Female Discipleship

I’m trying to figure out what makes female discipleship work.

I’m pretty sure I get the male side of discipleship.  I’ve come to rely on same-sex triads (groups of three) for spiritual formation in my own life, and in the lives of those I lead in the church.  For me, it’s been a natural outflow of relationships in my small groups – there’s always two or three guys I can especially count on to grow me (and I them), so we end up hanging out regularly outside the group setting.  

As counterintuitive as it may sound, guys readily jump into triads.  For many it’s their first opportunity to share true feelings and true weakness without being frowned upon or belittled.  They like the challenge and problem solving nature of putting your junk on the table and figuring out what to do about it.

For women, I’m finding that the means and the ends are much harder to follow.  Women have been forming triads for centuries without anyone’s advice or proscription.  Trust seems to be distributed in sparing amounts, and with many qualifications.  As a result, it appears that many women keep their close inner-circle to one or two others, and that only after great time and effort has been spent.   I get that women get triads in ways that surpasses the male audience, but I don’t get what they get out of it and how they got there. 

If a few of you women (and any brave man willing to venture an observation) wouldn’t mind responding to a few of my lingering questions on female discipleship, I would appreciate the enlightening…

  • What does it take to build trust between one woman and another?
  • What aspects of spiritual formation take place between women only after trust is truly present?
  • Is it possible to expand or multiply your trusting & formative relationships to include more women?  If so, clue me in on the process and the limits.
  • What does a male pastor need to know most about female discipleship?

16 responses to “Female Discipleship

  1. Beth Ferwerda

    I think women tend to bond with others who have like interests – ie young children, crafting, music, etc. We tend to be rather practical – you hang out with others who are doing the same things you are and the bonding takes place as a result. I also think women tend to “sense” whether anothe woman is similar to them. There is a certain level of similarity that helps the bonding process. (Of course, I have some female friends who are very different from me!) At least for me, time is a huge factor in building trust. It takes me a long time to get to know another person. I tend to be private myself – I talk in public, but it is more “small talk”. There are very few females I trust enough to tell deep spiritual things. Perhaps working alongside other women with similar interests helps build that connection. I have shared more with women who were there when my kids were little and we had “play dates” than with anyone from a Bible study. Or maybe that’s just me.
    I’m not sure what a male pastor needs to know about female descipleship except that we are more emotionally intuitive than men, we notice details more and notice nonverbal cues far more often. You can call it “intuition” if you like, but women are just plain wired differently from men. I hope that helps.

    • Beth,

      Your comment “I have shared more with women who were there when my kids were little and we had “play dates” than with anyone from a Bible study,” really touched on something I’ve been wondering.

      Is it important to foster these relationships at church, or is it simply important to foster them somewhere?

      In a handful of cases, I believe I have witnessed pockets of women turning to the church for raw spiritual direction (strictly sermons and studies) because they have the relational base secured in other aspects of life. Based on your experiences, do you believe that to be the case? Would you recommend that direction to others?

  2. I use to think that time was the main ingredient needed for trust, but I’ve realized in recent years that there is much more involved in cooking up a great relationship with other women. Obviously, the longer you know someone, the more opportunity you have to learn things about them and to share your own stories, but what makes you want to share with them and what makes you trust them with more personal thoughts?

    When you meet a woman, or a group of women, and have a very strong natural connection, trust seems to come as part of the package. If this natural connection is missing, your relationship will probably be more casual and the level of conversation will remain at the surface. I believe that this natural connection that some women make comes from a mix of similarities. Perhaps you have the same career, a common hobby, have children that are the same age, or share religious beliefs. I think of myself as a trusting person and willing to open up to others, but I think that I am with the minority in this area. Many women I know are knowingly guarded with who they let into their circle of trust. I am a “people person” and I enjoy hearing other people’s thoughts and ideas. I find it interesting to hear about others’ experiences and their life’s journey and reflect on my own life. I think if you want others to share and open up, you have to be willing to do the same. This kind of sharing is what opens the door to deeper, more meaningful discussions about life. My guess is that most spiritual formation is happening AS you learn about each other and reflect on your own lives, even though the level of trust is continually building throughout this time.

