Moving from One-on-One Mentorship Toward Inclusive & Effective Leadership

Many of our historically male-led evangelical churches 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?

Heterosexually-orientated male leaders have been taught to avoid one-to-one training relationships with women for concerns of avoiding unhealthy relationships. But for many of us, this is our go-to model for training the next generation of leaders.

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 won’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? But what if there is a greater danger than the potential for crossed boundaries? Click To Tweet

One-to-One Re: Gender

One-to-one meetings are a routine practice that hold major significance with much at stake. A major cog in the process of leadership development and church growth, it is a practice that shapes attitudes and subsequently church culture.

For example, if they 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, form attitudes, and a culture is set of primarily male leadership.

A male leader may publicly affirm the leadership of women, but unless he recognizes and adapts his practices and patterns of church life, he will unwittingly continue to stifle it. Unless male leaders adapt, female leadership will continue to be stifled. Click To Tweet

“If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.” – Anonymous

There’s more at stake when it comes to one-on-one training than we first thought. What if affairs are not the most dangerous thing about one-to-one leadership training? What if the hindrance of church growth by the exclusion of women is more dangerous than potential affairs?

Going forward then, should male leaders adapt their concerns and attitudes to begin meeting women one-on-one? Perhaps, but it’d be missing the importance of communal learning.

What if, by asking a different question, we get a better answer?

One-to-One Re: General

I suggest that this “dilemma,” may actually be seen as an opportunity to reform the way we train future leaders. I believe it to be a way that more closely resembles Jesus and more effectively serves the church and the neighborhoods to which we have been sent.

We can start to recognize and reimagine a way forward by considering the following questions of the content, culture, and capacity for the traditional one-on-one model:


Much of the standard model involves emotionally and intellectually demanding conversation whilst sitting across a coffee table from one another—often in the downtime of those being trained. How helpful is this considering how adults learn best? Considering the practical nature of the task we are training people for, this form of “content” can only take people so far. This form of training is great for troubleshooting questions raised by current experiences, but provides an insufficient context for the sort of training that is most conducive to adult formation. Specifically, emerging adult leaders need the sort of “content” that can only come by way of being guided toward and through new formational experiences.


Another question worth asking of the typical one-on-one model is, “how much of this 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 prop in a way that connected with his teenage apprentices from diverse social backgrounds.

Many rightly desire to be above reproach and avoid one-on-one meetings with the opposite gender because of this, but are not many of us liable to form an unhealthy attachment to someone of the same gender also? 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 of this nature. 'Above-reproach' reasoning logically concludes no leader should ever conduct 1-on-1 meetings. Click To Tweet


Finally, even if we were intentional about the practical content and culture of our one-on-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, ten, or one hundred—doesn’t the list of people you want to train for leadership outweigh your capacity for one-on-ones?

The biggest risk to be mitigated isn’t the compromise of sexual purity. It’s a church that never fulfills its potential and a neighborhood that never experiences all that God wants to give it through its church. The greatest risk in the male-dominated 1-on-1 mentorship model is not sexual impurity. Click To Tweet

The problem defines the solution. If it were sexual impurity then, sure, lock yourself in a cupboard and remove all remove all possibility of impropriety. 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!

Different Things to Do

Below are some practical alternatives based on Jesus. They’re things we’ve experienced as helpful. They’re not exhaustive or perfect, but may they ignite the engine of our imaginations to dream new ways to invest in the next generation of leadership outside of the traditional mentoring process.


Small enough to facilitate connection and vulnerability that enables a good learning environment but without the intensity and privacy that can create a breeding ground for unhelpful attachments 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 from each other’s differences.

It also ensures the facilitator can’t spend all the session giving a verbal answer to a problem the sole trainee has. And, since it is a shared experience, they can continue discussing the leader’s few words of infinite wisdom and learning with each other even when the leader is not around. This model makes everybody a better leader!

Train as a Team

One female 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. Similar benefits to the one-on-three model, it’s also a setup 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 things better. 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.

To summarize, I believe the classic 1-1 model of leadership development poses a serious threat to the integrity and mission of the church. To the extent that men continue to occupy most leadership roles and the idea of cross-gender training relationships remains taboo, we will continue to effectively excise women from being empowered as leaders. But perhaps even worse, we might miss the opportunity to embody leadership training models that hold even greater potential.

These are the sort of conversations we are looking to advance through the SheLeads Summit. We hope you’ll consider joining us in Pasadena or at 11 other regional venues across the country on Saturday, October, 28. Click the banner for more info.


By commenting below, you agree to abide by the Missio Alliance Comment Policy.