During high school, my youth group would go every fall to a camp that sat high on a dune above Lake Michigan. By October the air was crisp and full of the scent of burning leaves, the lake choppy and layered in shades of blue and gray—all heralding the change of seasons. The weekend held the promise of all-night girl gab sessions, midnight hikes up the dunes, and intense small-group discussions. I couldn't get my sleeping bag in the van fast enough.
Yet aside from being with all my friends and spending a weekend away from "the parents," Presbyterian Camps at Saugatuck was where I first learned what it meant to retreat. I learned about looking inside myself, about taking time away from the drama of my daily high school life to get to know more about me and my place in God's world. I learned about friendships, including how to build them and what destroys them. I learned how to see others' gifts and talents and help them understand what they had to share. Yet as much as these retreats were about growth and exploration of relationships, earthly and divine, retreat was mostly about coming home—about getting comfortable with the self God created me to be.
So the first step in planning a retreat is to make sure everyone involved understands the purpose. A retreat is a going-away time, an opportunity to take a little time for yourself. It's a time to renew and refresh your mind, body, and spirit.
More specifically, a retreat is designed to model God's concept of Sabbath. God created the world and built in time to rest, but the busyness in our lives has pushed us far away from that divine gift of R & R. The added bonus of a group retreat, however, is that it strengthens the sense of Christian community. Friendships formed on retreat can carry people through the bumpy parts of life when they return home. A well-planned retreat allows opportunities for personal growth, as well as person-to-person growth, in one's faith journey.
A well-planned retreat also takes into account the different ages and stages of retreat-goers. It allows for all participants to express themselves and share opinions in an emotionally safe setting, and it provides reassurance to those who only wish to listen and observe. A well-planned retreat does not pressure people into doing something or discussing something that they are not comfortable with. A gentle nudge to encourage risk-taking is fine; a shove over the edge is not. When people return home, they should feel hopeful, encouraged, rejuvenated, energized, joy-filled, and purposeful. Above all, they should feel reconciled to God, having given to God all of the burdens they have been hauling around and having given themselves time to be renewed and refreshed to continue their faith journeys
Who Goes on Retreat?
Anyone can go on retreat. There are no special qualifications, no absolute prerequisites. The simple truth is, women tend to be joiners, so they may be the most common small group to be involved. However, women are not the only ones who can benefit from a retreat. Typically, a church is home to many small groups, and these flow quite naturally into a retreat experience. Men's groups, youth groups, family groups, whole church intergenerational groups, older adult groups—all can enjoy a little R & R on retreat. Nor are participants limited by age. Mixed age groups provide opportunities for mentoring and sharing of life experience, which can be a real blessing for younger retreat-goers and affirming for older ones.
The same is true for common interests. Small groups wanting to plan a retreat will most likely have at least one thing in common by virtue of being in that particular small group. However, one of the most rewarding things about a retreat is finding out what you have in common with people you perhaps only knew on a surface level.
I remember one women's retreat I participated in where I learned that lesson well. Throughout the weekend discussions, I discovered that a woman whom I had always found pushy, abrasive, and difficult to like actually had many of the same personality traits as me. What a revelation that was, and it certainly made me rethink my opinions of her! Equally intriguing is seeing different sides to people when they are out of their comfort zones and put in a retreat setting. A well-planned retreat opens up possibilities for personal growth and person-to-person growth as participants move closer to the Lord.
Why Do God's People Need a Retreat?
Quite frankly, God's people need to go on retreat because we're over the edge most of the time—overscheduled, overcommitted, overtired, overworked, overworried, overemotional, over budget—over and over and over again. A retreat helps break that pattern of routinely going over the edge. It inserts a time-out, a Sabbath rest, in the middle of our fast-paced, sensory overloaded, modern lives.
I've often thought that pioneer folk, although their work was hard and sometimes unpleasant, had it easy with their well-defined roles and limits. Contemporary society, however, has encouraged us all to multitask with no end in sight. Regardless of gender or age, we are expected to do it all and be it all. Not that multitasking is all that bad. Certainly, it's a way to cope with our twenty-first-century lifestyles.
Yet a retreat is designed to help individuals let go of the expectations and the pressures of everyday life and take a step back. For 48 hours, someone else will cook and clean for you. The only person you have to worry about is yourself. The only schedule you have is the prearranged retreat schedule, and if you don't make it to a session, you won't lose your job or be locked up for child abandonment or be sent to the principal's office (although youth leaders usually do require session attendance for their youth, and with good reason). A retreat is a little blip in the time-space continuum that helps you get right and stay right with God.
Where Can You Have a Retreat?
There are several places to find lists of camps and conferences centers close to you—including my book. Recommendations from your own group members are also great places to start. Hotels, spas, and bed and breakfasts are options to explore, too. Finding your perfect location will depend mainly on how far you want to travel, how much you want to pay, and how large or small your group is. A little phone work and a site visit or two will ensure that your group's accommodations meet your needs for the weekend.
When Do You Go on Retreat?
Because of work and family schedules, it is generally easiest to plan a retreat for a weekend, leaving on Friday evening and returning Sunday. For groups new to the retreat experience, however, a Saturday-Sunday overnight may work well the first time around. Some retreats are as short as a few hours, while others may take in a weekend or an entire week.
Groups will also need to take into account the seasonal nature of camp and conference centers. Many run a residential camp program, making a summer reservation next to impossible. Fall and spring are also popular times for church and school groups to book retreats, so you might have trouble finding availability. The more flexible your group can be in picking a date and the sooner you start this process, the better off you'll be.
Interestingly, winter is often a good time for a retreat. Not only does it provide for a much-needed recharging after the holidays, but it is often a slow time for camp and conference centers, depending on geographic location. Your group may even be able to take advantage of lower rates during off-season times. Often, because of the financial and time commitments required, a retreat becomes an annual event. If your group can go more than once a year, praise God!
How Can My Group Hold Its Own Retreat?
Holding a retreat for your group is easy when you follow the step-by-step planning instructions in my book. Your group will form a Retreat Leadership Team (RLT) to organize your event. You will work together on one task at a time to create a transformational weekend for you and your group.
With user-friendly directions, you can harness the creative abilities of your group members and write your own discussion questions and activities. However, sample retreat plans are also included if you get to feeling overwhelmed or just need a jumpstart. And don't worry, if your group would like to try something new or just doesn't feel comfortable taking on facilitation/speaker roles, there are many wonderful, experienced Christian speakers who would love to come and share their stories with your group.
God's people have developed an incredible tolerance for the "overs" mentioned at the beginning of this article. With a change in perspective, you can channel that tolerance into productive energy for planning a retreat. No doubt your group will quickly learn the post-retreat chant that starts as soon as you pull out of the retreat center parking lot: "Only 364 days to go! Only 364 days to go!"
—Rachel Gilmore; excerpted from The Complete Leader's Guide to Christian Retreats (Judson Press, 2009); used with permission.