Sophia Gathering- Planning a Mormon Feminist Retreat

Yesterday we finished the 4th annual Sophia Gathering in Muritta, Ca (photo to come!).  It started as an Exponent bloggers retreat and has grown to include Mormon feminist women from across the country.  Each year, I’ve planned and executed the retreat with the help of a few friends and have been amazed at the beautiful experience we’ve shared. I’m not saying that I’ve done an amazing job every year, there are always mistakes, but people are very understanding. I always love suggestions for the future.

I wish we had room to fit everyone who wants to attend, but maybe a better option is to have more retreats to accommodate more women.  Do you want to attend a women’s retreat? Maybe you can think about planning an event like this for yourself.
Our retreat has been between 18-24 women, but a smaller retreat would be great also.  Here’s a basic overview of how I’ve planned the retreat and I hope that you can give suggestions or ask questions if you’d like to.

1. Determine a guest list and set a date. If you know a few like-minded friends, reach out and see if you can find friends or family members who can come. It is very important to me that our retreats be multi-generational, so I always invite women from our AZ MoFem group who have been meeting for 20+ years.  The depth of their experience adds so much to our retreat.  Also, many women are willing to fly, so you don’t have to restrict your list geographically.  Send out a survey of 2-3 dates (more is really tricky) and let people pick the best one. Most retreats do Friday night to Sunday morning, but we start on Thursday night.Be warned that many people will have conflicts, so keep your expectations low and invite at least twice as many people than you can accommodate and create a waitlist for the rest.

2.  Choose a location. We’ve had our retreats in California for 3 years, and once in Flagstaff, AZ.  I use to find a good rental home that will accommodate our size and other needs.  You can email and negotiate rates with owners, especially if you book a weekend in the off-season. We use rental homes because we can cook ourselves and are willing to share beds (it’s hard to find a place with 20 single beds unless you use a camp facility).

3. Contact a guest speaker, or choose someone from your group. It’s customary to pay for the woman’s flight and not make her pay for the cost of the retreat.

4. Set the price. Estimate the cost of meals and divide the cost of the rental. The first year I covered the $500 security deposit, but then we had extra so I had that in my account for the next year. You may want to discuss sharing the security deposit on the first year, or finding a place that doesn’t require one.  I usually build in 1 or 2 scholarships into the price so that a few people can come who couldn’t afford it otherwise.  The cost has been $90-150 per person each year.

5. Create content.  We usually have a variety of discussions, presentations, workshops, and panels that focus on a variety of topics. I don’t typically ask people to participate if it is their first year attending, but for the first time, everyone is new. Ask people what they want to talk about or if they have anything they could share. We always start with introductions, this year we did them Friday morning because we arrived Thursday night.  We have a timer and give everyone 3 min to talk about themselves and explain their situation and connection to Mormonism or feminism.

6. Food. I’ve been lucky to have a friend who is the food queen. Each meal is owned by someone, who creates the menus, buys the food (and gets reimbursed) and oversees the prep. Meal prep and clean-up are done by the rest of us. We try to take turns so no one has to work too much, although it doesn’t always happen that way. I also try to leave 30 min break before meals so that no one has to miss the sessions.

7. Free time and activities. Don’t forget to leave free time for relaxing and chatting, or exercising. One year at the Denver retreat we took a group to the hot springs and that was fun.

8. Communicate regularly with the attendees. It’s important to keep people in the loop. I learned by mistake this year (we had 8 new women) to send out bios ahead of time and bring name tags.

9. Music. We love to sing and it’s a good way to quiet down chatter. I have some music, some familiar hymns, some not, that Caroline put together a few years ago and we just bring it along. Singing creates a calm feeling for the group.

10. Staying on Time. It’s my job to keep things running on time or we end up eating lunch at 3 (which has happened). I post the agenda and meal schedule in prominent places and remind people of what is coming up so they can prepare. This year I had to adjust the schedule quite a bit, but it always works out fine.

Here is an outline of the agenda for this year’s Sophia Gathering that ended yesterday.  Each year I put together an agenda of people speaking and presenting on topics that are dear to them. I’ve worried in the past that people wouldn’t like the panels or sessions I’ve created, but this year I realized that the conversations that need to happen will happen regardless of what type of session I’ve put together.

