Healthy Leaders


Keys to Designing a Life-Giving Spiritual Life Retreat

Brent HooverBrent Hoover

What Is a Spiritual Retreat?

A retreat is leaving your busy life for a few days in order to draw closer to God and to other Christians. It is a time of doing things differently than our normal days ‒ enjoying more hours of quiet, reflection, meditation, worship, prayer, relaxation, laughter, fun, food, and getting to know one another.

Why Do We Need Spiritual Retreats?

Christians retreat because Jesus did. He often went to solitary places to pray. He took His disciples to a place of rest. He took disciples up a mountain to show them who He was (Mark 6:31-32). Also, from ancient times God called his people to go out into the wilderness to worship Him.

The main reason Christians retreat from the world is because we need to know God and each other in greater depth. Believers in Jesus have a great need to stop our normal work and busyness of life in the world to focus on intimacy with God, with one another, and our rest in Him. This rest includes physical rest, celebration, and recreation.

Retreats help us obey the two greatest commands of God: to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love one another as Jesus loved us.

Retreats especially help Christian leaders combat the chaos and busyness of life that can erode one’s spiritual life. Without a regular pattern of retreat from the world, a secular way of thinking can begin to seep into a leader’s life.

How Do We Design Spiritual Retreats?

There are many different kinds of retreats. Pastor study-retreats for sermon preparation; co-worker retreats seeking God for direction and prayer for the church; women’s retreats, men’s retreats and youth retreats; prayer retreats, marriage retreats, and personal retreats for solitude.

Anything you want to focus more on is a reason for having a retreat! The key in designing retreats is to have a clear goal and a transforming process.

Goal: Keep It Simple and Clear

You have total freedom to design any kind of retreat. Just choose a goal. Do you sense that God desires:

Process: Make It Life-Giving and Life-Shaping

We do this by using the Four Dynamics!

Because a retreat will give you plenty of time you should make sure you use all four of the dynamics of spiritual life and transformation that we see in the Bible. We center on the spiritual dynamic that brings people to direct encounters with God and also make plenty of space for relational, experiential and instructional dynamics. Some of the spiritual things that could be focused on are:

Keep It Simple

Most retreats have too many activities! Keep your retreat simple and focused on one or two goals. Remember, a retreat is not a training weekend or a conference. If you want a training weekend, then don’t call it a retreat. Let everyone know that a retreat is truly a time of simple rest and focus. At retreats there is less teaching time but also more time to be together doing other things. But altogether God will use these things to transform people’s hearts.

Keep It Informal

Much learning takes place in informal times and relationships are built closer through informal times of sharing. People feel more relaxed when there is more informal time.  So the secret to design is to intentionally build in more informal times in your retreat.  It may look like “nothing is planned” but actually your plan is to have more free time to allow God to work.

The retreat design should be the opposite of people’s normal days which are busy, noisy, and task-focused. So your retreat design should be some days of rest, quiet, and focus on relationships, not tasks.

Set the Tone

The leaders of retreats have to be very much at peace. They should welcome everyone warmly and with affection. They should smile and show everyone that they are not busy, not worried, and not focused on the task. The leader’s example will set the tone for everyone else and help them enter into the attitude of a retreat.

As soon as everyone arrives and puts their luggage away, the leader should gather everyone together in a quiet place and welcome them to the retreat and tell them that this is not a training, but it is an invitation from Jesus to enter into His rest and His relationships.

Let them know that Jesus is the leader of the retreat and that He is among us and He wants to help us learn what He experienced in the wilderness or in the mountains – dependency on God, revelation of truth from God, and real love between Him and His disciples.

Remove Cell Phones

Many things can destroy a peaceful and restful spiritual environment of a retreat. But the biggest destroyer of the environment is the cell phone. It is best for everyone to put their cell phone into a box until the end of the retreat. Since many people use devices for access to the Bible, encourage participants to bring an old-fashioned print Bible.

It takes one or two days without a cell phone for a human being to begin to slow down mentally and emotionally. For some people it takes three or four days. Many leaders have become addicted to their phones and the effects can even be felt physically once rest actually takes place. Many people will not want to go without a phone for a weekend but if you want an effective spiritual life retreat it seems the very best thing to do.

Think About the Length of the Retreat

The length depends on your goal and your resources. For spiritual life retreats for weary pastors, seven days is appropriate. The first three days they just begin to slow down. And then on days four through six people begin to really rest and get to know each other.

But many retreats are three days — Friday through Sunday afternoon. Many of the same principles will apply but you just have less time overall. However, we have seen God work in great ways in these two-night retreats.

Those in full-time ministry have more time and they could probably begin the retreat on Monday and come home on Friday and then still do ministry on Saturday and Sunday. Five days is a good length for retreats depending on your goal. If rest is a higher goal, then going seven days long is good because the pastors are able to rest without the pressure of weekend ministry coming.

One-day retreats are also possible. It is best to have a single purpose and spend most of your time doing that one thing. It could be solitude, building relationships, or going on a hike or just prayer. If a leader simply took a one-day retreat each month it would have a profound impact in his or her life and ministry over the span of one to two years.

So be creative and realize that there is no one perfect design for a spiritual life retreat. Each time you design and do one you will learn more.

Do Evaluation: Before, During, and After

Before, during and after you should evaluate your retreat. First evaluate your design and consider if it is holistic and if it will reach your goal. During the retreat you should remain very flexible to change any of your plans if something is not working well. Just try something else and adjust. A few days after the retreat meet with your core team and evaluate the overall impact of the retreat. Write down ideas of how to make it better the next time. And always end with times of celebration.

After a few years of retreats you will be an expert designer! Keep trusting God because He is the one who is calling people out to retreat with Him!

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