On Retreat: A Spiritual Journey

Back when I was a director of Christian education, my husband and I took our senior high youth group on a work camp retreat one spring.

Like many parents active in ministry, our toddler daughter and preschool son had come with us as well, but by Saturday night I was ready to tie my son Alex to the bunk bed. The work camp schedule had not worked well for his four-year-old life. Imagine that. So I asked him to take a time out with me, and we went for a walk in the woods surrounding camp.

Almost as soon as we hit the trail, we could hear deer rustling in the trees, but in the growing twilight, we couldn’t see them. Our walk quickly became a wonderful adventure in God’s Creation as we searched for our elusive friends. Just as we were about to head back to the main road, four deer suddenly crossed our path 20 feet ahead of us and stopped. We stood there, watching them watch us for what seemed like an eternity. Then just as suddenly, they turned tail and took off into the trees.

By now it was really getting dark, and I wanted to get back to the cabins. I felt renewed and refreshed by our walk, so in my adult head, it was back to business time. I had devotions to lead soon, and I wanted to get back to prepare. I headed up the trail to the main road but turned around to discover that Alex was not at my side. When I looked back, I could see him down where the deer had crossed our path, looking up at the sky and talking.

When I got closer to him, I heard him repeating, “256 Walnut Street. 256 Walnut Street.” Mystified, I asked him what he was doing. “I’m giving God my address,” he said. So we prayed then, my wise boy and his humbled mom, that God would help Alex listen more and me yell less and that God would continue to be at work in us, even after we went home. Because what God taught me in that moment was that you can take a boy out of the woods but you can’t take the woods out of the boy, and the woods was where that boy (and his mom) found God on retreat. Amen!


Now in my mind, that’s the goal of retreat…it’s taking a time out from the busyness of this world to reconnect and learn how to stay connected to God. A retreat makes possible what Paul writes about in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you can discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Those opportunities for discernment don’t always happen in our crazy busy lives. It seems to me that God’s people find themselves 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 timeout, a Sabbath rest, in the middle of our fast-paced, sensory overloaded lives.

Because certainly if ministry leaders are feeling the pressure to make more time for God, the average member is feeling the pressure, too…and likely not knowing how to respond. By offering a retreat, you enable people to let go of the world’s expectations and take a step back. For 48 hours, someone else will cook and clean for them. The only person they have to worry about is themselves. The only schedule that’s prearranged is the retreat schedule, and if people don’t make it to a session, they won’t be fired from their job or locked up for child abandonment. A retreat is a little blip in the time-space continuum that helps people get right and stay right with God. What a gift!


Yet people will protest going. They will give every excuse in the book as to why they can’t take a timeout for God.

  • It’s too expensive.
  • It’s too far away.
  • I can’t leave my kids.
  • My spouse can’t handle the kids.
  • I have to work.
  • I have to work out.
  • I don’t like “sharing” my feelings or my personal history.
  • I don’t like sharing a bathroom/bedroom/dinner table with people I don’t really know.

But they protest much because they don’t fully understand the benefits, so part of your job as a retreat planning team member will be getting them to see that the benefits outweigh the costs. And I’m not just talking about money, although certainly people may have to take paid or unpaid vacation time in order to go. It’s hard for people to set a weekend aside, especially when they don’t know what to expect or are worried about having to share personal information.

One of my favorite expert quotes I collected while writing The Complete Leader’s Guide to Christian Retreats is from Dale Garwood of Granger Community Church in Indiana. Dale says for their men’s retreats, they make sure all the guys know up front it’s “One mattress per man!” That eases a lot of minds right off the bat, he adds. Leaders need to be both encouraging and explicit up front. Tell people what to expect; it lessens their fear and helps them make the commitment to go.

In addition, retreats benefit both individuals and your ministry group as a whole. A well-planned retreat opens up possibilities for personal spiritual growth and person-to- person relational growth as participants grow closer to God. One of my favorite retreat memories involved a woman from my moms group who I’d always found pushy, abrasive and annoying and who I disliked, pretty intensely. When we ended up in a retreat discussion group together, I thought, “Oh, no! This is going to be a nightmare.” Yet as she talked and I listened, I discovered that we actually had many of the same personality traits. 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. “Do not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you can discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). That’s the ultimate benefit, being transformed for God!


Now that you’re all excited and ready to plan the best retreat ever, I do want to clarify two words for you …retreat and conference. Some people use them interchangeably. I don’t, and that just comes from my personal experience. In a recent retreat planning webinar I led, several participants indicated that they were planning retreats for 300-400 participants. To me, that’s a really big group for a retreat. It doesn’t mean you can’t call it a retreat; however, I think with that size group, those planners will just need to be really intentional about creating opportunities for personal quiet time and person-to-person connections.

Generally speaking, I also see conferences as more educational while retreats are more relational. In addition, conferences tend to be more formal and geared for large groups, often with lecture-type sessions. Retreats, however, tend to be more informal, and are geared for small-group conversations that allow people to begin to talking with one another about what’s going on in their lives. Not that a conference can’t be relational or a retreat educational, but there is usually a difference in purpose and process. Think outside the box and let God step in and transform minds!


This is the one thing leaders don’t like to think about but definitely need to be prepared for…what to do when things don’t go as planned. In my many years of planning retreats, like clockwork, it seemed that my own kids could sense when I was going to be away, and at least one of them would get seriously ill the day before retreat. But that’s why you need a retreat leadership team…and a planning timeline…and a master To Do list. Even if one of your key team members can’t go at the last minute, your group should still be able to carry on with little disruption and with full confidence.

However, other problems may arise on site, and you should be ready for these, too.

  • Accommodation issues (not what you expected, not enough beds, no meeting space, not clean, etc.).
    • Immediately contact the management to calmly and politely review your contract (Did you state your requests in advance and did you do a site visit to preview your space?) and your options. Be cheerful and flexible in problem solving, as this will set the tone for your retreat.
    • Forgotten supplies
      • Contact the management to arrange to borrow from the facility or get directions to a local WalMart.
    • Dead discussions
      • Feel free to improvise. Give small-group discussion leaders the freedom to end early or move their group outside or to a different space. If it’s a whole group issue, break for prayer, a few songs or a coffee or stretching break.
      • While retreats need overall structure, talk with small-group discussion leaders in advance about leaving space for those deeper connection conversations to happen organically. Quiet time in between individual responses might feel a little awkward at first, but encourage leaders and participants to be patient and support one another as they build community with one another.
    • Planning problems
      • For youth, it’s crucial to over-plan. Have a variety of optional activities and questions available for leaders whose groups finish early or whose teens are not engaging in the material. You may never need it, but if you do, you’ll be forever grateful you planned ahead.
      • In addition to small-group discussion leaders, it’s also helpful to plan for a floater volunteer who can be available for individual prayer mid-session or to handle any crisis that may arise during the retreat without pulling leaders away from groups.


If you’re ready to retreat, assemble your retreat leadership team and start 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). However, if you feel like you need more help, then check out The Complete Leader’s Guide to Christian Retreats (Judson Press, 2008), available at www.judsonpress.com. Or feel free to email me at rachel@thegilmoregirl.com. I’m always happy to answer planning questions via email, although I’m also available to work as a consultant with your planning team or serve as a retreat speaker. May your retreat ministry help you transform hearts and minds for God. Amen. Let it be.

–By Rachel Gilmore