“If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.” – Anonymous
Many of our historically male-led evangelical churches now affirm the role of women in leadership, but what if our most assumed model for catalytic discipleship and leadership training has become a stumbling block to this?
For many of us, one-to-one training is our go-to model for training the next generation of leaders. Yet heterosexually-orientated male leaders have been taught to avoid one-to-one training with women, in order to avoid unhealthy relationships.
But what if there is a greater danger than the potential for crossed boundaries? A danger that the mothers, daughters, sisters and friends we so readily affirm with our words don’t have access to the rich resource of training relationships – and the leadership opportunities that come with being known and trusted – that we so readily offer to men?
One-to-one meetings are a routine practice that act as a major cog in the process of leadership development and church growth; it’s a practice that shapes attitudes and subsequently Church culture.
For example, if one-to-ones are a male leader’s primary way of investing in emerging leaders, and they will only meet one-on-one with other men, then there is an implicit predisposition at work to look only among the men to identify potential leaders. People observe, they form attitudes, and a culture is set of primarily male leadership.
A male leader may publicly affirm the leadership of women, but unless he recognises and adapts his practices and patterns of church life, he will unwittingly continue to stifle it. What if affairs are not the most dangerous thing about one-to-one leadership training; what if the biggest danger is their potential to hinder the growth of the church through the exclusion of women?
Going forward then, should male leaders adapt to begin meeting women one-to-one? Perhaps, but that may be missing a trick. What if, by asking a different question, we get a better answer?
What if there is a more significant opportunity to reform the way we train one another across the board – a way that more closely resembles Jesus – and more effectively serves the church and the neighbourhoods to which we have been sent?
We can start to recognise and re-imagine a way forward if we consider the following questions about the content, culture and capacity of the traditional one-to-one model:
Much of the standard one-to-one model involves emotionally and intellectually demanding conversation while sat across a coffee table – often in the downtime of those being trained. How helpful is this, considering how adults may learn best? Considering the practical nature of the task we are training people for? How much of it is troubleshooting current experiences, rather than providing new experiences to fuel their training?
How much of the way we train and are trained is particular to a middle-class, university-educated demographic? Is it a sanctified subject tutorial? Outside of university, we learn skills by watching, doing, and teaching others – not by reading textbooks and discussing ideas. When Jesus discussed abstract concepts and challenging ideas, he almost always did so off the back of a shared experience or in the presence of a tangible context; in a way that connected with his teenage apprentices from diverse social backgrounds.
Many leaders rightly desire to be above reproach and avoid one-to-one meetings with the opposite gender, but this ignores the fact that for many of us, the challenge may be forming an unhealthy attachment to someone of the same gender. It could be reasonably argued that to pursue the ‘above reproach’ reasoning to its logical conclusion, no leader should ever conduct one-on-one meetings.
Finally, even if we were intentional about the practical content and culture of our one-to-ones, how many leaders could we realistically resource with our time over the course of a year? Whether you are on a leadership team of one, 10 or 100 – doesn’t the list of people you want to train for leadership outweigh your capacity for one-to-ones?
I think that the biggest risk to be mitigated isn’t sexual purity. It’s a church that never fulfils its potential, and a community that never experiences all that God wants to give it through His church.
The problem defines the solution. If it were sexual purity then, sure, lock yourself in a cupboard and have any comprehension of attraction to anyone, ever, erased from your mind. But if the problem at stake is how we effectively resource the development of a greater diversity of leaders, then the solution is: do different things!
Below are some practical alternatives based on Jesus’ style of discipleship. They’re things I’ve experienced as helpful. They’re not exhaustive or perfect, but may they ignite the engine of our imaginations to dream of new ways to invest in the next generation of leadership:
Small enough to facilitate the connection and vulnerability that enables a good learning environment, but without the intensity and privacy that can create a breeding ground for rumours and secrecy. It also safeguards the mentor from creating a “mini-me”, because there’s enough diversity in a bigger group to learn from one another and your differences. It also ensures the facilitator can’t spend the whole session giving a verbal answer to a problem the sole trainee has. And, since it’s a shared experience, they can continue discussing your few words of infinite wisdom and learning with each other even when you’re not around. This model makes everybody a better leader!
Train as a team:
One friend has two leadership mentors within the same environment, who are both taking responsibility for her training. This enables both a wider opportunity for growth as she’s learning from both of them. The benefits are similar to a one-to-three model, and it’s also a set-up that avoids any sense of ‘exclusive relationship’ as the mentors refer to one another and work as a team in their training role.
Go for a walk and do stuff:
Jesus did this. Exercise stimulates thinking, and many find walking and talking helps them process. Some of Jesus’ conversations were on the way to and from ‘ministry appointments’, others were just a stroll on the Sabbath. Planning meet-ups around practical activities that fit training needs is a great alternative to sitting statically, staring at each other over a comforting cup of coffee. Whether it’s heading to the local park to talk and pray with strangers, a tag-team preaching opportunity or a pastoral crisis meeting, be sure to pre-brief and de-brief together.