    I’ve noticed that adding a new “member” to your circle of trusted friends can be trickier with woman than it is with men. My husband makes it look so easy! Connections with woman can’t be forced and usually can’t be faked either, but there are ways to help new relationships form. I think that a woman that is joining a new group may feel intimidated (even if 1 woman is joining an established group of 2 women) and the group may want to change the structure of their meeting time a little bit. The established group members should take a moment to share a little bit about themselves and open the opportunity for the new member to do the same. Perhaps something that you say will spark a connection with them and can lead to more conversation later. If a new woman has joined the group, it is always a good idea to have a little extra unstructured social time, just to be able to talk, because we all know that women love to talk! I think it is important to include the new member(s) in discussion, but not force questions their way. And keeping topics light when a new person joins may be a good idea too. I think that women do really well in discipleship groups of all sizes and the number of women that meet should not be limited. Connections can be made amongst several different women in a large group.

    One thing for a male pastor to keep in mind is that women are just different than men, especially in a group setting. Not in a bad way, just different. There are a lot of complex personalities with women that may get in the way of these natural connections. I believe that every woman should be involved in a triad (or more) to build on their spiritual being. Finding the right group to “do life together” may take a little searching, but don’t stop until you find the right fit.

    • Toni,
      I love your awareness on the natural and intentional aspects of forming these relationships. It helps a ton for me to know that something has to click intuitively between one person and another for it to work. That being said, I also see how you have stepped forward to give these relationships an intentional boost. Your statement of, “If you want others to share and open up, you have to be willing to do the same,” is a principle that holds water in the male world as well.

      Your explanation of how to include a new woman is invaluable. I’m looking at pasting it verbatim in some of my training materials!

  3. The deep friendship that intertwines discipleship and a lasting bond can never be predicted or arranged. I think women dip there toe into the relationship very carefully. Even through it sometimes seems that they have jumped all in. They know (or will learn) to be cautious. They will watch and see what their new friend will do with that information about them. They will see if the friend cares and truly understands. One thing I have enjoyed doing for friends that I want to show how much I care about them is give them a birthday present. Women don’t get birthday presents unless it is the item that they had to ask their husband to buy for them. Another element in these close friendships is time. Lots of it. Whether it be through e-mail, phone, or in person. It is the frequency of time that they spend together. Men don’t seem to need as much time together to build friendships. Women need to see the friend often to share daily events and thoughts. To build trust the women need see that the other does not gossip or share private information. They watch to see if their friend even shares about another person’s private life.

    The beauty of discipleship between women…
    A friend can challenge and point out with tender love a hidden place in a woman’s heart that no man could get to. This is because we know they truly understand us. They have walked this walk and felt this pain or joy. Once a moment like this has happened between them they are forever bonded. Any severance of the bond is just heartbreaking and shakes the woman at her core. They wonder if they will ever trust again.

    I don’t think you can add more to the group of two. It would have to start all over and may just never be the same.

    For the male pastor it might seem like…
    Why I need to set up another table for this meeting or group event? Why do the women show up more than the men? One good reason is they need lots of time and frequency to build those relationships. Just think of it as pennies in the bank. Make phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc easy for women to get a hold of. Find ways for their paths to cross often. Open up chances for older women to mentor younger women on friendship relations. Friendships are a basic need like water and food. Once I had a friendship go south, way south. It was very sour. I thought and asked, “Can women be trusted? Is this how people treat others? Can I ever have a close friend again?” I looked to older women to help me through the sadness and confusion. Several years later another friend looked to me for advise when she had a friend betray her.

    I hope this helps to touch on some of the questions you asked….

    We miss you Hofmeisters!!! Your kids keep coming up on my screensaver!!

    • Shelly,
      Is it your impression that most/all women have had trust broken in these kinds of relationships? For the level of value and vulnerability taking place, I can only imagine how low a let-down would feel.

      Let me ask the question another way… When a woman is slow in giving her trust to another, what is the source behind that? Is it because she’s been hurt before? Is it because she knows how much work (time and energy) it will take to make trust work? Is it because she already has a trustworthy girlfriend, and isn’t likely to have margin for another?

      Thanks for all your continued input in my questions!

      I got to catch up with Tom a bit in past weeks over email… but out thing is based more on shy sentiment, sarcastic jabs, and some genuine challenge toward Jesus to top it all off.

