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Retreating from Retreats: An Egalitarian Vision for Church Conferences

by Wren Bouwman | January 26, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!

In boxes throughout my home sit the many crafts I’ve made at women’s retreats. Bookmarks with Proverbs 31 written across them, mirrors with fading marker reminding me that “you are beautiful,” and flowerpots painted with puns about being rooted in Christ. But I don’t remember a single discussion or keynote from these retreats.

Men’s and women’s retreats are prevalent across the denominational spectrum, and similarly run the spectrum of content. Women’s conferences fluctuate between speaking to body positivity and purity culture, homemaking and balancing careers with family, or meek spirits and bold evangelism. But they all hinge on those staples of femininity: baking, crafts, mothering. It was at these retreats that I first heard that women are called to be managers of the home, that modest is hottest, that God made me beautiful and that’s why I should buy Mary Kay from my local rep.

For the men, as Kristin Kobes Du Mez points out in her thorough analysis of the masculine identity of evangelicals in Jesus and John Wayne, the focus of conferences and retreats has a complex history. Even in the past thirty years, the global church has seen both the Promise Keepers, where men are encouraged to get in touch with their emotions, and Mark Driscoll’s fight clubs, which focus on aggressive and war-like traits. Whether wrapped in emotional vulnerability or masculine aggression, men’s retreats inevitably share a common thread: calling men to be leaders and protectors of women and children. These conferences (I’m told) are rife with sports metaphors and intense competitions in everything from eating to logging to foosball.

Why Are Retreats Separated by Gender?

I grew up in complementarian evangelical churches, where men’s and women’s conferences are second only to Christmas in terms of hype and production. But as I’ve entered egalitarian churches, I’ve discovered that this retreat format isn’t unique to complementarian churches. Even churches that place women in the pulpit, cheer on stay-at-home dads, and know Galatians 3:28 by heart advertise “dude” weekends and “ladies” nights that are full of these same stereotypical activities.

Which begs the question: why are egalitarian churches still gendering conferences? After all, we have agreed that gifts and callings and offices and marriages are unrestricted by gender. What purpose do these gendered retreats serve? The answer is more complex than just “because patriarchy!” For many churches, egalitarianism as a core belief is relatively new. Even feminism as we know it today is less than fifty years old in the United States. As a result, we have churches full of men and women who are most comfortable in their prescribed gender roles.

Women don’t feel comfortable speaking up with men in the room, and men don’t know how to give them the space to speak. Countless studies have shown that in blended company, men tend to dominate the conversation. A part of this comes from social sympathy, where men feel they have a right to speak and women tend to worry about stepping on metaphorical toes.1 Another part of this might just come from practice—men are used to speaking up in meetings as they are favored for leadership positions in the corporate world.2 This isn’t to say that all men maliciously silence women. In fact, most men aren’t aware that they’re doing it. In a recent study, men were found to think that women speak more frequently (too much) in meetings when in reality the men were many times more likely to interject.3 

Creating a safe space for men and women who are still learning about all the roles they can play in the church is a beautiful aspect of men’s and women’s conferences. Men who are afraid to be vulnerable are given a space to see other vulnerable and emotional men praise God. Women who are scared to speak up and share their opinions hear specifically from women who are loud and bold. But this is only useful if we’re moving toward a time when women don’t need a safe space in order to be heard and men don’t need privacy to be vulnerable.

Reimagine Retreats with Me

Dividing retreats by gender, even with good intentions, excludes too many people and encourages the continuation of too many stereotypical gender ideals. It limits the intersection of experiences and ideas to just men or just women, instead of allowing men and women to learn from each other. Shared experiences in divorce, in loss, in doubting, and in hope have no need to be limited by gender. Similarly, empathy allows us to learn from each other even if our experiences are not the same. When we push conferences to be gendered, the church misses out on the fullness of community people can create, leaving behind anyone who doesn’t feel they fit into their stereotypical gender role. Who are we to say that no men in the church want to bake cookies or no women in the church want to showdown at ping pong?

So let’s bridge the gap. Perhaps hosting an annual conference with women’s and men’s breakouts on the first day could offer a link to those safe spaces and make the whole church a safe space to learn more about ourselves. Having these discussions as churches and believers is the first step toward growing and flourishing. How can we include women in competition-based gatherings? How can we bring men into baking and crafting? Most importantly, how can we include everyone in the conversations surrounding them: conversations of what it means to be a family of believers, of self-image, of grieving and anger and feeling.

As egalitarian churches and believers, we are called to bring God’s intentions for unity and equality to the historical and societal limitations of the world. Yet men’s and women’s retreats persist. While they serve a purpose, we need to have a conversation about what we’re doing to step toward a church where we don’t need to segregate based on gender, where we don’t tell men and women what their interests should be, and where we blend emotional sermons with rigorous studies. Let’s create retreats whose discussions and keynote sessions are more memorable than the crafts and competitions that guided them.

Notes:

  1. Amani M. Hussein, “Turn-Taking and Gender Dominance Issue,” International Journal of Research in Social Sciences and Humanities 10, no. 2 (2020): 189–194, doi:10.37648/ijrssh.v10i02.015.
  2. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance---What Women Should Know (United States: HarperCollins, 2018).
  3. Christine L. Nittrouer, et al, “Gender Disparities in Colloquium Speakers at Top Universities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 1 (2017): 104–108. doi:10.1073/pnas.1708414115.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.


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