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Thursday, April 17, 2008
Cleaver & Conundrums: Why I Don't Do Women's Retreats
Cleaver and Conundrums - Why I Don’t Do Women’s Retreats

Oh, joy. 'Tis the season for spring women's retreats. These annual events are staples on many calendars. But not mine. Here are some reasons why:

 In my experience, women’s retreats (as well as most “women’s ministry”) usually serve up the Christian version of lite beer: half the calories with half the taste. They invariably focus on that infamous, overworked icon, The Proverbs 31 Woman or its kissing cousin, Created to be His Helpmeet. The result: a bland, flavorless brew seasoned with too little (or sloppy) theology, bare-bones Bible, and a douse of June Cleaver that could choke a mule. (Pardon the culinary metaphor. It seemed to fit.)

 The average women’s retreat doesn’t engage my mind, which gravitates more toward academic and scholarly pursuits. (Granted, these aren’t everyone’s cup of sunshine, but a few occasional rays would be nice.) I’ve been told that I think more like a man than a woman. I haven’t yet decided whether that’s a compliment or something else. Whatever it is, it rarely puts in an appearance at the retreats I’ve attended.

 An over-emphasis on emotions. There’s nothing wrong with emotions, but my emotions aren’t the sum total of who I am in Christ. I crave exegetical accuracy, depth and relevance, careful research, scholarship, razor-sharp hermeneutics and the application of critical thinking and analytical skills in theology, history, science, literature, fine arts, economics, social science, and philosophy. (Is there a place for those elephantine doses of emotional, crying jag, touchy-feely, Kleenex-clutching retreat sessions? I suppose. I just don’t see why we should begin and end there – or why they’re sometimes deemed the sole point of connection between women.)

 Weekend themes of “getting them grounded in the Word” and “growing in Jesus” and such. Nothing wrong with that, but implicit in these themes is the assumption that “women of the Word” is the exclusive territory of the retreat planners who will now teach the rest of us what we’re missing.

 Retreats billed as “ya’ll come” that focus on young married women with kids. I’m within spitting distance of age 50. I also have an eight-year old. The conundrum: I’m apparently too long in the tooth to qualify as a “young married,” but haven’t sprouted enough gray hair to qualify as a Titus 2 “older woman.” Betwixt and between. Retreats don’t seem to know what to do with women like me.

 I understand the need to make the best use of limited time, but I find the jam-packed, frenetic pace of many retreats to be overwhelming and exhausting. As an introvert, I need time to decompress and process between sessions. I also don’t see the point in departing a “retreat” feeling more fatigued and depleted than I did when I arrived!

 The atmosphere at some of these shindigs is a Xerox copy of a weekend-long Tupperware party. Nothing against Tupperware per se, but frankly, I have better things to do with my time. I also don’t want to get stuck in a cabin (again) with a bunch of slumber party retros who want to stay up all night and giggle. When I turn in for the night I want to turn in for the night, not regress back to junior high. Boil and bubble, toil and trouble, grump, grump, grump!)

 Logistics. Since my husband works weekends, I have to make special arrangements for child care in order to attend a weekend event. This doesn’t always work out. It’s nobody’s fault – just a fact of life.

 My husband isn’t invited. This may sound oxy-moronish as in, “Hello? It’s a women’s retreat. No testosterone allowed.” However, as I said, my husband works most weekends and on the rare occasions when he gets a Saturday off, I want to spend the day with him.

 Sinking to “the lowest common denominator.” I dislike retreats that revolve around themes such as Healing the Broken-Hearted, Restoring Your Wounded Soul, etc.. IMHO, these areas of one’s life are best kept private unless I choose otherwise. I balk at artificial attempts to put them on public parade.

 The last time I was “invited” to a women’s retreat (2006), I gingerly accepted against my better judgment. Mistake! The person who offered to pay my way and watch my kids for the weekend extended the invitation in such a way that I felt trapped into her plans and agenda, bereft of a gracious way to decline without igniting some Hindenburgish fall-out (long, boring story).

Whether I choose to attend a women’s retreat or not – for whatever reason – is my decision. I don’t need to justify it to other women, nor do I need to defend my choice to those who insinuate — sometimes with the subtlety of a freight train – that if I was “as spiritual as they are,” I’d make retreat an annual event, too. (My personal favorite was the woman who suggested I’d be “letting Satan rob you of a blessing” if I don’t attend the next retreat) Now I just smile and say, “No thank you.”

 The “women’s ministries/retreat” paradigm that never gets beyond telling me how I can better submit, pray for my husband and children, have a quiet time, or how you, too, can be a better Suzy Homemaker, Betty Crocker and Martha Stewart. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but do we have to grind that gear forever? Can we move on? These focuses represent only a small fraction of the incredibly intricate, mysterious, and glorious complexities of Christian womanhood that are rarely discussed, explored, or applied.

