Religious Retreat Planning 101 for 2016

Tips from an expert will help the smooth the way in putting together a meaningful spiritual experience for your group

Veteran retreat speaker and author Jane Rubietta says this about the retreat planning process: “It starts with leadership.”

It’s paramount to create a spirit of unity on the leadership team so that it’s not about one person’s agendas or ideas or self-esteem. The real question that the leadership needs to be asking is ‘What does the Lord want for and from our group?’”

Once your ministry team has answered that question, you are ready to begin the retreat planning process, which begins with creating your Retreat Leadership Team, whose members should be on board with the answer to the above question.

Forming a Retreat Leadership Team (RLT)

USE RTPG 2016 Photo 1The first year I organized a retreat for my moms group, Moms LINK, I did a lot of delegating. No one attending had ever been on a retreat before, nor had any idea what to expect. The RLT consisted of the current group president, another officer and an interested group member, in addition to me. I did a lot of explaining and showing examples of activities from other retreats I’d led. Together we did a lot of brainstorming. Then ladies took on tasks they felt comfortable organizing. One woman planned a mixer; another created discussion questions for a film clip. The third planned our group craft. I handled the rest of the overall organization and session planning. The result was a wonderful retreat that left women renewed and refreshed.

In forming your RLT, you should keep a few things in mind.First, your team size will vary depending on your group size and needs. In general, use a minimum of three for a small (8-12 person) retreat and eight to ten for larger (50 person and up) retreats, and be sure to include youth on your planning team if it’s a youth or intergenerational retreat. Second, your planners should also be committed to attending retreat since they will have some on-site responsibilities. In addition, these leaders need positive attitudes and a willingness to cooperate and work together, especially during the first year’s planning process. Note: You may need to pull in additional volunteers to handle specific tasks like facilitating a discussion group, storytelling or leading your worship music. Do what makes sense for your group.

A group of young adults gathered around a Bible

A group of young adults gathered around a Bible

In general, your planning will begin eight to twelve months before the event, and the RLT should anticipate meeting three to four times during the first few months to secure the site reservation and begin initial planning. Depending on how far in advance you’ve started, your RLT will likely have a several month break where no action is needed. Then approximately six months before your retreat, the RLT will need to meet fairly regularly for several weeks to finalize the theme, prepare the registration brochure, decide on publicity and brainstorm session activities. Once the registration brochure is out, the RLT will probably meet once a month to continue planning and to organize the registrations. Approximately two weeks prior to departure, the RLT will meet to finalize numbers, give a final count to the conference center (unless required before this date), prepare a master To Do list, assign carpools and housing, and divide up any remaining tasks and/or decide on the on-site responsibilities for RLT members.

Lastly, your RLT should have a built-in mentoring mechanism where the team never starts over with all brand new members. Think about creating two- and three-year positions that will always allow for experienced RLT members to show the ropes to newcomers. To help you gather potential planners, include a question about serving on the RLT on your evaluation form.

Choosing a Site and Securing Your Reservation Site selection is key to a well-planned retreat.

With your team, make a list of the priorities you have for your housing and meeting space (see Chapter 4 in The Complete Leader’s Guide to Christian Retreats for hints). One other important factor is the physical surroundings of the retreat center. Most camp and conference centers make full use of their natural surroundings, which enhance a participant’s experience. Some centers have densely wooded grounds. Others are on a lake or have a stream or river running through them. Still others may be out in the middle of rural farmland or better yet are in the mountains. And, some will be in urban or suburban neighborhoods.

A group of teen girls having a prayer circle outdoors.

A group of teen girls having a prayer circle outdoors.

In addition, your RLT will need to take into account whether or not your group will want to or be able to take advantage
of outdoor recreation opportunities. Maybe your retreat will be in January in northern Ohio, so being outside is only a priority if you’re counting on snow. Or maybe your small group is your church quilting group, and all free time will be spent indoors working on projects so weather and surroundings aren’t as important. Just plan accordingly.

The terrain may be a factor for your group, as well. One camp I’ve used extensively in Michigan is built on a gorgeous sand dune. While there are boardwalks in place throughout most of the camp, it is not totally handicapped-accessible and would be challenging for comeone with impaired mobility. If your group has anyone with special needs, your RLT should be sure to discuss them with the conference center manager to make sure she will be able to be reasonably accommodated.

After making a list of your priorities, your RLT should begin the site search process.You can start with the centers listed in The Complete Leader’s Guide to Christian Retreats.

Or, use the personal recommendations of group members who are familiar with camp and conference centers in your area. Make a list of sites that sound appealing and assign a team member the task of calling to see if your chosen date is available. You may want to have an alternate weekend or two just in case. If no one in your group has used your chosen facility, your RLT should designate at least two people to do a site visit before you place any kindof non-refundable deposit, which will mostlikely be the next step in your reservation process.

Pricing Your Retreat

iStock_000021576289_LargeWhen your RLT confirms a date with your chosen retreat center, the center should send out a contract confirming the date, specifying any special rules or policies and listing the price for the weekend, including all meals, lodging and special services. This should also be broken down per person by the camp. The contract will also state the deposit required to hold your reservation. The amount will vary from center to center, so make sure you understand what is required of your group upfront. To cover this amount, your group could do several things:

  • If your group has a budget and money available, vote to approve that the deposit funds come from group money. You can then either reimburse the account when all retreat registrations are paid, or your group can subsidize the retreat cost by covering the initial deposit.
  • Hold a special fundraiser to cover the deposit cost or designate funds raised from an upcoming fundraiser as reimbursement to the group account for the retreat deposit.
  • If you’re working 6-12 months ahead of time, ask all those who think they might be interested in attending retreat to help secure the reservation by sending in a deposit. These initial personal deposits will guarantee them a space on retreat. Most likely you will be able to refund the deposit if someone is unable to attend later on. (However, this will depend on the guaranteed minimum rules of the conference center you choose. Read your contract closely and thoroughly!) The amount you require upfront should be deducted from the total retreat cost once the registration brochure comes out.

Publicizing Your Retreat

Your group size will determine the amount of publicity you need to do. If you are a single small group that has already been discussing going on retreat, you should be able to simply distribute a preliminary interest flyer and request initial personal deposits before finalizing a reservation. However, if your group is larger or if you will be opening up the retreat to non-members, you will want to put publicity items in your church bulletin or newsletter and/or get the information on your website as soon as you have a date and location. The retreat brochure should be distributed three months prior to the event. If your web team can set up online registration for you, even better.

Above all, your RLT needs to set the example in being inclusive. Host a sign-up table at church and encourage both people whose names you know and those you don’t to sign up for retreat. This invitation demonstrates the spiritual gift of hospitality and will let everyone know that all are welcome, not just a select few. Personal phone calls to all the potential retreat participants are another great outreach tool to make individuals feel included.

As you move into the planning process, don’t forget to invite God to be a part of that team. “The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Lots of time and effort goes into creating a meaningful retreat experience, but the benefits for participants are eternal. May you help renew and refresh spirits and transform minds for God!

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