The first time someone suggested to me that I meet with Simon one-on-one, I thought it was a little strange. Mostly because it felt weird to meet my male campus minister to talk about my issues as an 18-year-old girl. Nonetheless, I needed some advice, and people raved about their time with Simon.
So I got his number and sent him a text. He answered.
Per his instruction, we met in an area that resembles a food court on our campus. Walking in I felt uncertain– I’d been close with my male youth ministers in high school, but we didn’t casually grab coffee when something was going wrong. What was I supposed to say? How much should I share? I didn’t want to come across as a “problem” member of our ministry, especially to the man who ran it.
I sat with Simon at a table near the edge of a crowded room, his Bible on the table, and quickly relaxed. Simon emphasized that he cared about me and my faith, and I believed him. He had remembered my name after our first meeting, addressed me by it whenever he saw me, and always inquired about my life.
Many minutes passed at that table and though I had come for advice about a friend, I instead found myself sobbing as he opened my eyes to crushing burdens of my own. This was not the encounter I’d expected. Honestly, it wasn’t even the one that I wanted. Yet it started a desperately needed process of healing. Simon’s listening ear and gentle questioning had uncovered a pervasive problem in my heart I had missed.
This is the beauty of faithful ministers of the gospel: through the power of God they become agents of His healing and building. This power supersedes divisions, including age and gender, which can foster awkwardness between student-minister and student.
How do male ministers effectively care for their female members? I don’t have perfect answers. Even so, my ministers have all been men, and I hope to humbly offer insight from the perspective of a female student.
Rely on the Gospel to Bridge Differences
Sin is the root of the division we experience in relationship with one another. Yet, Jesus overcame sin because he lived perfectly and died as a sacrifice for us. He rose again to life, and the Father graciously adopts all who believe this good news into His family as children.
This adoption brings reconciliation– those who were once strangers are now brothers and sisters. God designed two genders to display His beautiful image. Honor that different genders require different approaches, while remembering that we are united by a common purpose and holy kinship. Rely not on your own words and efforts but on scripture and the Holy Spirit. As documented in Acts, God will weave us into a single community when we remain responsive to His Spirit.
Intentionally Seek Out Connection
Your students are probably more afraid of you than you are of them. Often, girls have a tendency to shrink back, not wanting to bother anyone, especially those in power. To some, you’re unapproachable simply because you hold a leadership position.
People feel more comfortable coming up to people who show interest in them, and because it’s your ministry, the burden of beginning a relationship will be yours in your students’ eyes. Everyone has something they could talk about for days– for me it’s Carolina basketball and the enneagram. Because I’m emotionally connected to each of those topics, bringing them up wins you automatic brownie points and trust.
Be Vulnerable Without Oversharing
The Christian lifestyle requires vulnerability, but it’s especially important for those in leadership. Members of our ministry trust Simon because we know he isn’t perfect and he’s the first to say it. Ministers need to be above reproach, true, but they don’t need to be superhuman. Attempting to convince your students that you hardly ever sin will discourage them and discredit you. Our debt for every shortcoming has already been paid for on the cross; this is our ticket to freedom, and it empowers vulnerability.
I hope you see the best in your students, but I also hope they let you see the worst. These are the places in desperate need of love.
That said, there is a difference between healthy vulnerability and oversharing. If you have wrestled with sin or issues similar to that of a student’s and it’s beneficial to share, then do. But your students don’t need to know the intimate details of your marriage or friendships. As Christians, we’re called to bring our darkest parts into the light, and you need friends that are safe havens for confession. However, your students, especially those of the opposite gender, are not those people.
Maintain Healthy Boundaries
Oftentimes male ministers rely on older girls to minister to the other girls in their group. It is right that older members, if they are able, be encouraged to take on leadership roles, but this becomes dangerous when they cross the line from student-leader to leader. Student-leaders need great attention from ministers because they are the hands and feet, multiplying the fruits of their labor. There will be many young women who have gifts useful for ministry, but don’t leave them to do it alone. Conversely, some students aren’t especially gifted for leadership. Don’t pass over the quiet, shy, or unorganized because they aren’t natural leaders; every student has something essential to contribute.
Additionally, boundaries are important for creating safe environments. One-on-ones between male ministers and female students can be great but require common places like coffee shops for the comfort of everyone involved. Furthermore, ministers must be more thoughtful about boundaries for younger students. Simon’s one-on-one approach with college students would be inappropriate with a much younger student like a middle schooler. Interacting with female middle-schoolers should look more like approaching them in group settings, attending their sporting events, and being part of small, Bible-centered cohorts with them.
Consider the Impact of Earthly Fathers
People view male authority figures through the lens of their experiences with earthly fathers. For those with a father, he is the most salient example of what a man is, for better or for worse. Be mindful of how you come across in light of students’ past experiences.
Sometimes it’s a large trauma, but it may be something small. Personally, my father is wonderful. However, he’s brilliant and accomplished so I spent the majority of my life trying to present only the best parts of myself so I’d be “good enough.” This was a skewed perspective, and one that we’ve worked through, but it’s still hard to resist the urge to perform for him. The same principle carries over into male authority figures in my life, ministers included. I have to check my motives, ensuring I’m not trying to earn their approval by displays of great spirituality, wisdom, service, etc.
Acknowledge When You Wound Students
As a human, and definitely as a minister, you’re going to hurt people. Typically, it will be your female students who are the most sensitive to your words, actions, and even lack of action, and many times they will be reluctant to vocalize this pain. Combat this by fostering open and honest dialogue with your students.
When you cause pain, apologize. I’m one of many students who carries deep scars from ministers, and their apologies have healed me greatly. Those who never acknowledged the pain they caused are still sore spots. It’s a hard and long battle to forgive those who never ask for forgiveness.
Similarly, be quick to receive suggestions and criticism. As Christians our worth derives from being God’s creation and therefore doesn’t correlate with performance. Our intrinsic value from God frees us to accept, even welcome, correction.
When it comes to working with female students, seek out the counsel of women you trust. Be quick to listen, and when they are rooted in scripture and Christ, don’t be afraid to humbly yield to them issues they are more equipped to handle. Allowing them to step in isn’t a challenge to your leadership but a show of wisdom that enhances your ministry.
If interacting with young women is a source of anxiety, be reassured that we don’t break so easily– the worst harm you can do is not doing anything. Ultimately, girls simply want you to show up and make them feel important. Accomplish this by being present and inviting them to know the presence of God. Most of all, spend time with Jesus. Then you will become like Him, which is the best thing you can do for your students, male or female.