Cleaver and Conundrums – Why I Don’t Do Women’s Retreats

Update: 6/13/08

It’s been eight months since this thread was originally posted and time for an update.  I plan to launch a series exploring “Christian femininity” (”Proverbs 31 and beyond”) in the near future.  While the meme doesn’t intend, purport or presume to be the final word – or even an exhaustive rendering of the subject – hopefully it’ll generate some additional thinking, musing, digging and growing.  “Some Total” gets us started.


Tis the season for planning this year’s women’s retreat.  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 son.  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.   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 – intentionally or otherwise – 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.

So, why not spice up the standard “retreat recipe” with some “fresh ingredients”?

Instead of spooning out a warmed-over brew 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 another bite.


Click here for related discussions:

Also see 20 Ways to Kill a Small Group (or women’s ministry)


22 Responses

  1. And I thought I was the only one who felt this way. I am comforted knowing I am not alone. When you plan a retreat let me know.
    Many blessings

  2. Thank God I’m not the only one who has such an aversion to women’s retreats and women’s ministry in general. Sheesh! I’m single and never have been married and don’t have kids, so a lot of the stuff discussed in women’s ministry doesn’t apply to me. Plus there aren’t many single women without kids in my church, so I may have to go somewhere else to find more friends.

  3. Apparently you have never been to one of OUR retreats! I started planning retreats about 5 years ago, never having been to one (thank God!). Had no idea what I was doing, but did it anyway. We have 2 per year: Spring Retreat and a Fall retreat which we call Faith Boot Camp. My daughter is the speaker at all of them. She has offered to bring in guest speakers, but the women want her. Last Spring a woman asked to speak to our staff, so we gathered together. She told us:”I have been to many retreats, some very expensive. I came and went and I am sure no one even knew I was there. I have never felt so welcome at any of the others, nor have I had so much fun at a retreat! I was blessed by the speaker, too! I WILL be back!” and she came back this Oct. to Faith Boot Camp. We have had many women say,”This is not like any other retreat I have ever been to! All we usually do is have services, eat, shop, and go home” My daughter and I discussed it and decided we are so glad we didn’t know what we were doing when we started planning retreats! Ha! Yes, our services are very spiritual and we worship God. But we also believe in having fun! We plan activities such as a luau, a fancy tea, we swim, horseback ride, have an obsticle course, and lots of other activities. The focus isn’t as much on you as it is on Jesus. Our next retreat is in April in Arkansas. I challenge you ladies to come!

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this! I totally relate on so many levels and like others who commented, I am relieved to know I am not the only one who dislikes ‘women’s retreats’. I have been to plenty. When we were in full time ministry, wives/moms were ‘required’ (code for forced) to go to them. Always over emotional, always awkward, I always couldn’t wait to leave. You outlined my thoughts so well, especially the desire to talk intellectually. If my church (which I dearly love) told me there would be paintball and minimal crying, I might show up. No thanks as of now.

  5. Sue:

    Nope, I’ve never been to one of your retreats – and live quite a way from Arkansas. But it sounds like “having no idea what you’re doing” may be a definite plus. I’m into the fun thing as well as horseback riding, swimming, etc. One question: Could you work in a fencing class or two? 🙂

  6. Jill:

    I know what you mean about the “over emotional, always awkward” deal. Not my cup of tea either. Paintball, hike in the hills and Puccini all sound good to me!

  7. You nailed it on the head with this. I have very similar thoughts and feelings about retreats and ministries to women that are found so often in church. I’ve gone through some of the same experiences you did, so much so that I felt I could have written this post! I would much rather sit and discuss with women and men the deep theological truths and apply them to my life as a woman with gifts outside of the “norm” of happy homemaking. I want to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn of Him.

    Thank you for your expressing what I’ve felt.

  8. I have subscribed to your blog and wanted to thank you for articulating many of the thoughts I’ve had about the treatment of women in the church as well! It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

    GOD Bless :)!

    • You’re not alone. 🙂

      If you haven’t already done so, you may want to check into Christians for Biblical Equality. See sidebar under Links. Truckloads of resources and encouragement, from top biblical scholars.


  9. I also note the prevalence of featured speakers at these retreats whose testimonies go something like:

    “Before I was a Christian, I was studying this and that in school, then I pursued a successful career. After I became a Christian I stopped. Today I am a stay at home mother of three.”

    Now, there is everything wrong with idolizing one’s education or career and there is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mom. However, one can see the underlying message is seeking to equate a woman’s “Christianity” with her status as a homemaker!

    What about inviting female guest speakers who glorify God in the workplace or even secular academia? Who do risky missionary or medical work overseas? etc…

  10. Hi! I found you while simply googling “Women’s Retreats.”

    God has been working on me for 5 years to start a Women’s Ministry in my church. I’ve read your article and I couldn’t agree with you more.

    The goal in our new Women’s Ministry will be to learn more about Jesus, find out how to me more like Him, and to share Him with others. Everything else that occurs will be secondary.

    Will there be some fun stuff?!! Sure! However, there won’t be just random shopping trips just to have something to do. I firmly believe that satan is in the middle of Busy.

    We’re going to be focused on being Kingdom Minded Women and learning to share Christ in our very own modern day Jerusalem!

    Thanks for your article. It blessed this 34 year old (ahem young) woman’s heart!

    For God’s Kingdom,

    • Good for you!

