I didn’t know it was the ‘Billy Graham’ rule. I thought it was just sage advice from my mom.
Twitter, at least, has been all a-flutter (a-twitter?) with the surprising and shocking (?) revelation that Vice President Mike Pence operates with a policy of not dining alone with women other than his wife. I’m stunned that this is in the least bit controversial. I’ve not heard his justification for his policy. I’ve only heard what others, some bitterly opposed, have said about it. But since this was my policy for many years, I want to toss a few words into the fray.
After college I had the wonderful privilege of spending three years teaching English to seventh-graders. I liked that age. I loved their energy and enthusiasm and I loved seeing their minds begin to engage the world around them. They were old enough to begin to have intelligent conversations but they had yet to inhabit the cynical, cool world of the older adolescent.
My mom had for many years taught that age, and as I began my career one piece of advice she gave me stuck: don’t let myself be in a room alone with a junior high girl. In her experience, even in the 60s and 70s, all it took to ruin a man’s reputation was a girl’s accusations. True or not they could stain and ruin a male teacher. She wanted to protect me from that.
As I transitioned from teacher to pastor that counsel stuck with me, magnified by the terrible track record of male pastors staying out of emotionally and sexually charged relationships with women. To not spend time alone with a woman – either in my study or over a meal (Starbucks was not a thing back then) – seemed at the time like a wise policy to adopt.
This policy did more than to protect my own reputation (and by extension that of the church). It gave my wife needed security. The tale is old as time, that a pastor under the guise of regular counsel of a woman moves from pastor to confidante to lover. And though I saw no reason that that would happen in my case, who does? It seemed wise to erect barriers that would give my wife an added layer of confidence.
My role was no where near that of a US Senator or Vice President. And I would never presume to demand that others embrace the rules by which I steered my life. But I understand how important reputation is and how easy it is, no matter who we are, to be careless in the preservation of it.
But as a policy it proved unsustainable for me. I pastored a small church in which I was often on site alone with a female administrative assistant or financial manager. Is there any greater stereotype than that of the pastor running off with the church secretary? But it was unavoidable, really, and so we did it. Not the running off, mind you. The being alone.
It was not only unsustainable, it was in the end unfair to women in need of spiritual and pastoral care. One could theorize that they could get that from their husbands or from other astute and wise women, but that was theory and not reality. My policy caused the neglect of sheep in my congregation in need of care. And so, eventually, I abandoned it.
I now meet with women, preferably in a public place (my mom’s voice is still in my head) when possible. Most of the time, my wife is aware, and she has the right and responsibility to speak to me should she perceive that any one relationship is receiving more attention than she thinks it should. I still am concerned about her sense of security.
Being Vice President invites the spotlight, and Mike Pence will no doubt have many things to answer for. But this should not be one of them. I can’t say if in his case he should or should not hold on to this policy. Looking in from the outside I’m inclined to say that it is impossible for him to do so. But I would never imply that his decision is reflective of weak character. It may be reflective of wisdom.
Or of listening to his mom.