Planning Women’s Retreats: The 411 for 911s

Speaking from experience, women are complex creatures and perhaps the most challenging for whom to plan a retreat.


Youth, men and family groups seem much more, shall we say, adaptable. Even if things aren’t to their liking, for the most part, before long, any personal irritations caused by the location or other participants are quickly forgotten as the retreat gets into full swing. Not quite so with women, who seem to be especially adept at bringing out both the best–and worst–in each other in group settings.

Knowing that, part of your work as women’s retreat planners involves looking ahead and preparing for the emotional natural disasters that could take place during the retreat. From hurt feelings over perceived cliquey-ness to hurt feelings from the past bubbling up to the surface and spilling over into a discussion, if the leadership team is not prepared for a little emergency management, a small emotional storm can rapidly escalate and ruin the weekend.

Anyone who has served in women’s ministry knows the feeling…some days leadership feels like a walk in the park where peace, love and sisterhood abound. Other days, however, it feels like a never-ending journey to the center of the earth, where human natural disasters hit without warning, disrupting a group’s rhythm and testing leadership skills. And it is often in these crisis moments when leaders need to be most prepared that they feel the most ill-equipped to be the first responders to the Volcano Women who relentlessly vent their anger, the Tsunami Women who drown with drama, the Tornado Women who stir up trouble and the Earthquake Women who can shake even the firmest group foundation.

The key, though, to dealing with any disaster is the trusty Girl Scout motto: be prepared. Leaders, even weekend-retreat, small-group discussion leaders, need to understand that God calls them to be rescue workers in his name, binding up the brokenhearted and seeking out the lost in the midst of connectional catastrophes. This compassionate care is all part of retreat ministry, the goal of which is to allow time and space for God to be at work in our broken lives by reconnecting us with him and with one another. So here’s what to watch for…


I’ll never forget the Volcano Woman I saw erupt in my local post office a few years ago. That day the line was long; the wait was longer. The customer a few spots ahead of me obviously had better places to be and began sharing her impatient dissatisfaction with those around her. Loud complaints soon turned to insults laced with obscenities. After berating the clerk, who never once lost her cool, the woman eventually stormed out without making her purchase, leaving the rest of the line standing open-mouthed, in awe of the human natural disaster we’d just witnessed.


The retreat leadership team needs to be prepared for Volcano Women in their midst. Watch for the telltale smoke signaling an imminent eruption…constant complaints, never-ending negativity or rude remarks that spew out over her unsuspecting fellow participants. These wounded women typically harbor a red hot anger at their center, which often has nothing to do with the group itself but is disastrous nonetheless.

To diffuse the situation, a leadership team member or small group leader can say something like, “I can see that really touched on something for you. Do you want to talk about it for a minute?” This gives a Volcano Woman a chance to identify the source of the anger, although it may mean that the group takes a momentary break from the current discussion path to let the woman vent. The leader will also need to help set boundaries for the venting and suggest additional private conversations with herself or a member of the leadership team, if warranted, so that one person does not monopolize the small-group sessions.


One winter our family went to an indoor water park in the Wisconsin Dells. Eager to jump into the fun, my husband and our six-year-old son quickly joined a gathering crowd on the deck as a bell clanged incessantly in the distance. Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water came rushing down from above. Small children, including my sturdy son, were sent flying. Even some adults were knocked to their knees. Shouts of joy became shrieks of fear in this mini-Midwestern tsunami.

Certainly, your retreat discussion groups have the potential to be overwhelmed like that by a Tsunami Woman. Do you have a participant who seems engulfed in a sea of previously calm emotions? Drowned in her dramas? Incapacitated by her issues? Submerged in her self-centeredness? For a Tsunami Woman, the world revolves around her, and when she feels she’s been slighted or wounded, her emotional seas begin to churn deep below the surface. Those around her won’t notice a difference in attitude; it’s that deceptive calm before the storm. Then, without warning, a Tsunami Woman will pull back and unleash her powerful ocean of emotions.