      The refrain we hear from many Christian women – those willing to say so, that is – is that they’re bored and frustrated with most “women’s ministries” in general and “women’s retreats” in particular. More and more women aren’t buying “fluff ministry” – bulletin-board decorating, card-making, cookie exchanges, June Cleaver-type curricula. They want more. Something they can sink their teeth into. They want to be challenged, their faith stretched, strengthened, enhanced. They want meat instead of the usual Jell-o that’s served up at far too many “women’s ministry” programs that equate Suzy Homemaker with “the Pr. 31 woman.”

      Unfortunately, the Christian marketplace is inundated with “ministry” options for women that’s one-sided, gender stereotypic, and fluffy. Finding decent ministry helps/curricula, etc. is tough. But good resources ARE available. Be sure to check out Christians for Biblical equality.

  11. I’m a pastor’s wife and I really don’t like retreats. I always feel there’s an overly emotional aspect I don’t feel comfortable with. I feel much more comfortable one on one. I also have a preschooler and can’t bring him. Since I’ve become a pastor’s wife there seems to be more pressure to go to these retreats and I feel I always have to explain myself. When I explain myself I then have to hear why my thinking is not valid (I agree with much of your feelings).

    Any suggestions on how to say know nicely but firmly?

    • I hear ya. “Been there, done that.” More and more women are saying the same thing.

      I used to feel like I had to explain myself or defend my decision for choosing not to do women’s retreats. Then I realized that no matter what I say or how I say it, there are some people who just won’t get it. Now I just smile and say either, “No thanks” or something like, “Well, when they offer something like a study comparing and contrasting themes of grace and forgiveness in the collected works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Bohoeffer, I might reconsider.” (Most people don’t get that either. 🙂 Another tact: “Well Suzy (or Mary or Myrtle or whoever), why do you go? What are you looking for at a women’s retreat? What’s there that can’t be found elsewhere?” Depending on the response, I point out that whatever “that” is tcan usually be found in other contexts that are more substantive and sustaining. Some times I’ve just said “I don’t have time” – a true statement.

  12. I am so glad to know I am not alone in my aversion to women’s retreats. I only went to one – I felt pressured to go and it was just weird, awkward, and exhausting. I felt out of place because I wasn’t sobbing or acting all “girly” like the other women. I learned virtually nothing and couldn’t wait for it to be over. There were a couple of pretty neat moments, but not enough for me to ever want to go to one like that again. I left the retreat feeling like I wasn’t “spiritual” enough and that was depressing. It is really hard for me to get involved in any women’s ministry as I am over 40, never been married and do not have any children. I am viewed as an oddball or else people expect that because I don’t have children I should automatically become “aunt” to everyone else’s kids (babysitting, volunteering in children’s ministry). Glad to know there are others who feel the same and I am really glad that Jesus loves me despite my being an oddball!

    • Take heart! You are not alone. There are many women who feel the same way. Dissatisfied with the Betty Crocker/June Cleaver/Martha Stewart ” bland brand of what passes for “biblical womanhood” in so many contexts, they’re starting to make themselves heard, ask the tough question and partner together in pursuit of a deeper, sturdier walk with Christ.

      Check out

  13. So what would you like to see at a women’s retreat? I’m reading a lot of things about what women don’t want but are there any suggestions on what you would like to have as a topic of study? (Keeping in mind that there are women of very different stages in their walk with Christ and might feel overwhelmed by an heavily theological/exegetical session)
    I would really love some ideas! I too, am not into stuff and fluff but am having a hard time thinking of themes that will attract new Christians as well as the seasoned Christian.

  14. I am a pastor’s wife and a retreat speaker, and I loved all of the insight of the post and subsequent comments. I am also a pastor of about 6 years, and I so appreciate women who want more than the green-jello theology or the June Cleaver pep talks. A woman asked me once if the Proverbs 31 woman could be found, and I told her, “Yes, but in the Barbie aisle at WalMart”. We have been best friends ever since…no joke (and I like to joke).

    In these comments, I hear a sincere desire to seek after the heart of God with our own. I hear a discontent with mere spiritual fluff and obligatory participation as God’s redemptive narrative is not fluffy and His Love has never been, and will never be, coercive. I suppose similar feelings about, and failings of, the ‘women’s ministry’ opportunities in my past led me to seek a seminary education. It has been wonderful, so I guess some divine fruit was produced.

    This weekend, I am leading a women’s retreat for about 35 women. I would covet your prayers as I try, with God’s help, to offer them an intellectual and thoughtful program along with both private and corporate worship opportunities to yield to God’s abiding presence and healing touch. We will not exchange recipes. We will not inventory the church kitchen supplies. My hope is that we will, instead, spur one another on as we try to grow our capacity to ‘abide’ in Christ each and every day. In so doing, maybe some of us will walk away as being better wives and mothers, but we will also be better doctors, lawyers, mortgage brokers, teachers, artists, and pastors.

    When I was ordained, my girlfriends gave me a Pastor Barbie–complete with coffee cup and a mustang convertible. They even found a Filipino Ken Doll to sit next to me. My husband is a pastor too, but Pastor Barbie always sits in the driver’s seat!

  15. I am to be a co-director at a women’s retreat next spring, and I am looking for interesting questions about that walk with God HEvencense et al are referring to above. What questions interest you? What will stimulate deep discussion about theology even for those women who haven’t picked up the bible in years but feel the call to do so now? How do you not scare away those people who have been afraid to say the word, “Jesus” in front of others for fear of being labelled a religious fanatic by others? Thanks for any feedback you could provide!

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