poles #4: single-gender vs. co-ed


Throughout my travels, it’s been interesting to see cases in which two quite different methodologies are widespread, but few college ministers seem to have considered any sort of combination or compromise.

Such is the case with today’s entry in the “College Ministry Poles” series, which asks, “Does your ministry provide single-gender or co-ed opportunities for spiritual discussion?”

I have been quite surprised to find a stark division here, and I’m not even sure that college ministers in each “camp” realize how many ministries are structured the opposite way!

***Important note: by “spiritual discussion,” I mean chances for interactive spiritual dialogue in an organized setting. This is most often accomplished in some kind of “small groups” but can take several other forms.

co-ed only

On the one hand, many college ministries only present opportunities for co-ed spiritual discussions. Their small groups (or other spiritual discussion offerings) are mixed-gender, many times with both a guy and a girl leader per group.

While the bulk of spiritual discussion within the year takes place in mixed-gender settings, there can be gender-specific “special events”: perhaps a particular week in which the guys huddle together and the girls soiree (or whatever girls do), and spiritual discussions ensue. Or separate guy retreats and girl retreats. Sometimes a few single-gender mentorship relationships might pop up within the group, too. But the week-in, week-out opportunities are nearly always co-ed.

single-gender only

On the other hand, many college ministries only present opportunities for single-gender spiritual discussions. Their small groups (or other spiritual discussion offerings) are boys-only and girls-only.

While the bulk of spiritual discussion within the year takes place in single-gender settings, there can be co-ed “special events”: perhaps a particular week in which a guys’ group and a girls’ group meet together for spiritual discussion. Or combined retreats, complete with spiritual discussion opportunities during that weekend. Sometimes a few co-ed discussion groups pop up organically, or ministry teams or service opportunities might provide some chance for mixed-gender spiritual discussion. But the week-in, week-out opportunities are nearly always single-gender.


Like I said, each of these is very common (which may surprise you!). Yet it’s been quite rare for me to see both options offered explicitly in a single ministry, except in some particularly large ministries. In these cases, both co-ed and single-gender groups may be offered in the context of several small group offerings.

Notably, many smaller college ministries may “accidentally” provide both: Their “large group gathering” is small enough to allow for spiritual discussion (with both guys and gals), while they offer single-gender small groups at other times.


  1. Has your ministry chosen one or the other? Why?
  2. Does one have more merit than the other?
  3. Is there any merit to providing both kinds of opportunities regularly?
  4. Is providing both even possible? How?

See the other entries in the College Ministry Poles series here.


[Click to comment or see any comments on this post!]


  1. We do both. For freshman ministry, we do gender-specific and for the rest we leave it up to the leader as to the vision of their group.

    I think there’s merit to allowing the leader establish their group based on their heart for God. I prefer co-ed groups because it forces interaction between the gender’s in a situation that should direct them towards acting godly toward one another. Plus it’s a real world situation, it would be way better for a guy to understand a girl’s perspective on things in a small group environment.

    Even in co-ed, the single gender thing can have some time where the guys and girls split off and enjoy those times.

  2. great post benson! what a great topic to discuss amongst college leaders!

    when i arrived at chico state in northern california, our movement was single sex.

    i noticed that because of the restrictive policies of our dorms as well as the isolating environment of chico, students were not making enough relational connections.

    we changed our studies to co-ed to increase the amount of relational connections are students had with each other, and it has DRAMATICALLY increased the amount of students we retain.

    we are sure to give our leaders the freedom and flexibility to have single sex breakout times so that guys and girls can discuss specific issues and have time to bond with each other.

    i would be really hesitant to leave it up to the students to decide, since small groups are a key tool for alignment and group expansion. i like what your saying about nurturing a student’s heart for God, but my experience has been when you let students decide structural pieces it ends up creating a very fragmented and constantly changing structure, which seems to hurt our ability to reach out and include new people.

    have you seen this in your context? i recognize i’m coming from a limited point of view and would love to hear if your experience has been different.

  3. You’re right in that it makes it a little more messy for us, but we focus more on the content of the group for the purpose of alignment rather than the structural nature.

    All our groups align around gospel enjoyment that flows into REAP (a bible study devotional based on understanding leading to obedience with the purpose being to get all involved rather than 1 teacher and 12+listeners), Prayer, Community (love one another), and Evangelism.

    We then have coaches that work with the student leader to flesh out what that looks like in their context. Does their context have immature believers? Than the bible part will need more training in understanding. Does their context have all non-believers? That affects things.

    So in the end, our hope is to provide freedom in the structure to allow the content to be more aptly applied to their specific context because out contexts very from the UT band drum line, to the pom squad, to the sororities, to Dean scholars, all over the place.

    feel free to push back or ask more questions.


  4. Whitney Rhyne

    From a students prospective. Frist I would like to say i am involved in several different campus ministries because they all offer different types of groups. 2 or the campus ministries offer a co-ed large group gathering and same sex small groups. I like same sex small groups because it is easier to open up and talk about more personal issues as ladies we grow very close to each other in our small group and share lots of hugs and tears together.

