women’s dessert nights and men’s breakfasts – is gender a useful category for ministry?

I was involved in a mission last week which meant I dutifully went along to a women’s desert and coffee night and my husband to his men’s breakfast. This was the second time in six months.


I confess. I don’t like being around large groups of women. Women’s events mean another night not shared with my husband. There’s too much oestrogen. Perhaps it was the all-girls high school which ruined it for me… I couldn’t help thinking this does feel a lot like going back to school… So I wondered, when else do large groups of women meet together? When else do we segregate according to gender? Why?

  • In school – that has to do with different stages of development in young male and female brains, and trying to keep horny teenagers focused on their learning.
  • In sport – that’s because of the different bodies of men and women (thoughwe could see less segregation in sport – and Steve Waugh thinks so too – especially in kids’ sport).
  • In the Country Women’s Association, the Mother’s Union and the Girl Guides…

But it’s actually kind of weird these days to separate men and women post-puberty. We don’t do it in any other forum? Why do we do it at church?


While sipping my juice (who drinks coffee at night anyway?) I looked about at all the women in the room. There were teenagers, retirees, mums, students, workers, grannies, aunties, widows, divorcees, wives, fiancées and single women. There were plenty of anglo-Australian women, but there were also Chinese women, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Japanese. Some were Christians, some had been missionaries, some had never come to church before, some only came for the cake.

The only thing we had in common was that we were all women. Actually, I felt I had much more in common – in terms of interests, experiences, struggles – with the single male students who were helping in the kitchen than the stay at home mums across the table from me.

Whenever I go to a women’s event there’s talk behind the scenes. Someone’s sick of cake/craft/flowers/pink, ‘why are these events always so girly?’ ‘why can’t we go camping/shooting/gaming/[insert ‘masculine’ activity]?’. Then someone suggests we think of an event which would appeal to all women, not just ones who like craft and kittens. That just about kills the conversation. What appeals to all women? … no… nup… I’ve got nothing. So coffee and dessert it is.

The thing is, you can’t create an event that appeals to all women any more than you could have an event which appeals to all people. And if you could, why wouldn’t you invite men too?

In our post-second wave feminism society ‘women’ as a group have very little holding them together as women (not that women were ever a homogeneous group). There is no ‘typical’ woman. Women’s experiences are so diverse that I’m not sure that segregating men from women is useful.

Titus 2 (the ‘women’s ministry passage) might help.

Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

Notice the that the older men and the older women are to model much the same qualities. Yes, the women are told to teach women. But they’re teaching things which are particular to the women’s shared experience. Older, more experienced women are teaching young wives and mothers how to be wives and mothers in their context. It’s not a picture of taking all the women aside – widows, single women, mothers and child-free alike – and teaching them the Bible at a convention or desert night. It’s particular to the older women’s expertise and younger mothers’ needs. It is not arbitrary segregation but segregation because these groups face particular issues. The aim is to be respectable to outsiders so that there are no barriers to hearing God’s word.

In light of this, I can understand the value in holding separate events or conferences to talk about parenting, being a student, being single, managing work – different life stages or particular circumstances. I can understand separating men and women to talk about sex so that people feel comfortable. I can also see the value of meeting with someone of the same sex to discuss personal issues. But I’m not sure what it is that all women in common today that men don’t which would make it necessary to segregate men and women when teaching the Bible generally.

The speaker at this dessert night talked about the need to be dependent on God not self, on the need to confess our sin and on the forgiveness Jesus offers. This is true for all of us! It’s a shame the men weren’t invited. They missed out.

It’s not just an issue of creating extra work and extra events (although I think we’re often in danger of that). It suggests that we’re not united, that in Christ maybe there is still male and female.It suggests that men really are from Mars and women from Venus rather than both made in the image of God. It suggests that either we’re so different that the Gospel is different or has different implications for women and men. It suggests that we’re primarily Christian women or Christian men rather than just Christians, people who follow Jesus.

So why do we segregate ourselves?

I have two ideas

  1. It’s about babysitting. We do separate women and men’s events so that each parent has a chance to go something. I’m not sure that childcare logistics justify separating men from women, especially if what’s being heard is relevant to both parents. Perhaps we need to think laterally. Moreover, single parents can get overlooked it the assumption is the other parent will mind the kids. This is easy for me to say – I don’t have kids! Perhaps parents find separate events helpful. Any thoughts, parents?
  2. It’s about women preaching. There are so many gifted female preachers, but because many people do not believe they should be allowed to preach to mixed groups, we artificially create segregated events so that these women can use their gifts.
  3. It’s a hangover from the time when it was normal for women and men to gather separately (Mother’s Union etc.) because of the gendered division of labour.

Any other ideas? Why do we segregate ministries according to gender? Are these good reasons to separate men and women? Do you find segregated events helpful?


10 thoughts on “women’s dessert nights and men’s breakfasts – is gender a useful category for ministry?

  1. I reckon there is stuff that’s common to women – but it’s not the flowers and hearts and rainbows saccharine you find the women’s events you describe! But I’d love to know if you think I’m right. Want to do me a favour?

    I spoke at a women’s conference in Adelaide last year which I reckon gets the balance right. Women came from all walks of life and these were reflected in the practical seminars – on marriage, singleness, depression, prayer, raising kids, working, evangelism, friendship, etc. The challenge for me as the keynote speaker was to be broad enough to incorporate all of these women, and yet, to speak to them as women. (Some of the issues may also be true for men but I was trying to pick up on stuff that was especially true for women.) Want to have a listen to the talks and tell me how I did?


