Does gender separation impact the Bible study experience at Hope?

During the first few weeks of school, I got the email from Campus Ministries about signing up for small group Bible study. I remember thinking about my schedule and going over all the slots, seeing many different options for times, but only two options for type: men’s or women’s. I did see the YoungLife and and the Missions group options too, but I couldn’t find any other opportunities for a small group. I signed up for one anyway and didn’t give much thought to it. Trust me, I love the group of girls I get to see on Tuesday nights. We always have a lot of fun talking and connecting, as well as diving deep into the book of Acts. This got me thinking: does it make a difference if we separate genders to study the Word? 

I spoke with four fellow students who lead Bible studies this semester: Rebecca Gillespie (’23), Ellen Anderson (’23), Owen Leibrock (’23), and Nathan Melby (’23). They had a lot of insight and experience with both participating in and leading small groups. I learned that in the past there weren’t only gender specific small group options. Like me, Anderson assumed there would be an option to join a co-ed small group this semester, and was surprised that there weren’t more choices for students. She guessed that possibly because of COVID, Campus Ministries wanted to decrease the number and size of small groups. They mentioned that in the past the co-ed groups were much larger than the individual ones, so that could be one reason for the lack of opportunity.

Either way, they all agreed that having only gender specific small groups, at least this semester, was something to note; but how much does it change the experience? Melby thought that it makes a difference. He said that guys and girls don’t necessarily have completely different issues they go through, but being in a group with all guys sometimes makes it easier to open up about specific and personal issues. Gillespie had a similar perspective. She said that there isn’t really a concrete barrier between the two genders, but there is a certain level of vulnerability she finds possible to achieve with her all girls group as opposed to a co-ed one. She added that it is “just the way the world is, [and] it is just easier for women to be more vulnerable with other women.”  

This, however, begs another question: does the separation make it more difficult to be vulnerable with people of the opposite gender? Both Leibrock and Melby didn’t think so. Melby said that it may be dependent on specific issues, but otherwise, being in gender specific groups doesn’t have any negative effects. Leibrock felt like it actually helps with opening up in general, at least for his group. He said that being in these groups actually “helps practice outside vulnerability” and gives the space for students to be able to share about different issues first with the group of guys or girls they are comfortable with before doing so with anyone else. Getting used to vulnerability in these settings allows students to go beyond that small-group environment and more easily engage deeply with those around them.

Do these students have a preference? Leibrock said that he is really happy with his group of guys. To him, it allows for more than just discussion of the passage and various small talk, and like Gillespie, he thought that it facilitates deeper connections and gives space for vulnerability. However, Gillespie added that as much as she loves being a leader for her all girl group, the co-ed space is an equally valid place for students to grow in their walk with the Lord. It is important for her to be “sharpened by brothers in Christ” as well. Anderson values her time with her group, but she also said that in a co-ed setting, there is a way of getting a different perspective that is equally special. She added that “we could be talking about the same thing, but have a totally different experience to relate to.” All of these students see how the value of studying the Word in different contexts that can help them grow in many different ways.

Moving forward, the students wanted there to be more options for co-ed Bible studies, next semester and in the future. Melby found the lack of different co-ed options this semester pretty upsetting, and Anderson recalled that even last year there weren’t many options for mixed gender small groups. She added that it would give more people the opportunity to get involved with Campus Ministries. Gillespie also said that there is already a lot of gender separation at Hope, considering we are at a Christian private school with a vastly different gender ratio. Since there are floors or whole buildings separating girls and boys, it can be difficult for some students to make those community connections, and she said that having a small group open to everyone would really help with making connections and getting different perspectives on the Word.

However, Melby brought up the one caveat of a co-ed small group: student’s motivations to be a part of one. With guys and girls bible studies, the intentions are pretty clear: we meet to grow closer in our walks with the Lord while making deep and personal connections in a trusted group. Although this should ring true with co-ed groups—and for most it does—sometimes the focus can be lost when people come into it with the wrong intentions. They might choose to participate because they want to find a girl or guy, and by prioritizing, that they miss out on the full value of the experience. Melby said that part of what he likes about being in his guys group is that the only motivation to join is to grow and enjoy connecting with each other, and Anderson thought so as well. She added that she could see how easy the members of her own group would omit details or be hesitant to share their responses and reflections if there were guys in the group, too. Saying exactly how they feel is an important part of being in a small group, and being separated allows for that to be easier. As long as people join groups for the right reasons they will gain a valuable and unique experience, regardless of the type.

The students interviewed agreed unanimously that both co-ed and gender specific Bible studies have their own unique space. They are two completely different conversations and ways of growing and studying the Word that are equally valid. Having more options for small groups is something that all of these leaders agree Hope College should implement more in the future. Because when we study the book of Acts, we don’t only talk about the reading. We share our struggles and hardships, as well as our highlights and “buffalos.” A Bible study is where a comfortable group of students can share whatever is on their hearts and minds, however funny, sad, or close to your heart. So does being separated matter? Well, that depends on the type of experience students want to get out of their group. And with the right motivations, they will thrive and grow anywhere they choose.

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