Pastors, The Graham Rule, And Wisdom

It was announced this week that another pastor was recently removed from ministry. It has happened before and, sadly, it will happen again. As I write, a series of cases are running through my mind but one of the themes that unites them is that ministers put themselves in jeopardy by making foolish choices. Before I make my case let us consider some of the criticisms of the Graham Rule, which says that men should not be alone with women who are not their wives. One argument says that the rule is unfair to women since it segregates them from the same pastoral care that men receive. It also is criticized as impractical since, in late-modern life, men and women frequently work together as colleagues including private meetings, dinners, etc. A third criticism is that it tends to cast females as seductresses. Fourth, and finally for our purposes, it is criticized for misidentifying the problem, which is said not to be men being alone with women but in the heart. If men’s hearts are pure, then there is no reason why men and women should not be able to meet privately.

Before responding to the criticisms let us consider one of the situations that has led to the end of otherwise productive pastoral ministries. A pastor, who is happily married, is contacted for counseling by a woman who complains that her husband is abusive. They meet first by telephone, then by video chat, then personally. After a couple of months, however, they begin having an affair. It is discovered and the consequences to the woman’s family are as destructive as they are for the pastor. Consider the young pastor who, in his first real counseling session, meets with a young wife, whose husband was neglectful, and, as it turns out, having an affair with his secretary. It is an emotional meeting. The pastor feels empathy for the woman. She is crying. He is crying. It might lead to something untoward—it does not—not for sexual but for emotional reasons. Almost as soon as the meeting is over the pastor realizes how foolish he had been, how easily things might have spun out of control. Thereafter, he resolves never to meet alone with another female, never to place himself and a woman in such jeopardy.

Similar cases could be multiplied. Pastors know that what I am saying is true. It is a matter of wisdom. A now-deceased pastor friend confessed to me in his 60s, “I used to be more selective about the women I find attractive. Now they all seem attractive to me.” Men who pastor are still men. They become pastors because they become convinced that they have an internal call to ministry and that sense of calling is confirmed by an external call from the church. Most of the time, pastors are moved with compassion for those with whom they come into contact. Pastoral ministry is a helping vocation. Listening to people confess their sins, fears, and struggles necessarily creates a kind of intimacy. We hear people’s darkest experiences and fears. If hearing those things does not move one to compassion, sympathy, and empathy, one probably should not be in ministry.

Here is the problem: the line between empathy and inappropriate feelings can become blurry very quickly for a variety of reasons. God only calls sinners to pastoral ministry, which is often a demanding, high-stress vocation. The pastor’s marriage can too often become one of the casualties of ministry. What happens when the pastor’s marriage is not perfect, when he and his wife just had an argument because he had an emergency hospital call last night and now a counseling meeting this morning? When is he going to have time for her and for the children? After the counseling session, the female counselee reaches out to touch the pastor’s hand softly to say thanks for meeting with her and for listening to her so attentively—something her “slob of husband” never seems to do—and there’s a little electricity, a spark. There is an understanding look, a glance, a connection. Nothing happens right away, but as he goes back to his home office he thinks about that moment and so does she. We know how this story ends.

This is why there is a Graham rule. Certainly it has to be applied with grace, charity, and wisdom. One can imagine ways the rule could be used to justify cruelty. Of course, such abuses are not what I have in mind. Further, the world has changed since Billy Graham began ministry, thus making the application of the rule more complicated, but as far as I know, there were never any allegations of immorality against Graham. The scenarios surveyed here have centered on counseling because this is where and how ministerial indiscretions often happen. In just about every case of which I have heard counseling was involved. There are other kinds of cases, e.g., pastors and their secretaries, pastors and a member of their staff (e.g., a musician or children’s ministry director) but even these cases share commonalities with the counseling scenarios: too much time alone, the development of emotional intimacy, empathy, misdirected affection.

Does the Graham rule adversely affect female counselees? It may. There are some ways to mitigate the problem. One counselor I know only meets with counselees when his wife is present (not in the room but about the house). Another way is to make use of modern video technology. Just as police interviews are recorded on video, some pastors have a video camera in the counseling room where the video is stored remotely for his and her protection. Other pastors only meet in some public place, e.g., a coffee-house or a restaurant. We have guidance in holy Scripture, which says, “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3–5). Having an older woman with some advanced theological education, who is equipped as a counselor, might resolve many of these issues. Perhaps the pastor and an older female counselor might meet together with a female counselee. None of these solutions is ideal but they are preferable to private meetings which sow the seeds of sin and destruction.

