Plan A: Men and Women Working Together

Have you enjoyed a partnering leadership experience like this? You are in a working relationship with another leader of the opposite sex. The two of you are open and receptive to ideas, able to listen and learn from one another. You feel safe to share your thoughts, and you know they will be taken seriously. Trust and mutual respect characterize your relationship. Both of you realize that the work you do together is much better than either of you could have accomplished alone.

I am grateful to have been in several such situations over the years. I have also been in mixed gender partnerships that fall short. Then I struggle to be heard, to be taken seriously. I am uncomfortable, intimidated and unable to offer my best.

These experiences lead me back to Genesis, to a longing for what God intended for humankind from the beginning. At creation, the man and woman were to fulfill the ambitious mandate God gave to both of them together. The clear message to us living today with the consequences of the fall: Plan A was that God intended for men and women to work alongside each other for His Kingdom. God’s image is vividly displayed when we serve together.

Yet, such Plan A partnering can be challenging. Women and men tend to differ in communication styles, understanding of power and how it is used, cultural backgrounds and sometimes even on some aspects of theology. Our fallen natures will also present us with problems as we seek to become the team we were created to be. We need to wrestle with the ways cultural influences and stereotypes help maintain our separateness and hinder our ability to develop effective partnerships.

It is apparent that healthy male/female partnerships will require intentionality and honest conversation. Here are two factors to consider and some questions to discuss with your opposite gender ministry partner.

Factor 1: Willingness to know yourself better

  • Recognize how your family history, culture, church background and other experiences influence your conscious and unconscious understandings of gender roles.
  • Ask: Do I value the differences between men and women and believe it is important to have both men and women on the leadership team? Do I believe that women can be peers with men in leadership?

Factor 2: Attentiveness to how you work together 

  • In how power is shared. This can show up in how much voice individuals have in conversations, how decisions are made and in individuals’ ability to influence the process.
  • Ask: Am I aware of the power dynamics in this partnership? Does each of us feel supported? Do we empower one another?
  • In communication styles. Not all men and women communicate only in classic male/female ways. However, there are gender differences that may cause misunderstanding. Women tend to use conversation to build relationships while men tend to make connections in order to get a job done or solve a problem. Women tend to be more deferential or down play their opinions. Men tend to be more direct, freer to express their opinions and use banter. Resist the temptation to think one style is better than other.
  • Ask: Am I aware of the communication differences in our partnership? What repeated communication “bumps” do we encounter as we work together?
  • In how to manage conflict. Conflict often arises when there is a decision to be made. Men and women tend to have different levels of tolerance for conflict and different patterns of dealing with it. If women have a disagreement, it tends to affect all aspects of their relationship. Men often segment disagreements from the rest of the relationship. It is important to be willing to stay at the table and work through differences, paying attention to both the task and the relationship in such a way as to not destroy your ability to work together but to actually enhance it. It is helpful to know how you deal with conflict.
  • Ask: Am I quick to comply, to defend, to compromise? Or, am I willing to do the work necessary for a win-win when possible? When do we complement each other? When do we generate friction?

Use these factors and questions to catalyze conversations within your teams that will contribute to better working relationships so together we can further our mission for the Kingdom and be a picture of what God intended from the beginning.

About the Author
Interim Vice President and Director of Collegiate Ministries

Janet Balajthy serves as interim Vice President and Director of Collegiate Ministries. She and her husband, Ernie (an InterVarsity faculty advisor at SUNY Geneseo), live in Rochester, New York. They have two grown children, daughter, Sara, and son, David, who were both involved with InterVarsity leadership in college. Janet has been with InterVarsity since 1975.