A Women’s Retreat, You Say?

P1000108I clicked on the email title announcing a “Regional Women’s Conference.”

The email invited me to be among the 125 United Church of Christ women who are gathering for a three-day October retreat. I glanced through the information:  the worship theme, the mission service project, the woman chosen to lead worship, and the workshops called “Dance-shops” to go with the theme “Lord of the Dance.”  Obvious to me was that much time and imaginative work had gone into those plans.

And then I saw it: “Music leadership will be from [John Doe], [Anytown UCC].”

That can’t be right, I thought. I googled the web site for [Anytown UCC] in order to find out if “[John]” might be a non-traditional name for a woman. Nope. [John] is a man.

Really?! For a “Women’s” event —  named by women and planned by women in the United Church of Christ — a man’s voice was chosen to lead women’s voices in song (shall I repeat myself?) at a women’s retreat. 

Is there a place for any man at the women’s event?

Is there a place for any woman in the men’s group?

A delightful rural northeast Pennsylvania congregation decided to start a Men’s Breakfast. The men worked with me, their pastor, in arranging the time and the space and logistics. They invited me to be the speaker at one of their first breakfasts. It was a community-wide breakfast, and they wanted to introduce their pastor to their friends. That day, I stayed until I was finished speaking. And then I got a strong vibe that it was time for me to leave. So I left them to go on being men together at the Men’s Breakfast.

There must be a protocol that covers this, right?
Should a pastor be present, at least occasionally, in every kind of church gathering?
Does it make a difference when the pastor is a woman, and it’s a “men’s” event?

Uncertain about what this group expected from me, the next Saturday I wandered into the kitchen while they were setting up. They were their usual cordial and good-natured selves, and we visited for a bit. They also let me know that they didn’t expect me to stay, as kitchen help or anything else. Without explicitly saying that the space was for “men only,” they did me the favor of figuratively showing me the door.

They were clear that this Men’s Breakfast was for men.
I get that. I do appreciate the clarity.

I serve on the leadership team of an international ecumenical clergywoman-centric organization whose stated purpose is to provide support and resources to women clergy. RevGalBlogPals, offers venues that are open to clergywomen, and also “women church professionals, women religious and women discerning a call to Christian ministry, as well as supportive male clergy and lay people.” The purpose is clearly and unashamedly focused on the care and promotion of women clergy; all are welcome who will share in that agenda. A dear friend, a wise and wonderful laywoman, is a super-fantastic “pal’ to RevGals.  And yes indeed, there are male “pals” in the RevGalBlogPals Facebook group, and one of the writers on our Blog Team is a clergyman.

As RevGalBlogPals grew, and as more men became our “pals,” we had to make a key decision: The yearly RevGalBlogPals Big Event — a.k.a. our clergy continuing education cruise — had traditionally been an all-woman event. Would we now invite men to participate? 

We decided that our continuing education events and sponsored programs would remain open to women only.

We determined that “women only” was the best way to fulfill our stated purpose at those events. The event participants have been mostly clergywomen currently serving congregations. We have also enjoyed the gifts offered by wonderfully supportive women who are laity, retired clergy, and our friends and relatives. All women. Only women. 

To decide that a group or event will be intentionally exclusive may be very uncomfortable, because that means that some folk will be excluded.  We’d rather be offering an ever-more-welcoming embrace of others. We seek out and love environments that are promoted as being intentionally inclusive, like the United Church of Christ. To create something “exclusive” hurts a little.

Yet, there are times when it is the best thing to define a *thing* as “men’s” or “women’s.” A possible framework for that decision-making discussion:

  • Know the purpose for the *thing* (group or event or place) to exist.
    Why was this *thing* envisioned and named “women’s” or “men’s” in the first place?
    Could the actual purpose of the *thing* lend itself to including more varieties of people and a more inclusive name?
    If “no” . . . then . . . 
  • Respect that purpose, and encourage the members of the (oversight, planning, steering) group to determine the best ways to carry out that purpose through that *thing*, especially regarding who is — and who is not — included.
    And then . . .
  • Be willing to set boundaries to protect the *thing’s* gender identity.
    A *thing* that says “men’s” is for persons who identify as male.
    A *thing* that says “women’s,” is for persons who identify as female. 

What process leads to a Women’s Conference inviting a man to lead the retreat music?

  • Are you saying that, in all of the UCC congregations in all TEN states of the UCC’s Southern Region, there are no women who are musically talented enough to lead music at your event?
  • Are you trying to be inclusive or “fair” by inviting a man to be a women’s event leader?
  • Do you believe that something is missing in a scenario where there are only women’s faces and voices?

How is the purpose of a Women’s Retreat fulfilled by inviting a man to lead the event’s music?

Really, it’s all in the name:

You named your creation a “Women’s Conference,” and that reveals its gender identity.  

The name itself is an obvious and compelling reason to make this an event exclusively women’s.

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