Lessons Learned from Planning Retreats

branding-connect-womenThis past weekend marked the 7th retreat for women I’ve led for our church and mark my words when I tell you I am a recovering “not-really-a-retreat-kind-of-a-person.”

It’s true. The only reason why I even went to my first retreat is because I loved the two women leading them at the time and wanted to show my support.

In my mind, retreats were too much fluff.  I never found it appealing to be in one place with that much estrogen and quite frankly,  didn’t think a church women’s retreat could be that significant for one’s spiritual growth.

I was wrong.

I quickly learned from some really wise mentors who had gone before me, a retreat can actually be extraordinary and women can be together to mutually encourage one another in the faith.  I also discovered I was not alone in my feelings. While many women can pick up and go to a retreat without knowing a soul, many are afraid. Very afraid.  Anxious no one will sit with them, talk with them or include them.  Concerned it will be a waste of their time and will come back feeling worse about themselves and no different about God than when they came.

Each year, I learn a few lessons and I’m thankful God isn’t finished schooling me. Let me begin with this definition in mind that came from Kim McManus:

Retreat: the setting aside of extraordinary time to do something for the sake of your soul.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1. It’s vital to begin with a vision, but keep in mind you are not the author of said vision. You and your team should spend time praying and seeking God for what He wants for the women of your church. Ideally, it should line up with the vision of your church because the women are half of the body.  But keep in mind, God can and does what ever He wants.  Each retreat ends up taking on a life of it’s own and it’s important to resist the temptation to try and emulate one from the past.

2. We make plans, but the Lord directs our steps. Be flexible.. We plan and prepare according to our vision, the theme and the central message but God is so creative and shows up I the way He chooses, so holding your plans loosely is super important.  All your leaders {worship leaders, teachers, discussion leaders} must be in tune with this and willing to flex and change direction as the weekend goes on.

3. Discern the message before you decide on the messenger. Many groups will start with finding a speaker before they do number one. You as the leadership know your people and what God is doing in your community better than any speaker that comes in. You must discern this and then find the speaker or speakers who best fit. You may even find them right there in your own church which not only builds up the body but turns the hearts of your women towards each other.

4. The Holy Spirit can do what ever He wants and can work through whomever He chooses. Reflecting on our retreat this last weekend, what is striking are the stories of women who have been moved by the spirit of God not in a big flashy, up in front of a large room kind of way, but through conversations, encounters and prayers with others. Dreams and visions were shared, words were given and encouragement, proving God really does see us.

5. The women attending have so much to give. Giving away ministry opportunities, sharing leadership and empowering others to serve gives more women ownership in the retreat. Perhaps its our Mary/Martha dichotomy, but women will often feel more comfortable being there if they have a job to do. The more people you empower to contribute, the better it becomes.

6. It’s important to make it unique from any other weekend. This gets a bit touchy, but let’s face it… If you really wanted to, you could take a weekend away with some friends to go to a spa, shop ad relax. There is room for this at women’s retreats but if it becomes the central focus, then we miss out on a unique opportunity most women don’t have… To get away and spend a good chunk of time in the presence of God and in community with other Christ followers. We always encourage women to not do what they can always do at home and if they do… Take someone with you. Be with each other.

7. Having the support of your church leadership can make or break it. When your pastor and elders get behind your vision and recognize this is a really good thing for women, more women will embrace it.  By investing in your endeavor with your budget, resources and communication, and when women who are leadership actually go, everyone feels invested in and the body is built up.

8. Not everyone will enjoy it.  You can bend over backwards trying to make everyone happy and have something for everyone, however it is inevitable that someone will walk away without their needs met.  It’s important to evaluate when things are said and done and see where you can improve next time.  Getting input from those you are serving is valuable.  However you can’t expect to make everyone happy because you will simply be spinning your wheels.

9. You can’t do everything.  There are so many elements that make retreats good. From teaching, to worship, to solitude time, connecting time and free time.  Unfortunately, you only have so much time and you can’t pack too much in without losing your margin to actually bring your group home having felt like they actually retreated.  It’s okay to leave something out, to cut somethings shorter and try new things while sacrificing the old.

10. It’s worth it.  Planning and preparing for a retreat takes a lot of time, energy and investment from your church. In the weeks leading up to the weekend, it can become consuming. If you put the right team in place to steer it and allow God to do what only He can do, it is so worth it.  It brings value to the women in your church, it gives us an opportunity to experience God in ways we can’t normally do in our daily lives and it builds community.  And when someone comes and encounters Christ for the first time, all of Heaven rejoices… so should you.

What have you learned about retreats? What do you enjoy or dislike about retreats?

13 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Planning Retreats

  1. Lisa Bassols says:

    Great article, Suzie! I have heard how great the retreats have been since you have been organizing them (this year too) so God is using you to further His kingdom through continuing to prayerfully plan retreats. I look forward to one day being able to get away for a retreat when my attending one will work for my entire family. Thanks for sharing what you have learned…..

  2. Jill Birkmann says:

    As a recovering not-really-a-retreat-kinda-gal myself, I am astonished at the words of God I hear when I go to the retreat and make myself quiet down for him. And I always chuckle that I’m right up there blubberin’ away like usual at his goodness! I just can’thelp it! Thank you for your committment to it!

  3. Joanie says:

    Our retreats are life changing if we let them be. Relationships are strengthened, new friends are made, understanding increases ,generations are drawn closer, and the Lord moves mightily. Suzi, as your heart is for the Church, especially women, you as the leader set the tone, that is reflected in the leaders, and women are ministered to. A few other things I love is our fun emcees, one on one prayer time, a sensitive worship team using a variety of women, our opening skit, and our great location that encourages fellowship.

    • Jill Birkmann says:

      As usual, perfectly said Joanie. I love that we have mature women in Christ to lead the rest of us, age not at issue. It just makes me so warm to know that our sweet and loving Father has put us together to occasionally hear words like these. He gives us prayerful committed leaders like Suzie, mature wise leaders like Joanie, Norma, and a bevy of others…it is just too much for me to comprehend sometimes…a retreat like this just distills it all and lets us all see the love He has for us in so many different ways and through so many different people. He does his work with people, and the retreat is like a perfect saucy reduction…all the good stuff, a little tangy and sticky for some, but oh so good if you can wait for it. 🙂

  4. Gina Duke says:

    Suzie, I’ve only done one retreat and we focused on making it a fun get-away with a Christian humorist/story-teller, but next time, I do want to focus on more of a time to get alone with God. Thank you for sharing! I love the Kim McManus’ definition. ~Gina Duke

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