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Is it okay to mentor someone from the opposite sex?

A while back we had an interesting question going on with a group of youth workers on Twitter. One youth worker asked if we thought it was okay for her to mentor a male youth from her youth group. There was no one else available, yet her church had a problem with it. It was interesting to see everyone wrestle with this issue, because we all understood the risks, yet we also understood the urgency of him needing a mentor.

Is it okay to mentor someone from the opposite sex? It’s a hard question to answer, but here’s my answer: yes, it’s okay to mentor or coach someone from the opposite sex, but…And here come the ‘buts’ in the form of questions:

Is anyone else available?

I think we can all agree that same-sex mentoring or coaching is preferable. So if anyone else is available from the same sex and there are no pressing arguments why that person shouldn’t become mentor, that person should do it.

If you decide to mentor someone from the opposite sex, always meet in a public place

Is there a reason why it has to be this person?

Sometimes there’s a very valid reason why the mentor has to be a specific person, even if he or she is from the opposite sex. That can be because there’s a strong bond already (especially when the mentored youth has big issues or isn’t very trusting), because there’s a shared experience that’s crucial (e.g. abuse) or because the mentor has a special gift or expertise that’s needed.

Are there any risk factors?

Do an honest assessment to see if there are any factors that may lead to problems, like too much dependency, sexual attraction, emotional affairs, etc. If the youth is for instance emotionally unstable or known to be sexually ‘provocative’, this are warning signs you need to take seriously. The same goes for the mentor, be careful to look out for any signs of trouble here as well, like being too attached to youth, crossing boundaries, etc.

If you are going to be the mentor, be very honest with yourself if you can handle it. If you feel yourself attracted to the youth in any way, say no to protect yourself, the youth, your marriage and your youth ministry.

Is everyone okay with this?

If you decide to allow for the mentoring, make sure everyone is informed and is okay with it. That means the youth ministry leadership, the youth, the parents, the spouse of the mentor and anyone else involved. Be very clear and open in your communication so everyone knows what’s happening and there are no unpleasant surprises afterwards.

Hard rule: always meet in public

Under these conditions, I think it’s okay to mentor someone from the opposite sex. However, I would advise on one hard rule: always meet in public or have someone else close by to ‘watch you’. It’s the best way to protect yourself, the other and your reputation.

I have mentored guys in the past, but I’ve always done so when my husband was home, so I was never alone with them. If that wasn’t possible, I often went to McDonalds or I met them in our church building and left the door of my room open. Everyone in my youth ministry knew I never met with a guy alone and they respected me for it. It was never an issue.

My example in this case is Billy Graham, who made it a point never to meet with another woman than his wife in private. He didn’t even make an exception for First Lady Hillary Clinton when she sought his advice, and met her in a coffee place. It’s a great example to follow.

How do you feel about mentoring or coaching someone from the opposite sex? Have you ever done it? What safe guides do you recommend?

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0 thoughts on “Is it okay to mentor someone from the opposite sex?

  1. Great post, and great question. I really think if you have to define mentoring before answering this question. Can we be pastoral towards teens of the opposite sex? I think so; however, can we truly mentor them? I would say no.
    There are just too many things they would miss out on that the opposite sex cannot provide.
    There are issues that boys deal with that are very different from girls and it makes it more difficult to open up.
    If there is a case where a mentor of the same sex cannot be provided I think the youth pastor should go to the parents and seek some suggestions from them of someone who could be a possible mentor. It’s a great question, not an easy one to answer, but I’d have to push for same sex mentoring as much as possible.

    1. You’re right Chris, there’s a difference between mentoring, coaching and pastoral counseling. I don’t think my advice would be that different though for each of these three. The question whether someone from the opposite sex is the best choice for a mentor in general is another one than whether or not it’s okay from a moral viewpoint think. While I am a big believer in same sex guidance in each of these three types, I also know from my experience there can be reasons to make an exception, even in long term mentoring. Sometimes guys can for instance really benefit from a woman’s point of view, for instance on sex…

  2. I tend to think of mentoring as a longer drawn out process. I use the term coaching for specific tasks, learnings, etc. I agree whole heartedly with never meeting alone with someone from the opposite sex. Normally I have a witness around if it is public. I ask someone I know to sit in eyes (not ears) view in a restaurant at times.

    I try to restrain my efforts with the opposite sex to coaching. Telling them how to accomplish something in ministry, brain storming, etc. It focuses on encouragement and essentially information dumping onto them what they need to get to the next step in their ministry. Mentoring to me on the other hand is more of a life journey type process that’s much more intimate than coaching.

    1. I agree with your distinction between coachng, which is mostl goal-driven and functional, and mentoring, which is more relational. For coaching the reasons for same sex guidance may be a little less pressing, though I would still recmmend it. But that doesn’t mean I think there are no exceptions to this rule. Even with mentoring there can be reasons to have it be someone from the opposite sex, though in that case it’s crucially important everyone is on board with this.

  3. Great post! What a challenge. I always wrestle with this question everytime I look at my youth ministry policy. I agree with both Matt and Chris. Mentoring and Coaching are different things, and require different relationships. I often struggle with how Jesus would have delt with people. Would he not meet with someone because they were of a different gender? He did meet up with a samaritan woman.

    1. That’s actually a really good question…what would Jesus do? Well, the disciples were all men and I don’t think Jesus ever spend much time with any woman by herself. The conversation with the Samaritan woman took place a a well, a public place. But the cultural rules were completely different then, with women pretty much closed off from all men except their husbands and family. So I’m not sure it’s all that easy to determine what Jesus would do. I do think He would do anything to flee from sin, to not tempt Himself or others, so that’s a rule we can copy. Do you agree?

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