  4. I have found over the years that there needs to be a common thread before women can connect to each other. In my first group (10 years), the common thread was single parent moms ages 26 to 60. We all needed to talk about how to get through the trials of everyday life alone. The next group (11 years) I had was a blended family group, ages 30 to 60 which of course, we all needed to talk about the do’s and don’ts of the very complicated relationships that go on in a blended family situation. My current group, the common thread seems to be friendship, (ages 32 to 65), They need women to talk to about getting through each day and the troubles that we all go through on a daily basis with work and relationships. All of the three groups, the most important thing was how do we respond biblicaly, according to what God wants us to do. In all three groups, the first year was a getting to know each other, then we told our stories of our life and our salvation. By that time, we knew that we could trust each other with the very private things that went on in our lives, that none of our story was going to be talked about beyond our group. At that time, we all were very transparent. The transparency started with me, and then I asked if anyone else would volunteer their story. Of course, there is some hesitancy and fear, but at every meeting that we have, I reiterate that what is said here in this and all meetings, stays here, not to be discussed with anyone else, not husbands, friends or family. No one. Once we were all transparent with each other, we bonded and became very close friends. Good, solid friendships typically takes about three years to form. In a small group setting, it can go a little faster, but cannot be pushed before everyone is ready. Currently, I am finding that the time women have to form relationships, or go to a discipleship group or triad is getting harder for them. It seems family, children, work, taking care of parents and other issues are putting a lot of pressure on them, so that even a bi-weekly meeting can be almost too much for them. Definitely, no homework as we go through our workbook, learning about Jesus and how to conduct our lives. So, for the ones who are too stretched to continue to attend, I try to stay in touch by phone, just to get a few minutes with them, touch base with them and see how I can pray for them. Also to let them know, that they are missed, so that when things settle down in their lives and they can return to the group, they don’t feel out of touch with everyone. My groups typically have 8-12 women who attended. Then break down into small groups at the end of our gathering. With that format, we can add new attendees. I have made some very close and long friendships of all ages and I know that the other women have done so also. Womens discipleship groups, I have found, can be the most comforting place to be at any time in your life, whether your life is going well, or if your life is in turmoil. It’s a place where we can do life together, and care for each other.

    • Vivian,

      Thanks a ton for the specifics!

      It helps to have a projected time-frame in mind for how long these relationships are likely to take to form.

      It also helps to know that commonalities are an asset; maybe even a must. I understand that woman are looking for some intuitive chemistry before pursuing trust. What I’m hearing from you though is that it is possible to set-up the likelihood of chemistry by introducing women of like interests and life-stages.

  5. I think that the main thing that builds trust between women is shared life experiences. Traditionally women have needed each other and bonded over things like raising children, childbirth, loneliness, etc. and they are wired to reach out to each other. Trust is built over time, trial and error. Women long for close relationships and unless they have been deeply hurt, or are in some way cut off from opportunities, will keep ‘seeking’ until those relational needs are met. Sadly not everyone is able to find and develop those types of relationships. It is good when churches and individuals take on the responsitility to seek those women out and provide a place, such as small groups to meet those needs.
    When women find someone to trust, and sometimes even when they don’t, they will ask the deeper questions and be willing to be vulnerable in order to grow in their relationship with God and each other.
    Women can be very protective of their close and special relationships. It can be very difficult to bring new people into an already existing group. I recently experienced a situtation where this did happen and it was because a very wise and mature women kept pointing out what true discipleship was. We are meant to share and pass on what God has given us, not keep it for ourselves.
    What a male pastor needs to know about women…that they need to have someone to talk to. No woman should feel that she does not have someone to talk to. Have people available that can meet those needs and keep developing small group opportunities within the church, especially for new believers.

    • Paula,

      Can a male pastor be sufficient as a listening ear for a female group leader, or is a female counterpart preferred?

      At times, I’ve definitely sensed limits in my ability to come alongside issues specific to womanhood.

      Despite the limits, I’ve gotten the impression that a listening ear is still a listening ear, and that in some cases a man’s listening can offer fresh perspective; maybe even healing if they don’t feel heard by men elsewhere in life.

      I’m not sure where I stand on what works better, so I’d love to have your perspective on it.