    I do also like co-ed small groups. Most of the time it seems that co-ed groups do not share as much, but the co-ed group i am in right now is doing a relationship study and it is awesome how a few of the men opened up and i learned so much this week because both the men and women weren’t afraid to open up. There are weeks in this groups where we will divide up into pairs and pray for each other, during those times men are with men and women are with women.

  5. Our college group meets in co-ed settings, and for us, because we are so small, it works out to be an advantage, and so far we have not had any problems with people opening up in our group times and speaking about personal things in our mixed gender group. We have a lot of times for single gender meetings and mentorship just by being able to live life together, go hang out at the Y, go to dinner somewhere, being intentional about connecting with each person. If/when our group grows to a number that is no longer “small group” we will break off into smaller groups under the mediation of one leader. It is that leader who pours into those people, not teaches at them, but is just there to ask the difficult questions, to move the study along, but not to overwhelm the group with “their opinion,” but to create an environment that cultivates discussion, debate, wrestling with the scripture and with their own thoughts/beliefs. The one on one, or one on group times are something that both Kim (our female leader) and I try to do intentionally throughout the week. I think for larger college groups it can be and should be kind of a both and, but in the course of “official meeting times” I am of the opinion that things should be co-ed gender groups with intentional opportunities for one on one or one on gender group informal mentoring.

    -Alan Felts

  6. logan that’s an insightful point you made about using content to align. i can see how that would be a powerful means of alignment.

    it sounds like you have some great coaching & training as well to ensure that the structure fits the context. perhaps because here at chico we don’t have as much variety i’ve focused on using the structure to align.

    thanks for your comments. they have definitely helped me getter a bigger perspective on ministry alignment!

  7. At the INN (Bellingham, WA), we offer both. Student leaders sign up to lead in general in the spring. When fall rolls around, the staff (knowing the students wishes and strenths), makes decisions about which people will be leading our Brother / Sister Groups (non-coed), or our casa groups (coed). Then we assign co-leaders. The casa groups always have a guy and girl leading.

    Next, when students sign up for small groups in the fall, they can circle which group type and night of the week they would prefer. Staff then match these people with leaders, based on ages, locations and more.

    Some of the casa groups have recognized a need to study non-coed from time to time. With a male and female leader, each can take the reigns for a study seperately, and the groups usually come back together with some good stuff to share from different perspectives.

  8. Ben Coleman

    We have a co-ed large group (Sunday night worship), both co-ed & single-gender mid size groups (Sunday School) and both kinds of mid-week small groups as well. Like Logan, our single-gender small groups are our freshmen ones. Other than these freshmen groups, we do not intentionally look at building a specific structure that we ask all our students to fit into. Rather we focus on developing our students into leaders, helping them learn to hear the Spirit on their own, providing a “fence” for ministry and then letting them build whatever playground the Spirit leads them to inside that fence. When I am able to release/send students to do the ministry instead of me doing it all, I not only see lost students reached, but my students learn how to live on mission for Christ.

    It’s messy, and I always tell my leaders up front that I fully expect them to fail. But by bursting that bubble in the beginning, they don’t feel so bad when they do and they more readily come to me when leadership/missional issues arise.

  9. I have seen benefits of both. As a student at a Bible college, I have unique perspective as we end up doing a wide variety. We do big group things such as Chapel and Family (our student-led chapel) that attract a couple hundred students are are co-ed. But also, we occasionally break into smaller groups to have discussions or prayer groups depending on what is going on.

    Then, we offer mid-size groups. We have dorm devos. Each dorm (for the guys) or dorm floor (for the girls) meet one night a week for a time of worship and fellowship together. This is an awesome time of single-gender groups. But, each floor is paired up so that we have Brother/Sister floors. Although this is not necessarily a small group because it is normally at least 40 students, it is a good time for co-ed fellowship.

    Then we have our “d-groups” that are discipleship groups. These are normally single-gender and where I have seen the most growth for me personally. I know that this is extremely beneficial for many students. However, there are also study groups that have to meet for certain classes that (at least from my experience) turn into small groups that are great for spiritual and life discussions.

    I have been involved with both and enjoy both, but the deepest impact has been my d-group of girls that I meet with. I think that the biggest thing is that the group is truly authentic and learns to love and meet the needs of the others in the group.

  10. Larka Vesper

    We have had this discussion every year on our staff, for our campus ministry in Nebraska. From my perspective it is helpful to have coed groups for freshman and new people. They have the comfort of bringing someone with them like a boyfriend/girlfriend. They are looking for opportunities to socialize and make friends. When we do have same gender activities we are able to connect them with other men or women from Challenge, in our small groups.
    The older students do well in either setting but are comfortable enough to be part of an all guys or all gals group. They end up going into deeper discussions on certain topics or feel more comfortable asking for prayer rearding certain things. They have some established relationships already and can invite people into the group. This also makes room for some unique opportunities like the men serving the women’s group in a fun way or the other way around. The rest of the Challenge large group events are coed for the most part so they have plenty of opportunites to share community with the opposite sex.
    There is no right way to do it of course. I think God leads us differently so at times, knowing who is involved in our ministry and what the leaders feel passionate about, we can change it up, I am excited to see other’s perspectives on this topic.

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