I’ve left many of the participants off because this is just an outline of what we do.

Sophia Gathering Agenda

Thursday afternoon, dinner on your own (we went out to dinner, it was fun). Arrive and get settled.

7:00 PM Singing and welcome
7:30 Introductions (You will have 3 minutes to introduce yourself to the group if you are new, or give us an update of the past year if you are returning. If you won’t be here for the introductions, please let me know!)

9 PM Zumba

7:30 AM Yoga and Meditation-

8:30 AM Breakfast

9:15 AM Singing and Spiritual Thought
9:45 AM Accupressure Class with a focus on self care
10:45-12:15 AM  Discovering spirituality, alternate ways to reach the Divine and feed your soul. Learn more about paganism and other mystical practices with panelists.
Break for Lunch prep   (12 noon massages begin, see massage schedule)
12:45 PM Lunch

1:45 PM Singing
2 PM Plabric Class- We will learn the repurposing art of making plabric by fusing plastic together with an iron. Bring plastic bags and an old iron if you’d like.

3  PM Poetry Reading and Analysis
4-6 Open for hiking, massages, hot tub
6 PM  Dinner

7 PM Screening Miss Representation (85 min)
9 PM Dessert


7:30-8:30 Hiking

8:30-9:15 AM Breakfast

9:15 AM Singing and Spiritual Thought-

9:30-11 AM  On the Tension between Sex Equality and Religious Freedom a group discussion of Sunstein’s article.
Instead of a book discussion, this year we’re discussing a legal article.  Please read the attached article and this fMh post from 11-20-07 in preparation for the discussion.

11-12 Women and the Old Testament –  Textual Analysis of Jezebel by EmilyCC and a Scholarly Analysis of Midrash by Caroline
Are the Bad Girls of the Bible Really Bad?: a Feminist Interpretation of Jezebel

In the Bible, we often divide the women into the “good ones” (Esther, Ruth, Deborah), and the “bad ones” (Jezebel, Tamar, Miriam).  But, are these roles accurate?  By looking closely at the text, we can see that these “bad girls” are strong, smart women, who have, I think, been mischaracterized by the men writing and editing the Bible.  I’ll use Jezebel as my primary example.

12:30 PM Lunch

1:30-4 PM Free Time
Exponent Blogger meeting

4-5 PM International Women’s Issues
CARE, a humanitarian disaster aid group since 1945, now places emphasis on empowering women, because improving mothers’ education, health, and prosperity will result in their children having better chances to live, thrive, and prosper.
CARE works with local groups in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. I will share a recent project to fight malnutrition in Bangladesh, called SHOUHARDO. Scientific measurement found that efforts to combat the deeply entrenched disparities between women and men (i.e. woman empowerment), was a bigger factor in reducing stunted growth of children’s bodies and minds than the giving women and their children food.
We’ll also discuss the “War Against Women,” as it occurs in less developed countries. For vivid examples, read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas D. Kristof

5-6 PM Resisting the New Patriarchy
As more men self-identify as feminists, are we experiencing equality? How do we overcome the social and cultural expectations of men and women in groups? Panel followed by discussion

Break for dinner prep

6:30 PM Dinner

7:30 Singing

8 PM Keynote Speaker- To stay, or not to stay; to believe or not to believe: those are our questions!  An open discussion about working through our relationship with Mormonism and Mormons.


9 PM Free Time


8 AM Hike or Yoga

8:30 AM Breakfast-

9 Singing and Spiritual Thought by mraynes

9:30 Open Meeting


I’m interested to hear what you think of retreats like this. Would you put one together? Would you attend one?

If you’ve come in the past, what did you like, what would you like to see changed?

If you have been to other retreats, what did you like or dislike about them?




  1. I’ve gone to the Exponent II retreat in New England for a number of years now and consider it my salvation. These retreats are events where I can rejuvenate myself and share with other women the things are closest to my heart.
    For the first time I attended the Midwest Pilgrims’ retreat, held in Ohio this year. This was another gathering of amazing, connected women who were able to share love and support.
    I’ve gone to the Desert Book “Time Out For Women” once or twice– though the talks can be inspiring, they cannot compete with the opportunity to shared thoughts and feelings back and forth. Furthermore, they have turned into a bazaar to sell Deseret Book paraphernalia more than to uplift and heal women’s souls…

  2. I’m so sad that I had to miss it this year. Hopefully next year I’ll be back. It sounds like it was a wonderful weekend.