Lessons Learned:
1. June Cleaver and The Proverbs 31 woman are not synonymous.
2. Trying to manipulate emotions to generate a contrived “catharsis” is usually invasive and often insulting.
3. Trust my best judgment instead of someone else’s – no matter how well-intentioned. “No” is a perfectly valid response. Use it.
4. Bring a book. If nothing on the retreat docket interests me, a good book will.
5. Avoid going to these events solo if at all possible. There’s nothing like showing up at a women’s retreat alone when everyone else is “buddied up.”
6. I am no less a Christian woman because I choose not to attend women’s retreats than are those who do. Neither my faith nor my walk with Christ is validated by doing or not doing something just because “everyone else is doing it.”

Finally, retreat planning isn’t for the fainthearted. It’s not easy planning a retreat “menu” that will nourish a group with such diverse backgrounds, educations, interests, ages, experiences, and perspectives. Kudos to those hardy souls who undertake this Herculean task. Given that, why not spice up the standard “retreat recipe” with some “fresh ingredients”?

Instead of spooning out an anemic, warmed-over stew of Ten Steps to June Cleaverdom, How to Be a Better Wife, Mother, and Haus Frau, or Help-meeting 101, how about a more filling version that starts with a question? (Aw heck, why not several?) Like, “What IS a woman?” Not what does she do, but who is she? Where’s her heart? What’s her design? Why did God create Eve? How has God revealed Himself by creating ishshah, Woman, and what can we learn from Him about How, What, Why, When, Where, and Who we are in Christ?

With a “menu” like that on a retreat calendar, I just may dive in for for another bite!

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posted by Euodia at 2:27 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 4/17/2008 04:45:00 PM, Blogger Lydia

    how about a more filling version that starts with a question?

    I like that approach.

    In addition, I could be much more easily lured into a retreat if it was a little more outside the box. Rather than having a retreat for women (or men, people in age group X, married people, singles, etc), why not base retreats on specific interests or topics?

    For example, I'd be very interested in a retreat that was focused on something related to social justice.

    Others may be interested in, say, a retreat that is focused on hermeneutics (the science of interpreting the Bible the way that the people who wrote it may have interpreted it) or eschatology (theology or philosophy that is related to the end times). And still other people may, indeed, be interested in pastel colours and emotional highs.

    There's nothing wrong with liking any (or all...or none :P) of these things. But it would be healthy for Christians to take a giant step back from this arranged marriage between gender, age, social background etc and what we assume people will be interested in.

  • At 4/17/2008 05:37:00 PM, Blogger Lara

    A-MEN! I don't just avoid women's retreats, I avoid women's ministries in general for those reasons.

    I've lived almost all of my life as a single person, and I'm almost too old to have a kid now that I am finally married. I have a job. I have a brain I like using. I'm not into putting on public displays of emotion. I like spending time with Hubby. I fit in at women's retreats about as well as bacon at a kosher wedding.

    I prefer the idea of retreats based on topics as well. Biblical languages, social justice, creation, Old Testament history, bring them on! Leave June Cleaver with the TV set.

  • At 4/17/2008 08:29:00 PM, Blogger wilsford

    emotions reminds me of the next-to-last women's retreat I attended. The featured speaker (a woman whose name I won't reveal, but it rhymed with a popular brand of cheesebrick)used her words to rake open the barely closed wounds present in every audience: cancer, death of a child, divorce, etc. And, since intense emotion is contagious, in about 20 minutes most of the audience was engaged in full, shoulder-shaking sobs.

    Sure, there was a point somewhere in all that, but I missed it, as I finally broke convention and left the room. My bet is that ripping open someone's wounds in order to create a public display of their sorrow is not quite what sharing is supposed to be about.

  • At 4/17/2008 09:12:00 PM, Anonymous Emily

    You need to go to one of these retreats: http://www.soulation.org/
    Specifically, the Ruby Slippers retreat. =)

  • At 4/17/2008 09:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

    I know!!!

    I haven't been to a womens retreat for years for precisely those reasons.

    I was talked into going to a one-day womens conference a couple of months ago. I only went because they asked me to run a workshop. Honestly, by 10am I felt that I had been thoroughly convinced that I am woman, I am beautiful, I am loved, I should love myself. By 11 I was nauseated. By 4, the next person who gave me a pink heart-shaped chocolate, a pink bag with hearts on it, a pink cupcake, a pink candle, a pink floral mug or a gushing greeting was going to get a black eye. I felt like screaming at the top of my lungs "There is a world out there, people! What are you thinking???"

