Separating Genders in Youth Activities

August 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Men's Church/Women's Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

I didn’t mean for it to happen. 

To be honest, I don’t even remember what I exactly I said, only that it was pretty funny, and had I said it to a male youth, he would’ve been laughing with me.

What I do remember is the seventh-grade girl, looking at me with huge forming a small puddle next to her shoes. Obviously, she didn’t find what I had said funny.

Yep. That’s right. I made a girl cry with my careless remark. To make it worse, the girl crying in front of me? Yeah. The senior pastor’s kid. And I thought we PKs were tough-skinned people . . .

I made the mistake of thinking that girls can be treated the same way as boys. Rookie mistake. I quickly learned that I know nothing about what girls go through in their teen years. I can empathize with them, be there for them, hear their stories, hear their pain, but, when they say, “You just don’t understand,” it’s pretty hard to disagree. I don’t understand. Because I never grew up as a girl. When boys tell me their struggles and the troubles they get into, I can know a bit of where they are coming from.

A parent wanted me to talk to her young son entering in the eighth grade. He’d been having mood swings, and just wasn’t himself. The boy and I went out for some shaved ice (for you Mainlanders, that’s snow cones) and we talked about sports, TV shows, and music. We finally got around to the issue that was bothering him. It had to do with his ever-changing world and how he wasn’t comfortable with all that was changing. Some other kids made fun of him for his voice cracking, and it really bothered him.

I shared with him something that happened to me. When I was in the eighth grade, I was in the cafeteria one day waiting for a friend. My friend was waiting at the opposite end of the cafeteria, so I did what any lazy thirteen-year-old would do; I yelled his name across the cafeteria to get his attention. Only, my voice cracked. Horribly. Everyone heard. I mean everyone. After a moment of silence that felt like an eternity, the entire cafeteria erupted in laughter, all at once, all directed at me.

We both were there, at a mutual ground. I knew the horror that he was going through, because I went through it, personally. And he was able to trust me more because I was able to voice what he was feeling without him spelling it out for me.

That was just a long introduction to why I think, particularly in youth ministry, gender-specific ministries are a necessity. 

The Case for Separate Small Groups

Sure, there are some drawbacks when you separate the boys from the girls. The girls often don’t get to hear the boys’ side of the story, and vice versa. We might actually be creating more divisions in churches that already may have too many divisions. The kids might complain because they can’t sit next to their “friend.” But I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

I’m not talking about separating them forever. They do need to do activities together. They need to be given sacred space to be in community with everyone. They need to work together and play together as well. (Although a junior high youth pastor told me that she will NEVER play the game of sardines with her junior high group again after a boy-girl incident. In the dark.)

But when it comes to small groups, I am a proponent of separating boys and girls, and even separating them by age groups as well.

When we separate the boys and girls, I believe that it gives them space to be themselves. My junior high boys’ energy levels are off the charts. Their thoughts fly a million miles a minute. Sometimes I feel like we are the ring masters at a circus more than small group leaders. My junior high girls are different. They seem to be more relational. They actually want to talk to one another. They want to interact with the group. When we combine small groups once in a while, the boys are a huge distraction to the girls wanting to hear each other’s voices. The girls are a distraction to the boys, because they can’t be their rowdy (and lovable...) selves.

But as the kids get older, the reasons to separate them become different. From my experience, separation seems to eliminate one of the biggest distractions: the attention of the opposite sex. In one of my previous settings, I led the senior boys’ small group. It still is one of my fondest memories of working with youth. The “bravado” was gone once the boys knew no girls would be around. They didn’t have to act like they need to impress someone else. They were surrounded by brothers. The conversations were deep, real, open, and honest. They were able to share their true feelings and even their insecurities, all of which were hidden in the presence of girls.

In my ministry in Hawaii, the girls had a SNO night once every two months. SNO stood for Sisters Night Out. They would fellowship with each other for a movie night, a “spa” day, or to bake cookies together. Whatever the activities, they would get to just enjoy being among fellow sisters in Christ. It was a really powerful ministry for the girls. It brought the girls together. They were able to talk about real issues with the female leaders of the church. And the process of discipleship became easier, because these girls trusted their female leaders and knew that they were loved.

Role Models who Understand

To me, this is the biggest benefit of a gender separated small group youth ministry: providing same-gender small group leaders to be role models of faith to the youth. The guys have their small group leaders, whom they can trust; someone who understands them; someone to help them through a harsh breakup; someone to relate to the struggles they face in school, home, with expectations; someone who can inspire them, lead them, love them.

In the Korean churches I have been part of, we’ve always had more male leaders than female ones. It was always a struggle to find good, dependable female leaders with a heart for youth and young women. But when there was a qualified, loving (and willing) female leader who clicked with the girls, my heart always overflowed with thanksgiving and hallelujahs. The girls had someone who they trusted; someone who saw their beauty and worth, regardless of what distorted image the girls may see; someone who understood that, yes, boys can be stupid and, yes, that will always be true, regardless of their age; they had someone whose devotion to God may inspire their continuing faith journey; someone who wasn’t perfect, but real; someone who was able to lead them, model their imperfect journey with a perfect God, someone who was able to love them.

Of course, in no way am I saying that a female leader can’t disciple boys and male leaders. I’m sure that for every example I have given, you can find something to counter it. And, in no way would I want my female leaders to stop reaching out to my male students nor my male leaders to my female students.

But for me, discipleship was always easier when I could relate to my mentor. The more we had in common, the more I was able to relate to that person. The more I could relate, the more I could trust. The more I could trust, the more willing I was to follow the mentor’s advice, suggestions and even listen to their critiques. And in our journey together, I would learn that this person wasn’t perfect. This person had his flaws. But, it didn’t stop his dedication and devotion to God. That would inspire me to continue on my faith journey.

But let’s still remember that the gender issue is, overall, secondary. Yes, it’s probably safe to say that the chances of a female leader bonding with a female student over things they have in common are high, and that’s good. But what really matters in youth ministry, in all ministry, are two things: One is being real. Young people can see through adults being fake. There no longer exists the “perfect” pastor or the cookie-cutter leader. While we shouldn’t have our lives be completely open books to the youth, we also shouldn’t pretend to be something we are not. The other thing is love. We need to love our youth. That love goes beyond knowing just their names. It’s the same risky love that Christ showed for us. It’s holding our hands out to our youth, offering them our love, whether they choose to accept it or not.

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