Perhaps the Graham rule does create awkwardness in our late-modern culture but divorce and being defrocked is also, to say the least, awkward. Does the rule presume that all females are Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:7–18)? Not at all. Rather, the intent of the rule is to recognize history and reality. Male-female relationships are different than same-sex (not homosexual) relationships. Relationships between men and women are not the same as relationships between men or relationships between women.

The fourth objection is the most powerful but also ultimately insufficient. To say the obvious: we live in a fallen world. Male-female relations have been complicated since the fall and they will not become simple again until the new heavens and the new earth. It is true that all human relationships are complex but male-female relations are especially so. As suggested above, adulterous relationships (especially among pastors and counselees) do not always begin as a sexual relationships. Often they begin as emotional relationships, which, left unchecked, can become sexual relationships. Objection #4 has some weight. The problem is the heart but the pastor’s heart is corrupt and so is the counselee’s. Yes, the pastor needs to check his heart but the objection (at least as I understand it) seems to underestimate the chemistry can develop between a man and woman that would not ordinarily develop between two heterosexual men or between two heterosexual women. It is hard to quantify this chemistry but one would think that anyone over 30 would have enough experience to recognize it.

One solution is accountability. In the nature of things, pastors are practically self-supervised. They function as if they were self-employed. Many work partly out of their home but meet with parishioners and others away from home. They see their supervisors (the ruling elders) weekly but in the nature of things it is almost impossible for ruling elders to supervise the day-to-day work of the pastors under their care and supervision. Yet they can help by keeping a regular (even weekly) record of counseling appointments and contacts with whom is the pastor meeting, for what purpose, and under what circumstances. Expanding the counseling staff (as suggested above) might also alleviate some of the challenges. Of course, if the minister is determined to get around guardrails, there is little that can be done but then we are looking at the sort of fundamental heart-problem envisioned in objection #4.

We need to reconsider the biblical qualifications for pastoral ministry. In 1 Timothy 3:2 Paul says that the Episkopos (ἐπίσκοπος) must be “above reproach” (ἀνεπίλημπτον). He says the same in Titus 1:6–7. Paul tells us what this means: “the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable” and “his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination…he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain.” Some of these qualifications are easier than others. Monogamy would not seem to be too much to expect but “sober-minded” and “self-controlled” are more difficult. Debauchery can be hard to detect but typically someone in the congregation (e.g., the church secretary) knows about it but does not say anything out of fear or a misplaced loyalty. A quick temper and drunkenness are also symptoms that a man is not qualified or if he is already ordained and serving, is stumbling badly and about to go off the rails altogether. This is not a call for a Spanish inquisition but it is a call for godly wisdom, for realism, and in some cases, for re-engagement with the daily life of the minister.

When a minister falls it is an occasion for reflection, for self-examination, and for reconsidering whether the way we are conducting our ministry is wise and godly.

Thanks to Le Ann Trees for her editorial help. Any remaining errors are the sole responsibility of the author.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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18 comments

  1. Hi.
    Would you consider writing a review of Aimee Byrd’s latest book?

    Sincerely, Armen

  2. A very well written article which all sessions and presbyteries should read and digest as well as individual ministers. Thanks Scott, and greetings from the land ‘Down Under’

  3. So sad that in this sinful world, women, especially singles and widows are necessarily deprived of pastoral counselling that men take for granted. But God promises to be the husband to the widow. He is always ready to counsel us by the work of the Holy Spirit through study of the Word and prayer. God knows what is best for us, and our circumstances are no accident. Private meetings, that could invite sin, are a dangerous way of trying to get around those circumstances, as though we are wiser than God. It should not be a surprise when sinners fall into sin, so we had best avoid it.

    • Hi Angela,

      I don’t think that women should be deprived of pastoral counseling. I do think, however, that we should be wise about how it’s done.

  4. Thank you, we do need to be wise about pastoral counseling with women. It does however mean there will be some awkwardness and added difficulties involved, that are always unique to that situation. I have resorted to, surprise, surprise, writing out my concerns and questions. It took my pastor by surprise the first time, and he didn’t quite know what to make of it, but now he seems to accept it. I actually find it helps me to think through my concerns so I can express them more clearly, especially if I consult the Word and ask for God to guide me.

  5. You have convinced me that the “Graham Rule” is the worst except for all the “Rules” for pastoral/female private counseling sessions.

  6. This is so helpful, I hope it is widely read and considered thoughtfully. I think at the root of the ‘friendship between the sexes’ is a strange sort of pride, though maybe not a conscious pride…almost as if it’s about our rights to do what we want without considering how vulnerable we are. It seems as if those who are pushing this movement think that those who disagree are advocating for ‘avoidance’ of other people, as if living in paranoid fear. I don’t think married men and women should ‘avoid’ one another, but I do think they should avoid compromising situations. The Graham rule, while not an explicit biblical command, follows the biblical principle of considering others above ourselves and not putting ourselves in any situation where we might be tempted. It is to have the humility and wisdom to recognize how easily we can fall.

