Why I don't want my male colleagues to follow the Billy Graham rule

I spent last week at the ELCA’s National Youth Gathering with a group from my church that included two other adult leaders. As part of this event, teens from across the country came together to worship, learn, and serve. We invaded a city and stayed in its hotels, where we relaxed and processed.

Every night, our entire team piled into my hotel room for processing, something that I strongly believe is the most important part of any event. One night, after the teens had left, I asked my colleague, Joe, to stay behind to figure out some logistics for the next day. Another morning, Joe stopped by my room to discuss something else. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized we’d been in a hotel room together alone.

We’ve also been in cars together alone. Since my husband and I have only one car, there have been several times when Joe’s picked me up and driven me to church on a Sunday morning when I’ve had to be there early so that my husband and toddler could join us at a more reasonable time in the morning.

What’s more, we’ve also traveled to and from conferences together… Alone without other colleagues or our spouses. And we’ve been known to go out together for a drink at such conferences, sometimes with others but sometimes just the two of us.

In many church contexts, these encounters would be frowned upon because Joe’s male and I’m female. According to the Billy Graham rule, male leaders should avoid spending time alone with women they aren’t married to.

As a female, this rule has always frustrated me because when followed, it excludes me from conversations that happen in cars, hotel rooms, and over drinks between male colleagues, who often (sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally) make decisions during such encounters. I don’t want to be kept out of the room where decisions are made simply because I’m not male.

Beyond that, though, the Billy Graham rule also offends me. It suggests that two grown people can’t control themselves; that if two people are alone together, they’re naturally going to end up in a sexually compromising position.

That’s nonsense.

I respect and trust Joe.

I know and respect his wife.

I love and respect my husband.

And I trust and respect myself.

Because all of these things are true, I trust Joe and myself to be alone together. And so do both of our spouses.

I’m thankful that I work for a denomination – and in a setting – where no one questions when Joe and I are alone. When people see us together, even when we’re laughing and having a good time – they assume it’s because we’re colleagues and maybe even friends who genuinely enjoy one another’s company.

Ultimately, for all of its good intentions, it seems to me that the Billy Graham rule has done more harm than good. Rather than protect women (like we need protecting), it’s excluded us from important conversations.

What’s more, it’s made an idol out of our sex-crazed church culture and forgotten some of the basic principles found in Scripture like

- Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

- And Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

As a female, my gender is not something to be ashamed of.

What’s more, as believers, we are called to sharpen one another, not only others who share our gender. After all, Proverbs doesn’t say, “As iron sharpens iron, so one male sharpens another.”

In the moments we've been together alone, Joe and I have sharpened one another, exactly as Scripture implores us to do.

Over drinks and in the car, we’ve called out each other’s weaknesses and affirmed one another’s callings. We’ve also vented (and more than once, kept one another from making stupid decisions), hatched plans, and dreamed together about how to make our respective ministries better. We've figured out how to work together well.

We’ve made each other better. In the process, our ministries – and our congregation – have reaped the benefit... something that would never have happened had we followed the Billy Graham rule.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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