It’s hard to pick yourself up and offer aid when you’re the one who’s been knocked off your feet; yet as a leader, that’s what you’ve been called to do. As your discussion group leaders are likely just weekend volunteers, for these first responders the best strategy may be to bite the bullet and ride it out. Simply acknowledge what was shared, thank the person and solicit another participant’s input. Or, ask the Tsunami Woman how she would apply what the group had just studied/discussed to what she just shared, which stems the drama tide and redirects the flow of the group’s conversation. Again, the retreat environment also allows for a private follow-up conversation and/or prayer time with other leaders, so don’t overlook that continuing opportunity to minister in Jesus’ name.


Both the Tornado Women and Earthquake Women inspire in others a need to seek shelter. Tornado Women tend to live in a high state of agitation and constant movement from crisis to crisis. They can whip into a room in a worried frenzy and leave an almost visible path of confusion and hurt where they’ve touched down. Similarly, Earthquake Women typically live in fear…fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of being unloved, fear of being labeled unlovable. These fears cause cracks in their relationships, which isolate them and throw their lives off balance. Doubt easily replaces faith in these women, leaving them vulnerable and emotionally unsteady.


When working with these personality types, consistency and stability are crucial to emergency relief, especially in the midst of a short-term, small-group setting, like a retreat discussion group. Leaders should take care to monitor their own reactions to the Tornado and Earthquake Women in their groups and evaluate whether their responses are somehow encouraging the destructive behavior. Keeping things calm, following the established retreat schedule and small group discussion structure structure and purposefully praying for unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace within the group can help restore and maintain equilibrium.


While keeping an eye out for these stormy personalities, retreat planners should be aware of these other potential disasters:

  • Cabin/room/group assignments …be aware of existing cliques and know that newcomers may feel especially alone or unwelcome. You will know your group best, but sometimes using random selection at least for group assignments puts everyone on equal social footing and creates opportunities for new friendships to form.
  • Location expectations and how to address concerns or unmet expectations after arrival…be clear up front about the facility amenities. Do gather all participant concerns as valuable feedback but immediately address legitimate ones with on-site management.
  • Worries over leaving a spouse with or without children at home…use your “encouragers” and experienced retreat participants to reassure these worried women that retreat time is time well spent both for her and her family. Also don’t be afraid to set clear boundaries for phone/tech use to really give women a chance to take a time out from daily life.
  • Getting the word out…publicize your retreat in multiple ways to multiple groups of women in your church. Personal invitations are also great for helping all women feel included and welcomed, maybe in the form of a “save the date” postcard handed to women months ahead, as well as a registration form hand delivered the month before. Your retreat planning team can divide up the list of all church women so no one is excluded.
  • Finances…women often feel like they can’t set aside the money to take a time out for themselves. Establish the total per person cost and begin publicizing it early so that women have time to budget for the expense. Also approach your church about helping offset the total cost, offering scholarships to women in need or allowing your group to host a fundraiser to reduce the total cost for all participants.
  • No time to retreat for the retreat leadership team…make sure that all of your details are covered well in advance and that tasks are delegated and shared among the team and/or other volunteers so that all attending have the opportunity to renew and refresh their relationship with God and with one another.


The truth is, however, the retreat leadership team and/or their recruited small group leaders may be truly unequipped to administer anything beyond emergency aid when emotional natural disasters unfold in a retreat setting. Like their environmental counterparts, human natural disasters have the potential to wreak havoc, destroying relationships with others and with God. Yet the potentially unstable interpersonal dynamics are part and parcel of retreat ministry. When you offer people time and space to get away from everyday routines, reflect on their lives (past, present and future) and invite God in to be at work, things have the potential to get messy. And while the storms that arise can create quite the chaos, the calm that descends afterward can be just what God had planned all along. Trust him to lead you through the wind and water and remember what Jesus told his disciples: “…love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Now, if you’re ready to retreat, assemble your retreat leadership team and start the planning process. Don’t forget to invite God to be a part of that team. “The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps” (Proverbs 16:9)! However, if you feel like you need more help, then check out The Complete Leader’s Guide to Christian Retreats (Judson Press 2008), available at Or feel free to email me at I’m always happy to answer planning questions via email, although I’m also available to work as a consultant with your planning team or serve as a retreat speaker. May your retreat ministry help you transform hearts and minds for God.

By Rachel Gilmore