    • Hi Tamie – I never thanked you for your talks! Thanks! I especially loved how you explained Sabbath – slaves don’t rest, but freed people do. I’m still not sure if they had much to do with women in particular, but I found them really encouraging and interesting nontheless. A good example of a gifted woman teaching well.

      • Thanks for the feedback. Yeah, I think there’s a sense in which men could listen to the talks and also benefit – after all, it’s just teaching the Bible! Take the Sabbath example – plenty of men are too busy too! But my feeling is that this is a particular issue for women, or at least, they’re more likely to feel guilty about it! Likewise the bit about coveting is important for men to understand too, but it’s personal for women!

      • Further to the last comment – I also wonder whether a bloke would have been able to say those things.

        For example, I pulled out that particular thing about the Sabbath because I believe many women struggle under the burden of obligation – perhaps a male preacher would have had this same pastoral conviction, but then, perhaps not. Similarly, would he have thought of the difference in the coveting commands? Would these points have been received differently because they came from a bloke?

        I had another example this week. Talking without our language tutor about Judges 11, his big question was about what acceptable sacrifices are – didn’t even blink at the gender justice issues! I suspect a woman preaching on this passage sees different things to a bloke.

        (But perhaps that’s an argument for including women’s voices in preaching rather than for single-gender teaching groups!)

  2. I agree with Tamie. While issues spoken about at such women’s events may be the same as issues in men’s lives, I think it is important to think about those things as a male or a female. While everyone is different, I do think that women and men often do struggle with similar things. Many women will struggle to ‘be dependent on God not self’ in similar ways to other women and in different ways from many men. Alex does not often need to be reminded to depend on God not his body image and I am rarely worrying about providing for my family. While there are obviously exceptions, I think women respond well to women encouraging them in godly ways. I personally don’t particularly enjoy ‘evangelistic’ women’s gatherings as I feel ‘I’m not going to learn anything’. But many women/girls would much rather turn up to something with just women, and I should embrace that fact and use these gatherings as an opportunity to share the gospel. Maybe it was because I went to a public school with boys and that all but one of my good church friends were boys (and I loved them all dearly); but I used to love it when a girl leader would take a group of girls somewhere and we could talk about, yes, ‘girly things’. I don’t really know where I’m going with all this 🙂 Except that I definitely think that whether we like it or not our God given gender affects the way we think and act. And if it was a gender neutral coffee and dessert night, would you feel any more inclined to go? I know I would feel less inclined. And would you have more in common with the random single bricklayer (who happened to choose the seat across from you) than the stay at home mum? And if by chance you did, does that make him more worthy of your time and conversation? Miss you and the way you make me think!

    • Danika! I was hoping you would comment! it’s been so long!

      I guess I often take issue with these ‘women’s’ things because my own experience is often outside what is presumed to be ‘normal’ for women (especially at the moment where it seems like all the other ‘college wives’ are at-home mums with kids and I’m a full time student with pot plants). I often worry about whether I’ll be able to earn enough to allow my husband to continue his studies once my scholarship runs out. I’m the provider in my house for the moment. I can honestly say that I’m pretty happy with how my body is and how I look, body image isn’t a big issue for me, but it can be a concern for my husband sometimes. Disability really complicates body image issues. Although you can generalise to some extent, a lot of these issues don’t always correspond with gender and when you do generalise you risk leaving people out or making false assumptions about people.

      If women’s events mean that women hear the gospel when they wouldn’t have come to a mixed-gathering, then I’m all for them! What I’m not sure about if whether it’s true that the segregation actually draws more people because we don’t segregate in any other forum of life. It could be another weird thing Christians do.

      And also – I’m all for women teaching and encouraging women!! I didn’t want to imply that those aren’t valuable ministries at all! It’s just that a lot of the best encouragement and teaching goes on in private, in homes and dare I say sometimes in mixed church services! I’m not sure that we need extra segregated events for women to minister to women.

      (I realise that this is a bit out there and expect most people will disagree – so thanks for your comments Danika!)

      • Hi!! I just read your comment after my day as a stay at home mum, full time student, maker of leek tarts for dinner and killer of pot plants… I feel as though you would call me a “normal” woman… Should I feel offended?! I thought of your exact situation when I gave the body image/provider example. You my dear friend, are full of strength and grace. I think I agree with you actually on principle. I guess while your coming from a “women’s events generalise women” stance I’m coming from a “saying women’s events aren’t necessary may be a generalisation” stance. (Plus I have a really bad habit of defending whatever is being offended in any situation!). Unless I saw a direct need I would not personally organise a women’s event UNLESS it was a situation that could foster those personal encouraging relationships we both agree are fantastic. Having said that though, I trust that those in our church who are organising these things have a good reason for doing so and that is why I always end up attending them. The last women’s breakfast we had I was told that three ladies from the church playgroup among other non Christians (none of whom I knew) went. They have been asked to church things for years and to this they said yes. They heard the gospel and got a good feed, and hopefully the relationships they have with others from the playgroup can encourage their faith. Worth it? I don’t know, but surely it isn’t an unhelpful thing. I also see the risk of ‘leaving people out or making false assumptions about people’ and in no way mean to do that.

        And yes I’m speaking of our western society. In many other cultures women’s events would be very helpful and normal.

        And perhaps if you do one day tread the path of motherhood you may find that a couple of hours to have adult discussion without being interrupted, for many women, is just lovely!

      • I think we actually agree with each other Danika! Also – you’re not normal (even if there were such a thing as a ‘normal’ woman, you’re not it). I’m sorry if I sounded disparaging!

  3. also I realise I’ve made a whole lot of cultural assumptions about segregating men and women – in some contexts it might be normal and helpful. So I’m guilty of generalising too…

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