By Faith Whatley
There’s a married woman somewhere out there having a one-on-one dinner out with a male friend—without telling her husband.
Meanwhile, there’s a man who cc’s his wife on every email correspondence—even on work-related exchanges. This same guy refuses to ride alone in an elevator with any female colleagues.
The first scenario is an example of harmful behavior; the other is an example of unnecessary behavior.
It’s important—especially as seemingly more and more Christian leaders are caught in a scandal—to make sure the right boundaries are in place to protect your marriage, your ministry, and your soul.
But in doing so, it’s easy to put up so many boundaries you alienate yourself or stifle the giftedness and friendship of the opposite gender.
After working with many men for many years at LifeWay, I know how being brothers and sisters in Christ is modeled. I have many “sacred siblings”—a term coined by Sue Edwards and Kelly Matthews in their book called Mixed Ministry.
These brothers are men I have cried, laughed, and disagreed with while working together over a substantial amount of time. Particularly for those of us in ministry, we should act and react as if our co-workers of the opposite gender are our sacred siblings and treat them like the family of faith God intended.
But I don’t think God intends for us to be only sacred siblings; I think He wants us to be friends. Ministry teams, church staffs, and Christian organizations can accomplish so much more if men and women have healthy friendships.
It’s also important for men to understand most women are not temptresses. And it’s important for women to understand most men have good intentions. It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the news about our Christian leaders and overcorrect.
Here are a few thoughts on striking the right balance between having appropriate boundaries and incorporating healthy work and ministry practices—and developing meaningful friendships.
First, let’s address healthy work and ministry practices.
- Ask her opinion. Many women, until they completely trust the room (especially with many men around the table) may not give their opinions. If you sense a female leader is being too quiet, stop and ask her view on the topic at hand. I am sure she’ll have something to say that will add value.
- Value her intuition. It could save you from making mistakes along the way. I’m not suggesting you should always take her lead on the decision, but her view will allow you to be more informed as you make the decision.
- Understand her struggles. If a female on your team is married or has children, she’s trying to balance many things other than work. Women tend to be the ones who keep families connected and plan family gatherings, vacations, and milestone events. Single women do this as well with their extended families.
- Treat her like the equal she is. Women do not respond well to men talking down to them, acting like they are children or helpless.
- Keep your cool. I realize there are some women who are more emotional than others. If you are on the more intense end of the spectrum, you may need to practice your “game face.” Your overreaction can be a stumbling block for resolution. But it’s important for all leaders to be calm, no matter the gender.
- Be adaptable. When you continue to bring things up that have already been resolved or something you didn’t necessarily agree with, it could lead to men disregarding your concerns in the future.
- Value his view and his leadership. I have worked alongside hundreds of men in my 20-plus years at LifeWay and I have learned something significant from each one. I look to them for leadership even if I have worked for them, served alongside them, or have supervised them.
- Don’t embarrass him. As I have worked with men, if I don’t agree with the decision or their view, I ask them to “help me understand.” It makes the conversation less confrontational. Plus, I may not have all the facts regarding how the decision was made and this could help me see the bigger picture.
Now that we’ve talked about work and ministry practices, it’s important to implement healthy friendship practices that respect boundaries while not stifling God’s good design for harmonious, co-ed community.
- Do make sure your spouse has met or has a relationship with any team member of the opposite gender with whom you work closely. This helps your spouse connect the dots when you mention a person you work with.
- Don’t violate policies set for your church or ministry organization that protect you. At LifeWay, no man and woman can go to lunch together or travel together alone. This has been an important policy and one that—when I was younger—felt old-fashioned, but it has been God’s protection in many ways. My husband appreciates this protection as well.
- Do be careful when texting team members of the opposite gender. It’s important to finish sentences like “call me” or “are you here yet?” so nothing is questionable if their spouse sees the text. Instead say, “Call me, I need to talk to you about the X” or “If you are here, I need to talk to you about X.” Just finish the sentence so nothing could be misinterpreted.
Some church leaders aren’t used to having women at the leadership table, but it’s happening more often as time goes by. So it’s crucial for men and women to work well together.
Not only this, but we also have a lot to learn from one another. Men often struggle to develop women as leaders, and women can have the same struggle when it comes to mentoring men.
But it needs to happen.
The bottom line is, a leader is a leader—whether male or female. Both are gifted. Both are called. Both bring amazing contributions to the body of Christ.
We need to respect each other, but not fear one another. And the more we recognize that, the more we can accomplish in Christ’s church—together.
FAITH WHATLEY is director of Adult Ministries for LifeWay Christian Resources.