Counseling, Pastorate, Theology

Pastors, the Graham Rule, and Wisdom

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.

Filed under: Counseling, Pastorate, Theology
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.