Male Privilege, Ministry, and the Mike Pence (Billy Graham) Rule

Suzanne Nicholson

Vice President Mike Pence recently made headlines because he said he will not eat alone with a woman who is not his wife. This principle is modeled after Billy Graham, who refused to travel, meet, or eat with a woman alone.

To those on the outside of the Christian faith, this practice might look like a draconian, sexist philosophy that views women primarily as temptresses. Within many conservative Christian circles, however, Pence and Graham are viewed as trying to follow biblical admonitions to avoid any “appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22, KJV).

Nonetheless, an unintended consequence of the rule is the reinforcement of male privilege, that is, the societal advantages reaped by a man as the result of his gender. Within the context of ministry, where women still only comprise 25% of United Methodist clergy, the Pence/Graham rule benefits men in a number of ways:

  • Male pastors can easily meet together for mentoring relationships, whereas a junior female pastor would be prohibited from such one-on-one meetings. I recently spoke with a female student who lamented that she did not receive the same training in her internship as a male intern, because he was able to meet with the supervising pastor in one-on-one social settings and she was not. Thus, male pastors have more access to informal learning.
  • Many female doctoral students in biblical studies and theology do not have access to female mentors, since the vast majority of supervisors in these fields currently are male. If the Pence/Graham rule were applied in their situation, these women would not be able to meet with their doctoral supervisors alone in their office. Thus, male students have more access to formal education.
  • Sometimes the best ideas come from informal meetings, whether on the golf course, at the coffee shop, or over dinner. Male pastors regularly meet in such locales to brainstorm with a colleague; if the Pence/Graham rule applies, then a female pastor would be excluded from such sessions. Not only would she not be able to receive great ideas, but she would be limited in her ability to contribute great ideas. Thus, male pastors have more voice in planning and decision-making.
  • Female supervisors, whether head pastors or district superintendents, would have difficulty fulfilling their job descriptions under the Pence/Graham rule, because certain duties require closed-door meetings (e.g., annual reviews, disciplinary meetings, or simply providing a confidential opportunity for a colleague to let off steam). A male pastor once told me that he would not even meet alone with his female district superintendent without his wife present. (It made me wonder how a female pastor would be viewed if she insisted on bringing her husband to any meeting with her boss.) Thus, male supervisors have more flexibility in how they perform management duties.

None of this means that men and women should throw caution to the wind in their relationships with one another. As pastors, we are all too aware of the human propensity to sin, and thus we should be wary of potentially compromising situations. It does mean, however, that creative solutions should be found rather than hard-and-fast boundaries. For example:

  • The installation of office doors with glass panels allows both privacy for conversations and transparency for accountability.
  • Meetings outside of the office should take place in a public setting.
  • Clear communication with one’s spouses is essential. That is, a pastor should discuss the time, place, and approximate length of the meeting with his or her spouse prior to the meeting.
  • Trusted friends should be given permission to ask tough questions. For example: “Are you spending more one-on-one time with your coworker than you are with your spouse?”

If the church is sincere about including half of its population in leadership, then women should not be treated with suspicion or excluded from opportunities to learn, grow, and lead. Even in the patriarchal culture of the first century, Jesus was willing to engage in one-on-one conversation with a Samaritan woman while his disciples were away buying food (John 4). Because Jesus crossed social boundaries and engaged in theological conversation with this woman, she was able to proclaim the good news of the coming messiah to her whole community (4:39).

John’s Gospel also describes the resurrected Jesus as first appearing to Mary Magdalene when she was alone at the empty tomb. Jesus did not allow social boundaries to trump the spread of the gospel. Rather, he commissioned Mary to tell the disciples that he had risen.

Imagine how different history would be if the cry, “I have seen the Lord!” had been quenched.

Posted Apr 03, 2017

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