billy Graham Rule

The left is screaming misogyny while the right is upholding their “respect for their marriage vows”. I’m calling bologna on both.


6 min read

From the words of Billy Graham himself in his autobiography,

“We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”

This rule was designated as the “Billy Graham Rule” by others, not himself. However, it is based on his standard practices.

So, what are people clamoring on about in 2022? Well, it has and continues to affect women’s chances at career advancement for starters. While, to others, it is a worthwhile sacrifice to protect their marriage (understandably important).

I worked for a church that valued ensuring staff and pastors were above reproach, and I sincerely cherish those values implemented by our Senior Pastor because I do believe it’s important to protect ourselves from precarious situations where we’d be putting ourselves in any sort of threatening or tempting situation. But let’s be clear — that’s not what’s always happening when men invoke this rule.

One most recently referred to that has re-sparked this public debate is Robert Foster, running for Governor of Mississippi who refused to let a journalist (female) shadow him on the campaign trail unless she brought a male colleague along. He explicitly names his adherence to the Billy Graham Rule.

There are two important things to consider here, though I don’t hold them at odds — how this rule plays out in church leadership roles and how it plays out in corporate roles. It may feel more natural in the church to disallow a woman to meet privately with the (almost always male) pastor because of the depth of conversation/emotions that may be discussed.

When it comes to the corporate world that doesn’t hold biblical standards at the forefront of employment and leadership rules, it can be a bit more complicated.

Should someone’s personal beliefs be respected in corporate settings? Sure.

Should they hold someone else back from promotional opportunities or advancement? Absolutely not.

If they do, then it is a conflict of interest that I think needs to be resolved — either the male leader needs to find solutions themselves to ensure the respective female employee/leader is given the same level of opportunity/conversation/meeting space (i.e. why couldn’t Robert Foster just set some protocols to protect everyone while letting the journalist follow along the campaign trail?) or they need to graciously step aside and let someone else lead in their position who will respect the rights of men and women equally.

This rule proclaims two intrinsically sexist thoughts:

  • The male leader is untrustworthy because he is ALWAYS tempted by every woman around him and subconsciously looking for an opportunity to flirt with or swoon a woman other than his beloved.

  • The woman is untrustworthy because of her gender because women are ALWAYS seductive, sexy, and looking to tempt men away from their beloved (not to mention she may be married herself, but we don’t talk about that guy).

It’s necessary to say that humans—men and women equally—are sinful, fallen, and always susceptible to temptation, and boundaries are a GOOD THING.

It’s also necessary to say that not all men want to sleep with every woman they pass, and not all women are dressing to seduce or attempting to persuade a man to sleep with her. I mean, why do I even need to clarify that?

I do value the ideal of protecting your marriage at all costs — but if that is the hill you will die on, claiming there is no other workaround for certain business situations, it should be at your own detriment, not others. Unfortunately, this does become a game of power, and we know that there are a lot of men who hold that level of power over women looking to succeed and advance in their careers.

Ultimately, I actually find this rule a healthy standard BUT it requires an addendum:

  • If a male leader refuses to have a one-on-one dinner/event with a woman (prospective leader or employee), then there should be no such dinner/events with men one-on-one who are prospective leaders/employees.

I know there are a lot of “what if” situations here, but the reality is that many men have been given raises or promotions or just an opportunity to be seen and heard on a golf course with “the guys” while the women are just fighting every day to be seen and heard for the value they bring to the office/company.

  • The rule about not meeting with a woman one-on-one seems a bit extreme to me. It’s inevitable that there will be a time when there is a male/female boss/employee relationship, and that employee (be it male or female) shouldn’t be refused the same relational equity with their boss and same growth or mentorship opportunities simply because of their gender.

The Billy Graham Rule is a copout that attempts to be a “solution” while it ultimately demonstrates the cowardice of the one invoking it—not knowing how to use their brain to find a real, beneficial solution for all parties involved.

Let’s look at the scope of this rule in the church — most pastors are men, and most congregants are women.

What is the role of a pastor? To shepherd — to gather the sheep into the flock and care for them, to nurture them as they seek to grow closer to God, to teach them Jesus’s ways. Sometimes, that might mean engaging in conversations where the congregants need guidance on a variety of situations they face. This can be a gray area because those conversations can become overly emotional and excessively vulnerable.

When in a one-on-one M/F private conversation, I can understand why many pastors would want to invoke the Billy Graham rule, but as with the corporate scenarios, there needs to be an addendum, clarification, and a solution when it inhibits the other person’s growth.

I do believe there needs to be boundaries set in place for everyone’s role in the workplace, single or married, male and female, one-on-one or group settings. Those boundaries might vary, and that’s okay.

Pastors should likely only have meetings with female parishioners one-on-one in a public setting, like a coffee shop. And then, when they note the conversation needs more care and deeper conversation, they should have support staff and/or counseling that they can point the person to so they ensure everyone’s emotional safety and the person gets the help they need.

If you find yourself in corporate or church environments where you or someone you work closely with feels the need to have set standards to protect their marriage in regards to the Billy Graham rule, here are some workarounds to ensure everyone’s growth and leadership needs are met.

  1. Offices with windows; “No closed door” policies can be harmful for boss/employee relationships and creating an environment of safety/trust. A workaround here is a door with a window in it or a window with the blinds open into the bigger office space.

  2. Public settings—coffee shops, larger meeting spaces where other people are working, etc. This should be the norm — who doesn’t like a good cup of joe for their meeting?

  3. Grab a third—sometimes guys and girls just click and enjoy the same conversations, and as co-workers, that kind of connection should be encouraged, but again, with boundaries in mind.

    We had a rule at my last church for staff that no male/female could ride in a car together if one of them was married, and while that may seem a bit extreme, I appreciated it as a boundary I didn’t have to overthink for myself. If a guy and girl were working on a project and wanted to grab lunch, they just ask a few other people to join. It actually becomes way more fun that way, anyway!

  4. Talk to your s/o. I shouldn’t have to say this, but wow, I’ve watched enough reality TV and movies to know that communication is just not always that natural for people. They think something isn’t a big deal so they don’t say anything, while their partner is freaking out but doesn’t want to make it a big deal, so they don’t say anything. Listen, that never ends well.

If nothing else, communicating with your partner about who you connect with at work, who you’re going to lunch with, etc is so valuable. It doesn’t have to be a play-by-play, but just casual communication at the end of the work day or ensuring they know who you’re with if it’s for something bigger will just add bonus safety to your relationship health.

All that to say, Billy Graham set his and his ministry colleagues up with a standard that worked for them. There should always be a discussion of boundaries with your spouse, with your coworkers, and with your boss if needed. (Help HR’s job be easy.)

I think it’s important to ensure that just as emotional safety and relational/marital health are crucial parts of the boundaries equation, so is equal opportunity for growth, leadership, and promotion.

Don’t let your faith in God (or hope in Billy Graham’s lifestyle) be a cop-out for finding solutions that help everyone flourish in safe and respectful environments.