For me, spiritual retreats are always exciting to watch as they unfold. Each one is different. I have been involved as both a participant and a retreat leader. Having both positions under my belt, and after many, many retreats, I know that there are some easy changes that retreat groups can make to improve their programs. So if your retreats have been a little stale as of late, I invite you to consider the following tips for breathing a little more life into your next church retreat.
1. Retreats should be at a destination other than the norm– this helps us disconnect from our daily life. It can create a feeling of adventure. A feeling of newness and removal from every-day-life is a great way to start.
2. Overnight stay is important to maintain the distance from distractions and allow conversations to carry on without time limits.
3. It can be nice to take away all electronic devices – cell phones, Ipads, etc. Devices that require time and attention away from the themes of the retreat will be distractions and will really only hurt group participation. Let your group know your plan in advance so they have time to tell their work and families that they will be out of communication.
4. Include large group gatherings for lessons and sharing experiences. Including music as often as possible will get your group feeling more united. You will find people humming the songs the next day.
5. Singing together in a large group helps us learn to let go even more than being away from home and the disconnect from electronic gadgets.
6. Small group time is critical. One grouping strategy you can use is to group by age. Groups should be small; this allows for more connection when sharing real life experiences. It’s about learning not only to let go together, where it’s safe, but also learning to focus on letting God in.
7. Have the weekend organized and managed. Doing it seemingly behind the scenes reinforces the participants’ ability to let go and relax. The only people who should be fretting about the schedule are the leaders, and even they shouldn’t worry too much.
8. Encourage people to tell their stories of how they have learned lessons in their own lives and encourage them to relate them to the Bible. Real life applications of Biblical lessons combined with raw honesty, both in large groups and in small groups, will help participants feel closer with each other. Sharing themes from the Bible will also keep people on point in pursuing their spiritual growth.
9. Although I am not the biggest fan of “activities”, I must admit they create comraderie and trust in each small group. Activities allow the process of relaxing, releasing and opening up to pay attention to God’s influence on life. It also allows LOTS of laughter.
10. I have learned over the years that retreats with high school kids and young adults who appear to be a little more uninhibited are contagious and inspiring to those of all ages. If the participants don’t know each other that well, there can be a tendency to form cliques. While new friendships are encouraging, try to have everyone mingle outside of their core group.
11. There have been some very special formats that make the weekend experience “over the top.” Having something unexpected and exciting at the end of the retreat can be a great idea. Just the simple element of surprise and making the participants feel special, in addition to relaxed, will allow one’s heart to open just a little bit more.
12. Closure is also important. Whether it’s a service of some kind or just having everyone share what the weekend meant to them is incredibly moving and can create some lasting relationships. In addition to being a nice way to close the retreat for the participants, it can also be very useful for staff to make adjustments for the next retreat, so keep your ears open!
Letting go, singing, learning new songs and being all there, together, in the moment, will live on in your group’s memory forever. To lead something so wonderful is a great honor and privilege.
Lin Lockamy is the author of Grace by Which I Stand. She lives in Dallas, Texas where she continues to participate enthusiastically in church retreats. Visit her website at http://gracebywhichistand.org