Discipling Men vs. Discipling Women


Debbie called me on Friday because she’s having a hard time in her marriage. Like many pastors, I regularly put out fires like this one. I talked and prayed with her, and then I called her husband to talk over the situation.

There are a thousand questions that I have to sort through as I shepherd John and Debbie (not their real names). Do I invest more in John and send Debbie to a godly woman? Do I meet both of them for marital counseling? Do I meet up with Debbie, and, if so, what is my pastoral responsibility to her?

But it’s not just practical questions that I need to wrestle through in a situation like this. At a more basic level, how should the Bible’s teaching about men and women inform my pastoral work?

“Complementarianism” is a term for the biblical teaching that calls men to self-sacrificial leadership in both the home and the church, and calls women to joyfully submit to that leadership. This short article thinks through how complementarianism affects the practical nuts and bolts of counseling and discipleship. Two questions will define our discussion: 1) What does a pastor need to think about in discipling and counseling a man? 2) What does a pastor need to think about in discipling or counseling a woman?


What does a pastor need to keep in mind when he disciples and counsels men?

A Biblical Vision for Discipling Men

Let’s start with a biblical vision for discipling men: we must encourage Christ-likeness through one-on-one discipleship. Older Christian men are to deliberately invest in younger Christian men, encouraging their spiritual growth (Tit. 2:1).

Our biblical vision can be expanded in two specific ways: 1) we should encourage men to love God’s Word (Ps. 1:2; Josh. 1:8) and his people (Eph 4:11-16); 2) we should encourage men to strong, self-sacrificial, servant leadership in the home and the church. Men are called to look like Christ, imitating his life-giving, sacrificial service (Eph 5:21-33).

Practical Strategy for Discipling Men

Moving from vision to strategy, it’s worth noting that pastors often neglect developing strong male leaders in the congregation because pastors use their time and energy defensively. The tyranny of the urgent rules their schedules. They allow their time to be spent reacting to various crises, or they spend it preparing lessons, sermons, and events for the upcoming Sunday. As a result, many pastors have no long-term strategy to cultivate male leadership in the church and the home. How do we accomplish such a strategy?

Start small. Pick a few men who have the potential to be good leaders and set up regular lunches with them. Be proactive about building into these men. And, if you have a leadership team, encourage them to do the same.

Discipling men is extremely important. As the pastor, you should set the example for others in this. But if you want to get more bang for your buck, you might consider developing a men’s discipleship group that helps men to think theologically about all of life. Pick good theological resources that help men apply theology to issues like marriage, communication, finances, sex, parenting, working for a secular employer, and so on. You can find a good example of this type of leadership development in pastor Mike McKinley’s book Church Planting is for Wimps (see chapter seven).


If pastors should disciple men to be leaders in the home and in the church, how does this differ from discipling women?

Biblical Vision for Discipling Women

Let’s start again with a biblical vision. As with men, pastors should seek to encourage greater Christ-likeness through one-on-one discipling, only in this case, women should do the vast majority of that discipling. In the normal course of relationships in the church, men should disciple men and women should disciple women. So encourage older Christian women to invest in younger Christian women, helping them to grow spiritually, which is precisely what Paul tells Titus to instruct the women in his church to do (Tit. 2:3-5).

How then should a (male) pastor think about knowing, caring for, and shepherding the women in his congregation?

If we think of discipling as long-term, deliberate mentoring, it doesn’t seem wise for a pastor to disciple a woman (for example, by meeting with her weekly over the course of a year). We should reserve that type of intense spiritual mentoring for gender-specific relationships. That leaves us with counseling, which is a more time-limited activity.

While some argue that pastors should never counsel a woman, that doesn’t seem to fit with what Scripture says about the shepherd knowing all of his sheep (Acts 20:28; cf. John 10:12, 16), and the specific example that Jesus sets for us. In John 4, Christ has a very personal, one-on-one conversation with a Samaritan woman. Male pastors do need to personally shepherd the women in their congregations.

What are some of the specific things pastors should encourage women in? Pastors should encourage their love for the Word and the church, their respect for authority, their desire to make the home primary (even if they are working outside the home), and their growth in personal evangelism. For married women, pastors should encourage their responsiveness to their husband’s leadership. For single women, pastors should encourage them to follow godly authority in the church, especially when their fathers are not spiritually involved in their lives.

Yet pastors should primarily seek to shepherd women in these ways through equipping women in the congregation to disciple other women. How can pastors facilitate and build this culture of women discipling women?

Practical Strategy for Discipling Women

In order to build a church culture that encourages discipleship among women, pastors should teach about the importance of discipleship whenever it naturally comes up in Scripture during a Sunday morning sermon series. The goal in this is to encourage the older women of the church to disciple the younger women.

We can also teach about discipleship in other venues. For example, at my church we regularly offer a Saturday seminar on discipleship to help new members think about how to be discipled and how to disciple others. We also offer a three month long Sunday school class on discipleship every year. The last time we taught the class, I contacted several older women in the church and encouraged them to attend. Teaching and modeling help build a church culture that takes discipleship seriously.

Those are some ways to build an overall culture of discipleship, but how does the pastor personally shepherd female members? Obviously, there will be plenty of opportunities to do one-off counseling meetings, where the pastor provides general advice and biblical counsel for life’s daily problems.

If the problem requires more than one meeting, the pastor has to judge when time-limited counseling crosses over into extended discipleship. But before things even reach this point, many pastors stop meeting out of necessity because of the pressures of their busy schedules. Instead of meeting with the woman themselves, they wisely connect the female member with someone else in the church (such as a female staff member, the pastor’s wife, or an older woman in the congregation) or someone on the outside who might help (such as a local female counselor or a parachurch organization that specializes in issues like domestic violence).

In order to wisely counsel women, pastors need to create a number of boundaries:

  1. Limit the number of appointments you have with any particular woman. You want to be careful not to foster an emotional dependence on the pastor. Especially in the case of women in bad marriages, you don’t want to be an emotional or spiritual replacement for their husbands.
  2. Be very, very wary of emotionally dependent women. Very needy women hunger to find a man to pay attention to them, and pastors often have a sympathetic, listening ear. While you do want to offer kind and godly counsel, you don’t want to foster a wrong emotional intimacy or dependence.
  3. As much as possible—and depending on your family situation— include your wife.
  4. Be sure to do your counseling in an office where you are always highly visible. Put your chair in the line of sight of those outside of the office. If your office door does not have a window in it, then replace the door with one that does.
  5. Do your counseling with women only during work hours, so that the church secretary or other staff will be present in the church office complex. Never be alone with a woman in the church so that you can always be above reproach (1 Tim 3:2).
  6. If possible, situate the secretary’s desk just outside of your office.
  7. Some pastors actually prefer to keep the door slightly propped open (or completely open), making sure that if the secretary hears anything she keeps it in confidence.
  8. Don’t do counseling in a secluded part of the church, but somewhere where there is a good bit of traffic, with people constantly buzzing around.
  9. Make sure that at least one other staff member knows (or at least has access to) your schedule. If no one else knows what you are doing, there is more potential for you to hide things.
  10. Make sure you have regular accountability with another pastor or leader in your church, which will include talking about your most difficult counseling situations.


What an immense privilege it is to be an undershepherd of Jesus. Whether it is men or women, we hope to care well for the sheep entrusted to our care. Pastors, learn from Christ’s example: “I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11).

Deepak Reju

Deepak Reju is the senior pastor of Ogletown Baptist Church in Newark, Delaware. He has a Ph.D. in counseling from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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