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Friday, November 18, 2016

Rules of Engagement

I haven’t always been a raging feminist.  OK, let’s be real.  I’m probably still not exactly a raging feminist, although I do talk pretty big.  I spent a large part of my early adulthood proclaiming that I would be completely happy if I was barefoot and pregnant for the rest of my life, and then I actually brought five people into the world to prove it.  And I stayed home with them.  And I homeschooled them.  And I bake awesome desserts and make 21 cheese mac & cheese and homemade pizza and fried chicken from scratch.  I like to scrapbook.  Crafts are fun.  Go ahead left leaning friends, shame me if you have to.  But you might want to read the rest of this, first.

When God called me to the traditionally male dominated vocational field of theology, I was actually a little bit blown away.  In addition to my earlier tendency to fit neatly into conventionally female roles, this is probably the part where I should admit that I had to drop out of my high school speech class, because it literally made me sick, and I took my general ed. speech requirement for my undergraduate degree online. 

So let me get this straight, God… you want me to preach… and speak… and teach?  You want me to spend the rest of my life standing up in front of groups of people and making words come out of my mouth?  OK, whatever.  Who am I to say no?  Bring it on…

Oh, friends… never say that.  The whole, “bring it on,” thing…  It sounds so cool and tough and strong, but it’s overrated.   You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into!  I promise.

Some time back, I wrote a post about some of the unique challenges with which I think female theologians come into contact.  It can be found here.  At the time, I thought I had solved the awkward problem surrounding the Billy Graham Rule.  You’re going to have male colleagues and friends, I said.  You’re going to have lots of male colleagues and friends, I said.  Be cautious, but don’t worry about it too much, I said, because surely everybody ‘gets’ this.  We’re all adults.  In the world of theology, I would hope that at least most of us are adults who are trying our very best to serve Jesus and live holy lives.  We can be friends.  It will be OK.

I recently ran across a couple of articles that I thought were excellent examples supporting this line of thinking.  They can be found here:

I also recently attended a conference that was specifically geared toward women in ministry leadership.  While it was incredibly refreshing to sit around a table with other female pastors, it was also something of a relief to hear them talk about the male colleagues, friends, and mentors in their lives.  No fear was expressed.  Not one person said something like, “I am so afraid of meeting alone with a male colleague, because I might be tempted.”  Not… one…

I started to think to myself, “Maybe we have finally turned the corner,” but I wasn’t certain.  Not yet.  I like research, so I thought to myself, “Maybe I should just take an informal survey.”  In hindsight, perhaps I should have left well enough alone and gone on living in my happy little bubble where men and women both recognize the value of friendship and do not worry about the drastic consequences a cup of coffee might bring.

When asked about the Billy Graham Rule, and interactions with male colleagues, these are some things I heard from women (whose names are being kept confidential):

“It would make it nearly impossible for me to do my job if I had to follow this rule.”

“I believe my voice in the workplace was limited by not being involved in these ‘unofficial’ meetings.”

“If I couldn't have those interactions there is no way I could be anywhere near as successful in my job/workforce.”

“The wife of one of my male colleagues made a comment after a few weeks that (my colleague) and I were a very asexual sort of team.”

“It's almost like they don't see me as a woman and it makes it easier to be successful.”

“What does it say about my character, my Christian witness, that I can't be trusted to have an appropriate conversation/interaction with a man whether I am alone or in public? I have found myself in conversations alone with women that are more uncomfortable than 95% of those I've had with men.”

“I was the victim of abuse in ministry settings and blamed myself… I felt that the rule protected men from me.”

Holy… Cow… 

I almost threw in the towel on this piece after all of that, and maybe I should have.  But I didn’t.

Interestingly, not one single woman I spoke to took someone with her when meeting with a man, because she felt unsafe.  I might come back to that.

When asked about the Billy Graham Rule, and interactions with female colleagues, these are some things I heard from men (whose names are also being kept confidential):

“I saw the rules largely as a way of being ‘above reproach.’"

“Men fall into that trap much more often than women.” 

“It kept us from being in situations where people could speculate about what might be happening behind closed doors.”

“It’s OK to break the rule in a crisis.”

“I don’t want to be emotionally intimate with anyone other than my wife.”

“I'm not sure this is a hill I want to die on these days, but I don't necessarily disagree with this approach.”

In everyone’s defense, I’m pretty sure we have a serious communication problem.

My assessment here is that we see men sharing concern over temptation, general public perception, and the potential for immoral behavior.  Even though some of the conversations were frustrating (admittedly, I had to step away on a couple of occasions, because it was making me pretty hot—and not in a tempting kind of way), I can see why they don’t want to die on that hill.

