Pastors, The Graham Rule, And Wisdom

Here is the problem: the line between empathy can become blurry very quickly for a variety of reasons.

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 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. 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 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.

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