Having read a few opinions about the hoopla over Vice-President Mike Pence’s application of the so-called Billy Graham rule, I’d like to complicate this picture with a story from my own experience.
- I firmly believe in and actively support women in ordained ministry and in women operating in any walk of life to which they feel called.
- In my mentoring of students (mostly undergraduates, but not entirely) over the years, I have consciously included women and men.
My purpose, then, is to think about whether or not some of the allegations about the impact of Mike Pence’s avoidance behaviors are warranted. One criticism is that Pence’s practice, although laudable from the standpoint of his putative personal temptations, etc., nonetheless risks contributing to the structural evil of sexism.
Let’s not make more of the Billy Graham/Mike Pence rule than we should. A story from my own personal experience, I think, helps to show why.
I was a very young pastor serving two rural/small town congregations. (Joni and I were married, with two small children.) One night, around 10:30, the parsonage doorbell rang and there stood a female church member with a friend who had recently started coming to our church. The friend who lived in a neighboring town a few miles away had told the church member that she had been raped that morning on her early morning walk. I asked a few questions (e.g. “Have you reported this to the police?” etc.) and went over the resources available. After doing all we could in that moment, we agreed that we would check in with the friend each day for the next few days.
After the initial steps had been taken, the woman asked if she could meet me for counseling. (Caveat: I have never used the term “counseling” for pastoral conversations with parishioners. I’m not licensed. I don’t do therapy and never did.) We met in my office at the church for these conversations. Now, because I served a small church, no one else was in the building at these times, and even though the parsonage was next door and Joni was only twenty steps away, we were in effect meeting privately.
We had a handful of conversations. I learned that, though she had informed the police, she had not contacted the women’s crisis center, nor had she gone to the doctor and did not intend to do so. She preferred to talk to me instead. I knew that my skills were limited, so I tried to nudge her toward the women’s center and other, more qualified counseling. Her responses to these suggestions alternated between mildly combative and tearfully pleading.
One afternoon after maybe three or four private sessions with the victim, I was working on a sermon in the church office and got a knock at the door. The man who stood before me told me that he was an officer with a state law enforcement agency investigating the crime and that he needed to take the typewriter (that’s how long ago it was) from this church and the one from the other church I served a few miles out in the country. The victim had reported that she was receiving obscene letters. Investigators had concluded that the letters had been typed on one of the two church typewriters.
You might be asking, how could a rapist who wants to torment his victim further get access to a church typewriter? In small town, rural culture, at least in those days, lots of people have/had access to church buildings, which are used for all manner of non-religious purposes, so it was not out of the question that someone might have access to a church typewriter without our knowing.
As the investigation narrowed its scope, the woman admitted that she had fabricated the whole account. She and her husband were having relationship troubles and the rape story was a cry for help. She had typed the letters herself on the typewriter in the country church. Although we were all relieved that she had not actually had to endure the trauma of sexual assault, it was a sad, sad situation.*
I was so naive that the implications of this scenario did not dawn on me until the investigation had ended. It then hit me: If, at any time, the woman had wanted to implicate me as the assailant, she could have done so. I had met with her privately several times. We met in a church office. The letters came from a church typewriter. If, at any time, she had wanted to implicate me as the assailant, she could have done so.
And if she had, my very young ministry would almost certainly have been finished almost before it got a good start. Even though an investigation would have shown that the allegations were baseless, doubts about my trust (the betrayal of pastoral trust is absolutely the worst of cardinal sins) would most likely never have gone away.
If Mike Pence (and his spouse) believe that applying the Billy Graham rule is appropriate for him to avoid temptation and the possibility of the appearance of evil, it obviously limits the good outcomes that might transpire if he felt more secure in meeting with women privately. It seems to me a stretch, however, to conclude that he thereby contributes to disadvantaging women and, in a sort of backhanded way, also treats them as sex objects.
I return to my earlier qualification. Over the years, I have not followed the Billy Graham rule. I have “met privately” with women in my office or in otherwise completely appropriate situations. As a United Methodist clergy who has taken ministerial ethics training, and as one who learned by personal experience very early in his ministry that some situations can go bad in completely unexpected ways, I’m exceedingly sensitive to such situations.
So, could we give Pence a pass on this one? People can find all kinds of good reasons to criticize him, as we do anyone in high-profile positions. This particular topic seems a bit of a stretch.
(*Nota bene: Let me anticipate one possible objection. By telling this story, I am in no way suggesting generally that women fabricate sexual assault stories or am I otherwise attempting to derail criticisms about patriarchy. I am only trying to show from a personal experience why I think some of the criticisms toward Pence fail.)