Unfortunately, women are dying on the hill, because we’re looking at this from a completely different perspective.  We’re not even considering temptation and moral failure (although I am going to say something more about that in a second, here)!  The vast majority of us are just considering how we can best do our jobs and maybe… maybe… crack the glass ceiling!  Realistically, I think most women who work in male dominated fields want to be able to have the same conversations with their male colleagues that they would have with female colleagues, and they want their male colleagues to have the same level of friendship/attachment with them that male colleagues have with one another (not to be confused with the same level of intimacy they have with their wives or girlfriends or whatever).  That sounds fine to me, completely appropriate, but the problem comes in when people don't seem to understand the principles of mixed gender, platonic relationships.  And that’s a real thing, friends.  True story.

Now, let’s touch on temptation for a moment.

I was actually really disturbed by the one quote, “Men fall into that trap much more often than women.”

I feel very certain of a couple of things.  First, men do not fall into that trap much more often than women, because most of the time there must be a woman involved for a man to fall into that trap (and vice versa)!  Infidelity is not generally happening without the involvement of (at least) two people.  This brings me to the second thing of which I am sure.  I did not interview any rapists for this piece.  What naturally follows is that in order to have a problem, at all, we have to have two willing parties.  The chances of this are infinitesimally low.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and without aiming to destroy anyone’s self esteem here, I think if everyone took just a moment to be slightly self-deprecating, we would realize that most of us are not attractive enough to be home wreckers!

I’ll go first.  I am in my mid-thirties (OK, pushing late thirties, but humor me), the mother of five children (totally takes a toll on the body and mind), overweight, Type A, suffering from adult onset acne, avid reader of YA fiction, and an introvert.  The majority of you are not going to be able to come up with a description that is that great, because I am, quite possibly, the safest woman in the world with whom someone else’s husband could have coffee… or even lunch…  but I’ll bet some of you can get close.

A friend of mine recently made a correlation between temptation and chocolate saying, I don't keep bags of chocolate in the house because I know I'll be too tempted to eat the whole thing. I like to pretend I have that kind of self-control, but I don't. So I just don't put myself in a situation where I'll eat a whole bag.”

The sentiment is honorable, but friends… we’re not chocolate.  I was going to insert something in here about also not being potato chips and the “Betcha can’t eat just one,” slogan, because I thought that was for Ruffles, but it wasn’t, so never mind…  The point is, at this stage we’re more like carrot sticks or maybe even boxes of raisins.  I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind.  I’m not saying we should meet behind closed doors with complete strangers.  I understand the reality in which we live where an accusation can be just as devastating as a conviction.  Believe me.  I get it. 

But coffee?  In a public place?  With a colleague?  Talking about church policy or sacraments or even your family vacation, complete with pictures of the kids?  Nothing about that screams, “Let’s have sex!”  And thinking it does simply does not give anyone the credit they deserve. 



  1. No comments after nine days? Where are all your fellow sufferers, L.?

    Love your thoughts here! Even as a layperson, I have many times been frustrated by my lack of access to male pastors. And amused by the implication that someone as unattractive as I am poses a threat to his marriage. And angered by the implication that HE has to be on high alert because I have no moral character of my own and it's only his barriers that are keeping us from falling into sin.

    Then the whole thing just gets awkward.

    The weird thing is that it's primarily in the church where we're all saints that it is a problem. Out in secular life, I just assume men will respect me as a person and don't worry about being chaperoned.

    Always enjoy your thoughts.


    1. Thanks, Marsha.

      I think I may have hit some nerves with this one!

      You make an excellent point about this issue being most prevalent in the church. How does that even make sense?


  2. Personally I feel like the feminist movement has ruined a lot of things for women. The Proverbs 31 woman was every bit the amazing woman we all should attain to and probably never had to shout it
    out to the world all of her accomplishments and fight for them to be recognized as equal to a mans. She just did it lived it and was it.

    1. sorry I do t know how to edit these and my sentence structure is a little messy 😊

  3. The feminist movement can be so geared to "having to prove oneself" that women can too easily forget that they already are.

    1. Rita - Thanks for these thoughts. Most women I know are not trying to prove themselves as much as they are interested in being a part of the conversation at the table. But this post is, in many ways, unique to assumptions in the world of vocational ministry. The vast majority of people I talked with, outside the church, had less of a struggle with communication, which I found to be a point of interest.


  4. I find it absurdly childish that men and women in the ministry can't be friends. We'll never know just how negatively affected ministry has been but not having the balance of women's voices - whether through friendship, or as women in official roles.

    1. Laurel -

      Thank you for these thoughts. I am encouraged that things are getting better in many respects, but we still have a long way to go.