  • At 4/17/2008 10:22:00 PM, Blogger Charlotte Wyncoop

    Can we do a topic oriented retreat that doesn't have to be "female" and have a gender equal conversation? I'm not looking forward to going back to a "normal" church and getting back to the "oh, but you're a gurrrlll" attitudes.

  • At 4/18/2008 01:20:00 AM, Blogger Hannah

    I agree with a lot of what you said, but I still see and have experienced the good and the God of ladies meeting together and being honest about who they are and who they'd like to be. The seminar/worship service style retreat was never my thing, but it must work for some people.

  • At 4/18/2008 11:20:00 AM, Blogger One Voice of Many

    I also dreaded women's retreats. Although our church called them women's advances. I still called them retreats if, for no other reason, to irritate the women's pastor who took it so super-seriously.

    I was the worship leader at our church's ADVANCES and even at that I dreaded it each year.



  • At 4/18/2008 06:19:00 PM, Blogger Lydia

    The seminar/worship service style retreat was never my thing, but it must work for some people.

    Most definitely. I'm even related to some of those people. ;)

    The problem is, there don't seem to be many alternatives for those of us for whom it doesn't work.

  • At 4/18/2008 06:24:00 PM, Blogger Nancy

    Don't laugh but the best women's retreat I have ever attended was a silent retreat. They host it every year at an abbey, each woman has her own room and access to gardens, labrynth, and courtyard zen garden. The silence begins Friday night and is not lifted until noon on Sunday. It is a guided retreat, so there are times when all meet together and receive instructions and so forth. However, there is tons of solitude and you can choose to avoid the agtehrings if you wish. Meals are provided by the abbey and are healthy, tasty and plentiful. And silent. Not only are you not allowed to break the silence but you must walk slowly (this was actually more difficult for me than keeping quiet).

    To be honest, I was concerned about a silent retreat going into it as I am a notorious talker. But I can not begin to describe how indulgent this retreat felt. I had no sense of deprivation at all and was sad when it was over. If you have never attended a silent retreat, I highly recommend it.

  • At 4/20/2008 09:07:00 AM, Blogger R.L.Scovens

    I've never been to a woman's retreat, so your post gives me alot to think about! I'm thinking of going to Joyce Meyer's Women's conference in St.Louis though. I guess I won't know if they're all the same until I try a few out, huh?lol

  • At 4/20/2008 03:53:00 PM, Blogger la_fleur_epuisee

    I don't know ... I honestly haven't been to many women's retreats (because I'm too young to have much experience? too poor? most recently involved in a church community that's not really into mainstream Christian retreats and events?), so I'm not weighing in from a standpoint of much personal experience. I will say, though, that I'm wary of being too down on women's retreats in general because
    1) are they ALL so bad?
    2) is a "retreat" really the place for getting all intellectual? Or, to put it differently, perhaps those of us who are fascinated by hermeneutics, for instance, should get together sometimes, and other times we should hang out with (and celebrate with!) the half of the population that shares our womanness (however we conceive of that womanness)?
    3) maybe we should use our frustration to get up a conference that's not so sacchariney or manipulative, but maybe we should also be wary of always wanting things made over in our own image: isn't humble interaction with difference the start of everything good?

  • At 4/21/2008 10:24:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

    Aren't women's retreats sort of like the embodiment of the women's ministry? I would love to see this framed in lieu of women's ministry period.

    Like - what do you find on this blog that isn't found on a mixed gender blog? Should there be a "women's only" space at all, and what should it look like?

    On one hand, I know for sure that there are things that I deal with that only other women would understand. The support from/of other women is unique in that regard.

    On the other hand, when it becomes topical - leadership, parenting, etc - what's the difference?

    Just thinking out loud - great post!


  • At 4/21/2008 10:50:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    Thought I would chime in on the good discussion.

    Officially Emerging Women isn't women only. Men are more than welcome here. This is a place to focus on the thoughts, needs, and questions of women. most of the EW retreats have been open to men as well - as long as they come willing to learn from women and focus on the needs and viewpoints of women. It is a way for our voice to be encouraged in a world where it is often drowned out.

    At our retreat I know we try to balance the intellectual with the emotional (we are wholistic people), but it is never right for everyone. We've had complaints that they are too girly, too theological, too heady, and too emotional. It is hard to please everyone which is why I think having a variety of options would be a good thing. Women are different and desire different things from ministries like these. Women's gathering can be what one wants to make of them - a cynical attitude or assuming one is one the outside/minority from the get go means one will most likely not get anything from a retreat like that. At the same retreat I've heard women complain - oh I'm the only ______ (young mom, senior, college student, single, ...). That was never the actual case, just previous stereotypes projected onto a group of strangers. Perhaps entering such environments with a willingness to serve and get to know others not exactly like ourselves could help heal the issues we as women have with each other.