    I really appreciate how you articulated that affairs do not typically begin with sexual attraction, but an emotional attachment. The only way emotional attachments are nurtured and grown is through time spent together, thus pointing to the need to be on our guard.

    Thank you for this!

  7. Very good. Thanks. It’s easy to talk about how things ought to be in an ideal situation, but we’re not in an ideal situation. And yes, the problem is in the heart, of course. But the problem in the heart is not so easy to just eradicate, and thus the wise man doesn’t give the remaining corruption in his heart so many opportunities to express itself.

  8. The problem is in the heart is exactly the issue behind our failings. Or its in the flesh or in our weakness. And we know that in this earthly tent, we have weakness. We must sleep enough, eat enough, exercise for strength, or our bodies fall apart. We must guard our hearts with all diligence also due to weakness and how we can go astray. Guarding is good. As we care for our bodies because of weakness, we must guard our hearts above all for out of them flow the issues of life. We don’t leave off care of the body and expect good. We should not leave off guarding the heart, and expect good. If our guarding offends, and we are told that’s a heart issue; well yes it is! God not only said, flee temptation, but taught us to pray that we not be led into temptation.

  9. Aimee Byrd’s book is an excellent resource for examining one’s own heart on the issue of same gender friendships as well as opposite gender friendships. (I use gender in the traditional meaning.) The situation for pastor’s is different altogether, as this article points out. My father was a pastor for over 50 years. He did not have a Billy Graham rule, b/c that was not his temptation. (You know the old joke about pastor’s and their 3 sins.) Now regarding Billy Graham, I understood that his rule was not about safe guarding his marriage so much as to keep him from being photographed with a woman popping up out of nowhere, in a hotel, or elevator and purposely creating a scandal. Media and tabloids were eager to catch him off guard and make fake news out of it. He had a staff that would check his hotel rooms and other spaces that he was to occupy. It was more about guarding him from slanderers. Now did that have the effect of safe guarding his marriage, well yes it did. But I was more impressed with what he said publicly about his wife, Ruth, than any rule that was devised for his reputation as a respected public figure. He probably said more endearing things about his wife, than any other person on planet earth. So pastors, if you spread the good word about your wife, women are less likely to see you as a target, if that is their motive. And you will have a solid reputation for doing so. And it will help you to be a more outward facing pastor, not intimidated by appearances, or speechless in the face of awkward moments. We have all experienced unwanted attention by others. Women can suffer a great deal of this from men. The best cure is to be upfront with the person about your marital status and loyalties. Sometimes you may have to just walk away. Under normal circumstances, friendship should be a Christian virtue, the norm in our churches. The exception should be the inappropriate attachments. We ought to pray that God will give us wisdom to flee from evil intentions and be models of respect and good will to all. As to Christian counseling situations, you cannot equate that with friendship. It is a professional situation. Counselors are trained to use whatever precautions they deem necessary. “The Billy Graham Rule” is the wrong rule in this case. There are no tabloids afoot with cameras. It should probably be called the “counseling alone rule” and there are many such rules even for secular counselors who must observe professional standards. A pastor ought to have some counseling training in seminary or by some other means before launching into this area alone.

    • Melissa,

      I look forward to reading Aimee’s book. Here I am offering advice on the basis of years of experience as a pastor and as a sometime counselor. What you say about the Graham rule is interesting and bears further investigation. Be that as it may, it seems naïve to reduce male-female relations to a matter of the heart because, even for the redeemed and regenerated, the heart is still corrupt. This is why the category of wisdom is so important.

      I agree that the rule that I’m advocating here, whatever one calls it, could be abused. In the article I encourage us all to use it graciously and wisely. Any rule can be abused but a good part of wisdom is realism about the way things are, about what we are as fallen people living this side of glory.

      Take a look at the linked article by LeAnn Trees, who addresses male-female relations from a female perspective considering the emotional and psychological aspects of the dynamic.

    • I recently watched a you tube interview where Ames Byrd interacts with her two male co-hosts, Tod Pruitt and Carl Truman from the podcast, Mortification of Spin, on Cairn Center for University Studies Presents. The giddy laughter and banter in this interview was uncomfortable to watch. I have not read her book, so I cannot comment on what she says exactly about male\female relations outside of marriage, but if this interview is an indication of how she thinks men and women may interact outside of marriage, she is presenting a very troubling example. The fact is we are corrupt sinners that need to avoid temptation and even the appearance of evil. Thinking we are really not so bad, and that we are above temptation gets us into trouble every time.

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