Mentoring in the Church: Apollo had Priscilla, Phoebe had Paul

Bev Murrill


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Mentoring on The Junia Project

One of the most valuable assets for any developing leader is a mentor.

Joshua had a great one in Moses, Elijah had Elisha, Apollo had Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy and Phoebe had Paul, Mary had Elizabeth. All of them became more skilled at operating in their God-given call because of the people who were willing to invest in them and their future as people by whom the growing church would be encouraged in its divine mandate to build the Kingdom of Heaven. By definition, a mentor is someone who has already been where you want to go. This is a person who not only knows the way but also is willing to show the way to less experienced travelers on the journey.

Leadership abounds in the Church at large. Every new generation experiences a powerful surge of rising leaders ready and willing to take their place at the helm when their time comes. Thanks to a combination of factors including experience, facing facts, awareness of civil rights, intelligently re-evaluating muddled theology and ancient, deep-rooted mindsets, as well as the power of the internet, more of those rising leaders are women than ever before.

There are now more acknowledged women leaders in every sphere of influence than at any other time in history.

Empowered by higher education and the willingness of thinking people to judge others on their merits rather than their plumbing, women are moving into senior roles in the corporate world, politics, churches, mission groups, and charity organisations. They’re standing tall on platforms to tell what they have learned, and seeing them, others are envisioned and empowered to rise up and embrace their own call of God. In this way, the world is being changed. But there’s a fly in the anointing oil. Though many women are leading powerfully and with great skill and effectiveness, they are still hugely outnumbered by men.

A mentor is a tremendous gift to a rising leader, but for those in contexts stuck on single gender mentoring, the grim truth is that most female leaders will never be mentored.

The in/famous Billy Graham rule in which any male leader worth his salt must not ever be alone in the company of a woman, means that the chances of women leaders being shown the way along the road by a more seasoned leader are very slender. For this reason, multitudes of women are rising to their leadership call in the Church world with only peers to encourage and advise. We all appreciate support from colleagues and friends, but they don’t take the place of experienced leaders actively helping develop leadership capacity.

Women constitute about 10% of church leaders. Factoring in that there are equal numbers of emerging leaders of both genders, the few women leaders out there are already overwhelmed with potential mentees. As long as same-sex mentoring is the norm most women will never have the opportunity to be mentored by a senior leader.

As long as men only mentor men and women only mentor women, few women will be mentored effectively.

Leadership needs to be intentionally modelled in a gender-equal format in order for a reshaping of culture to take place. When there is lack of provision for ongoing leadership development of women, which is possible even in churches that give lip service to gender equality, the dearth of training opportunities becomes an occupational hazard for many women.

While it’s true that women leaders must take responsibility to do all they can to help other women – former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright once said ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’ – it is also vital that male leaders take responsibility for mentoring leaders regardless of gender.

Fears of sexual immorality because of male/female mentoring relationships only serve to add to the scarcity of women leaders.

I don’t know a woman leader who hasn’t endured the humiliation of being ignored and side-lined in conversations at leadership events, or felt the ignominy of being held at arm’s length by peers or potential mentors, who apparently fear being overcome by such unbridled lust that they will be unable to resist engaging in an illicit affair. This kind of treatment is not something that happens occasionally; it is the norm for many women leaders. There have been many times when I, and others I have spoken with, have been sorely tempted to say: ‘Honestly sir, you’re kidding yourself.’

The world has been able to work this one out. What is the problem with a people of whom it is said they are filled with the Holy Spirit, one of the fruits of whom is self-control? Our Leader is the source of purity and yet we think we can protect ourselves by implementing more rules and regulations. We’ve all been around long enough to know that anyone intent on moral failure will find a way around every rule. In fact, immorality appears to be more of an issue in churches and organisations that focus on women as potential threats to every ministry than in contexts in which they are given equal respect and value to men.

Ephesians 4:12 instructs leaders to equip the saints for works of service. There is no mention of gender here; it is we who do the genderizing.

The Church needs a culture of mentoring, regardless of gender. For the Kingdom of God to operate with maximum effectiveness we must build into the framework of every Christian organisation an expectation of mentoring and being mentored in a way that most suits the development of the gift, not allowing rigid and awkward gender issues to derail the empowerment of good leadership.

