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.