  3. Sounds like a fabulous retreat, Jess! I’m sad I couldn’t make it!

    Ever since I moved to the mid-Atlantic four years ago, I have wanted to have a mid-year (i.e. March or April) mid-Atlantic retreat, but it’s obviously never happened. Could I maybe borrow some of your self-discipline or super coordinating abilities? 🙂

  4. Sounds like a ton of fun! And I echo Eve that your work putting these together is hugely impressive!

    I’d love to come to one if you ever invite men. (But I totally get why you might rather not. I understand that women are sometimes more comfortable talking in groups with only other women, particularly given some of the topics.)

    • Kirsten,
      I’ve been to the Exponent retreat once in NH and I really liked it. It’s a different feeling from the SG because it’s so much bigger, but I loved meeting Mormon feminist icons and getting to know people in IRL that I knew from online. I purposely didn’t focus on the emotional and spiritual healing that occurs during these retreats. It’s too sacred to me to share in this way. I can only say that we really see and bless each other.

      amelia, I’m sad that you couldn’t attend either! But, I’m glad for the great things in your life that are moving you forward. Next year!

      Sus, if you picked another month I would plan a retreat for you guys and I could come out for it. It would be awesome! I really think you would have liked this year’s. We had a great impromptu session on how to make the temple a more meaningful place to find personal spiritual fulfillment. I hope we can incorporate that into our next WAVE book.

      ZD Eve, We’re always looking for a keynote. If you’re interested, I’ll put you the invite list for next year. (However, we had someone with your IRL name at the retreat and wondered how we could have two 🙂

      Ziff- We talked about you at the retreat this year as a positive example in our “Resisting the New Patriarchy”. You are one of the few male bloggers (including Kaimi) who is able to support feminism without focusing the attention on you as a man. It’s an impressive gift.

      Thanks for your comments, everyone!

  5. Jessica, it was a terrific weekend. Thank you for putting so much time into the planning of this retreat. These retreat weekends sustain me for months. And thank you also for sharing with us some tips as to how to make weekends like this happen.

  6. Hooray! I’m so glad to know there are retreats happening in other parts of the country, and I’m thrilled that you gave us such a clear map for organizing one. I’ve attended Midwest Pilgrimage for a number of years and started going to Exponent as well now that I live in the northeast. I feel as though I’ve found my tribe — women who understand what I’m dealing with because they’ve dealt with it themselves and are willing to love me as I am, broken and then put back together in unorthodox ways. And Jessawhy, you’re right: the healing and love there are absolutely sacred to me.

    I realize that not everyone who participates in these retreats wants their information published, but do we have (anywhere?) a list of retreats around the country? (Or — dare I ask it — the world?) It’s one thing to have several like-minded friends and have the wherewithal to organize your own retreat, but for someone who hasn’t found anyone like-minded, such a list could be a lifeline.

  7. Libby,
    I was actually thinking about putting a list together to submit for the next Exponent II publication, but maybe an online list is a better fit.

    I’ll work on that this week. Thanks for your comment!

    It was great to see you. Thanks for participating even with a new baby! Speaking of, I have a little outfit of his that you left behind. I’ll send it in the mail.

  8. That sounds like a wonderful weekend. I am terrible at planning, so I could never organize one, but I’d love to be an attendee in the future. I can’t travel far, so it would have to be in SoCal. If you hold another one here, let me know. I’d love to come!

  9. Please, please, please tell us more about this weekend. How does it sustain you? How do you feel when you’re together? Etc. I want to know everything.

  10. I am sorry I missed out on this one. I was fortunate to be able to attend the one in Flagstaff last year. I really enjoyed the company of these smart, funny, interesting ladies. What I loved the most is what I love about this blog. There is a huge feeling of nonjudgmental acceptance that I crave. No matter where you are coming from, what experiences you bring with you, or what direction you are headed, it’s ok. In fact, diversity is valued (can you imagine??). It is my goal to participate again in the future. When? I don’t know. But I will be there again.

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