I left home for college when I was eighteen years old, and I never looked back. I boarded a plane from Columbia, SC and flew all the way to Newport, Rhode Island. Is was my first time visiting that state. I was greeted at the airport by strangers in military uniforms, who didn’t seem happy to see me. We rode a white van to a military base where I began my check-in procedures. Once done, I entered a rectangle shaped room with tan walls, tan furniture, a small window, and two worn out twin mattresses. Thankfully, my roommate was a sweet and kind girl from Saipan. She brought joy into our room, and into my life.
Outside of that room, there were other rooms filled with men and women who are pursuing their dreams to become military officers. Most of the men in my “dorm” room were either competitive athletes or prior military enlisted personnel. They were strong, confident, sometimes overbearing leaders. They were also funny, thoughtful, protective, and compassionate. I especially bonded with the black men, because I found out very early that we were all struggling with the same stuff. We were homesick. We knew that the opportunity to graduate from the United States Naval Academy had the potential to change our lives. We wanted to do better for ourselves, our families, and our communities. No one wanted to screw that up!
Men and Their Bad Behavior
My life and reality for the next 11 years included living and leading along side men. In all that time, I only had an intimate relationship with one of them; I never felt like my life was in danger, and I was never sexually or violently harassed. I pause here to say two very important things:
I know several women that have suffered physical or sexual harassment or assault, and even rape in the military. It is a problem that needs continuous and serious attention.
On another note, there have been several instances over my 11 years of serving in a military environment where men have been accused of bad behavior, and once the case is investigated, we found that either the abuse of drugs or alcohol was at play, or it was a racialized incident. We need to be honest about the approach to these judicial processes as well.
Thankfully, that has not been my personal story. Because I have had healthy and mostly pleasant experiences working with men, I was caught off guard when entering different career fields where the behaviors were not healthy, and male and female interactions were not normalized in the workplace.
Christians at Work
Regarding Christian environments, I don’t find the Billy Graham rule particularly helpful for our mission work. For starters, this was a personal position that Evangelist Graham adopted for himself. As a married man, he elected not to travel, meet, or eat alone with any woman other than his spouse. Good for him! He was not saying that this was the golden standard for everyone. When I interviewed his brother-in-law (who was a part of Graham’s inner circle), Leighton Ford, for my A Sojourner’s Truth podcast, he affirmed that women and men can have healthy cross-gender relationships.
Secondly, rarely are the established rules regarding male-female interaction intended to protect the most vulnerable parties (i.e. the women or children in some cases). Oftentimes, they come from a poor view of women. They assume that women are temptresses, without acknowledging the responsibility that men have over their own minds, or their temptations to exploit or abuse their power. We need to first look at the heart of the matter before we consider our outward behavior.
Lastly, I know that God has a higher purpose and redemptive call for female and male interactions. So, part of my leaning into professional and personal relationships with men, which includes mentoring and sometimes sponsorship, is a testament to that higher calling. We have work to do, and if we are focused on our mission and our relationships are healthy, then that is also a testament to the goodness and grace of the Lord.
So, what do we do?
We are all in relationships with other people, and each of those relationships can impact the others.
Here are a few practices―not rules―that I have put into place in my personal life, so I can continue to work with integrity:
1. Keep the lines of communication open. I’m married, so talking with my spouse is an important step. Note: that communication is not gender specific. I’m an extrovert, which means that on a lot of occasions I am processing information outwardly. Oftentimes, I do that with my spouse. In other words, my husband knows who I talk to and what we are talking about. He knows who I went to lunch with and why. He doesn’t always ask, and he does not check up on me. I tell him, because he is my primary person and I want him to know.
2. Be wise and discerning. I deal with men, but I don’t deal with all men. Do a gut check. Married or single, you know when someone is flirting. If the both of you are single, and that’s what you are looking for, then reply accordingly. If either of you are married, then make it very clear that you have no interest in going down that road.
I’ve had occasions when someone was flirting, and in a very clear and professional way, I just let the person know that I wasn’t interested. I don’t deal with men who don’t respect the institution of marriage. I don’t deal with men who think they can disrespect me or my spouse, and I don’t talk about my spouse negatively to other people. I don’t want to give the perception that I am looking, or that any man can fill a gap or offer something better than what I already have at home.
3. Make your intentions clear. In any relationship, I like to know where I stand. Who are we individually? What defines our relationship? What are we called to do or be together? Of course, I don’t blast people with these questions on our first meeting. However, this is a part of my process for determining the purpose of the relationship. Some relationships are strictly professional; some are just for encouragement. Some relationships are temporary; others are long-term. There are some men in my life that are like brothers. Literally, we check in; we fight sometimes, we correct, and we love each other. I have male mentors. I mentor and coach men.
I think it is important to consider: Why and how do we keep showing up for each other?
For example, in my nonprofit, Leadership LINKS, Inc., we have women and men working and leading together as a Christian model and witness because in our culture, so much of our male and female interactions are met with suspicion. I believe that healthy, loving, and affirming relationships across genders is a testament of God’s redemptive kingdom work. That is our “why.”
Concerning personal relationships: When the man is married and the opportunity presents itself, I try to introduce myself to and establish a rapport with his spouse. When possible, I do this with my female friends who are newly married as well, because I value my relationships with them, and I want our relationship to thrive. So, if I value the relationship with my friends regardless of their gender, then I also need to honor the other important relationships in their lives.
What are some practices that you have used to establish healthy personal and professional relationships with the opposite sex?