  6. Building trust within a group of women can be a tricky thing. Especially since most of us have been “burned” by our female friends before, you may not give out your trust easily. I think trust is formed between women who have something in common. That can spark some easy and nonthreatening conversation. If you find that someone can be trusted with little things, you may start to open up about bigger things. This can take a considerable amount of time though. With my teacher’s Bible study, it seems to take women about a year of meetings before they feel truly comfortable to share.

    I think true spiritual mentoring will only happen after trust has been built. Only after trust has been built will women feel comfortable enough to discuss topics that go deep down into our hearts and souls. We need to trust each other enough that what is said is said out of love and caring and does not have any evil intention behind it.

    I think it is possible to enlarge the group of trusting women especially if the new comers have something in common with those already in the group. I think new comers will sense the trust among the group and see how important it is. I think, though, for women all to feel comfortable enough to share, the number needs to be limited to around six.

    I think a male pastor just needs to realize that female relationships are much different than men’s. Women thrive on the closeness of other women they can trust. A women’s group will almost always get into deep topics after while. Men seem to be more content with small talk where women will get into deeper topics.

    • Kelly,

      If many woman have been hurt in the course of trusting another, I can see why it takes time to form such relationships again.

      It’s good hear though that they are able to make room for other women, up to a certain point.

  7. The relationships of women are very intimate. We readily share details of who we are, even with strangers in line at the market. I feel that it is because of this easy intimacy that we form layers of trust, and only allow our true friends into the deepest layers of who we are. I find that most women I know could name their true friends on less than all the fingers of one hand, while their acquaintances are many and based in peer groups. These peer groups can be built from many things, such as shared experience, age, work, education, and political and religious values. This intimacy also opens us up as verbal targets to others. And women talk. I think that sometimes trust is unwittingly broken by women sharing details as they try to process information by reflecting it off their peers.
    I am conflicted on the topic of expanding formative relationships. I can see the value of mentoring and inclusion of others in spiritual relationships, within my circle of acquaintances. My ability to open myself to others at this level is not that difficult and just takes empathy and caring. I find though that I guard myself from forming many deep formative relationships as the expenditure of time and more so emotional involvement is too great. Real formative relationships take work and an investment of self that says I will be there for you no matter what. They can be exhausting, and yet my life would not be complete without them.
    I think that a male pastor can facilitate women being involved in groups and give them the opportunities to work together. I think that you then have to leave the relationships up to God.

  8. Kaye-lynn,

    Thank you for such a well thought out and articulate response. The explanation of “layers” was particularly helpful.

    When it comes to expanding in-depth woman-to-woman relationships, I’m on the fence as to if/how this is the way to go. I like the idea of “groups” always moving toward multiplication, but I’m not sure that needs to be the emphasis in female “triads.”

    Particularly when it comes to women, the need does not appear to be the formation of triads (because they readily form pairs and threes so easily). Instead, maybe our role as a church is to help women foster spiritual formation issues in the triads?

  9. my deepest friendship comes in the form of a triad. we have been friends since college and live far from one another, relying on phone conversations, prayer and yearly visits. we’ve noted recently that what makes our friendship work so well is that we are “for” one another. through our verbal conversations and through what donald miller describes as the second conversation – the conversation of the heart – we know that there is no good or bad we can share that will be met with too much envy or judgement to surpass the love we have for each other. i think that triads have a magic formula… there’s at least one person in the group who is not afraid to make risky comments and bring the conversation into uncomfortable areas. also, there will be conflict and when there is great trust, the third person can usually act as translator/peacekeeper when the other two are having trouble understanding each other. it works for us, anyway! we confess and celebrate regularly.
    i loved shelly’s opening thought and resonated with kaye-lynn’s description of layers.
    i’m currently reading nouwen’s reaching out. at the same time, our neighborhood is starting to come together in ways i didn’t expect – our friendships are growing (not just in the women) and there is a real interest in re-connecting with God in many of them. here is a thought on hospitality from nouwen that i love and try to live out, particularly in these new friendships: “Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines….It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their… God and their way.”
    i think this goes for men and women.

  10. Jennifer,

    How neat is it that you’ve held the same intimate friendships for so long! It’s especially encouraging to hear that these friendships have held, not because you haven’t had conflict, but because you’ve worked through conflict. I think being “for each other” enough to push through relational strain is a distinguishing mark that we all need to strive for.

    I’m getting responses all over the board on the perfect size. Your vote for three as the magic formula, along with your explanation of how you arrived at that, really helps.

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