    As for having retreats at all - I do struggle with that since I hate the typical women's ministry thing/retreat. I do see that coming together as women is safe for many women and the only way they can get away from the demands of everyday life. Women who can't travel with the family to the major conferences can get away for a local weekend just for women. I think women deserve to be a part of this whole emerging conversation, so providing whatever resources to help make that happen is valuable in my eyes.

    That said there will eventually be more EW retreats. The NW group had one recently, and I hope to jump back into helping plan and coordinate a couple once my life settles down. (a crazy pregnancy and upcoming cross country move have forced me to step back from a lot of stuff this year).

  • At 4/21/2008 01:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous


    Maybe "women-focused" would have been a better choice of words, heh - sorry.

    I have seen men interact here and I think that's great also - I totally acknowledge the mixed gender (another poor choice of words) within boundaries ("..as long as they come willing to learn from women and focus on the needs and viewpoints of women.")

    To come clean, I find myself feeling relegated when men recommend the latest book on women leaders or women in the bible, etc -- and even when other women do; and would love to find the words for the difference between that (relegation) and the relationship that I have with other women that is truly unique - if there is a difference.


  • At 4/22/2008 12:47:00 PM, Blogger Leya

    Ha! This February I finally gave into my friend/coworker's pestering and went to the Women's retreat. I gave up bitterness for lent, and women's retreats made me bitter, so I figured I should just go and face my bitterness head on! In the end it wasn't so bad, but I'm still pretty sure that women's retreats are not for me. I am not an arts and crafty scrapbooking kinda gal. I like dirt, swings, and searching for catchable wildlife (I'm a 10 yearold tomboy at heart).

    To be honest I don't remember much of my retreat on a spiritual level beyond God making it clear to me that I had to make a choice in whether I was going to continue going to the particular church.

    All that to say... I agree women's retreats are not for all women.

  • At 4/22/2008 02:42:00 PM, Blogger Janice

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 4/28/2008 04:06:00 PM, Blogger wit4life

    Retreats I've gone to have been heavily emotional too! It's just too much. They aren't all bad, and can have some great teaching too, depending on the teacher, of course.

    The Enlightenment era started this issue I believe. The faith/reason split put religion in the top story. Emotion, experience, faith, all got lumped up there, and things like intellect and reason stayed on the bottom, with science, "in the real world". This is an unreal system. We are whole people with real Creator and there are not really two stories.

    Then in America, the Revivalist period was dominated by emotional, experiential, tent revivals that spread through the country by folks who had little theological grounding or education. Thousands made alter conversions, and this was the basis for the Evangelicalism we have today.

    Tissue-based ladies retreats are only a natural consequence, I suppose.

  • At 4/28/2008 05:15:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Kwon

    Wit, I like your phrase, "tissue-based." Nice.

  • At 5/01/2008 07:44:00 AM, Anonymous DK (Diane)

    Wow! It's always so uplifting to come to sites like these and know you are not crazy-alone! We are just beginning to look at women's ministry at our 5-year old, growing church in the suburbs of a large city on the east coast. All of the previous comments - I could echo them in spades. Tissue-based - blech! Pink, pink, pink - spare me! Not to say that all the women who say they love these are wrong - just not for me. As we try to put our arms around what a 'new kind of women's ministry' would look like, we survey the women at the church, and they don't know - they don't even talk about tissues and pink. They just don't know what they need/want. I think the whole women's retreat venue got stuck back in the 50's when women were at home with the kids, and just wanted to get away for a weekend and just be girls (the junior high pajama party comment made me LoL!).

    The year is 2008 and we need to go beyond what was has been and find what should be. The question is 'how' and what does that look like. And should it even be a new cookie-cutter approach as it has been in the past, or should it be an open pattern that allows for the diversity and difference within each community? Hate to figure out some formula and 10 years from now be in the same conversation.

    This blog is a great place to read about what other like-minded searchers are trying to accomplish. Thanks for being a shining voice in the scrap-bookie world of Stepford Christian women!!

    DK (Diane)

  • At 5/26/2008 04:08:00 PM, Blogger zorra

    This discussion reminds me of the year my friend/colleague and I put together and led a women's retreat for our church, and included both silent, individual meditation time and several sessions of Bible sutdy together. Most of the written comments at the end of the weekend were positive, but one person wrote, "Too much Bible--we need something more relevant to everyday life." Oookay....Ever since then, the retreats have been more of a weekend junket, with very little spiritual content at all. I don't go. I mean, I can't speak for every one, but I don't need or want a vacation from my husband, and that seems to be what a lot of people are using the weekend for.


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