Principles for staying safe are not difficult. Just be sensible. When you meet for coffee, do it in an open place in your own town, in a place frequented by people you know. Most church offices have a glass panel in the door, but you could leave the door open if that would be more acceptable in your context. Try a cross-gender group mentoring, especially with developing leaders, but make sure that everyone is equally involved and one sex doesn’t dominate. Choosing not to get into an elevator or a vehicle with someone of the opposite sex is untenable; some of the best ideas come out of meetings that take place in elevators and cars. Regularly have times in which staff brainstorm ways of having ethical relationships with peers regardless of their gender.

Eat together, worship together, chill out together.

If you’re having a social event, invite the mentee’s whole family, and vice versa. Mentoring works well in open and transparent relationships. That happens so much more naturally when you’re doing life together.

As architects of culture, it’s vital that we create and establish ways of carrying the Kingdom of heaven with power and grace so that the events that happen on our watch are ones which further the cause of Christ well into the 21st century.

For more on this topic also see:

The Secret of Mentoring: Give What You Have by Bev Murrill

Relationships of Welcome, Not Fear by Karina Kreminski

Dear Bill Hybels and Other Men Who Affirm Women in Ministry by Tara Beth Leach

Gender is Irrelevant: A Response to CBMW’s Call for Masculine Mentoring by Tim Fall

How I Learned to Stop Worrying about the Billy Graham Rule and Love Like Jesus by Ty Grigg

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  • This is such a timely piece, and I agree wholeheartedly. As a woman in leadership, I fully agree with all of these ideas. Over the years, my husband has had many more opportunities and options for mentors than I have. I also get really frustrated by the insinuation that if any man develops any kind of friendship with me, I will turn into a wanton harlot and seek to ruin their purity. Trust me, guys, I am as uninterested as you are! At any rate, a wonderful wise man of God just sat down to lunch with me and agreed to take me on as a mentee, and I am so very excited that he doesn’t have the hang ups that many Christian men seem to have because I have so much to learn from him!

    • Yay, Dalaina! congratulations that this guy is totally up for mentoring you, rather than holding you at a distance in case he gets overwhelmed by your beauty and sexuality!

      Seriously, he’s a good guy, and I’m thrilled for you that he’s seen who you are and wants to invest in that. Awesome.

  • I’m not saying this is a full equivalence, but I went to a domestic violence advocacy training conference last year, and I was one or two men out of about a hundred in the room, and I had only been involved with a local organization on the issue for a couple of months. I did feel a little (okay, maybe more than just a little) uncomfortable and out of place. Maybe that’s a little of what women leaders in most churches feel. What I did find is that everyone accepted my presence there, encouraged me, and expressed the desire to see more men involved. I think that is definitely something that leaders in the church could learn from.

    • You’re right, Mkubo, we do feel like that. Even today I was in a meeting where another leader was talking with my husband and I, and he encouraged my husband (who rarely reads and never writes) to write a book on the subject we were discussing – no context for that leader to note that I have had 2 books published already. It’s just a blinded mindset, but it’s tough having to always have to take that into account.

  • Outstanding, Bev. This call for mentoring across gender/sex lines is much needed. I know some will say “But Paul said older women should teach younger women” as their basis for single sex mentoring, but building a doctrine of mentoring (discipleship) on a single passage is precarious at best.

    At work, I do have a rule for open and closed door one-on-one meetings: if I am meeting with a fellow judge or our court executive officer, the door can close for confidential matters. If I can’t trust a fellow judge – male or female – behind closed doors we have more problems than my reputation being on the line. As for everyone else who works at the courthouse, the door stays open whether they are men or women. I do not have confidential meetings with them and there’s no reason to close the door.


    P.S. I wrote this in response to CBMW’s call for “masculine mentoring” – Gender is Irrelevant to Mentoring.

    • I remember that article, Tim. It was very relevant to the topic. I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor some great men and women into leadership and, for the most part, there has not been a rejection of what I have to say based on my womanhood…

      Your work rule is very sensible… we can learn from that …

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