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Sep 30

Making the most of a retreat day

Why is it that putting time aside to spend with God on our own is so often a struggle? We need to remind ourselves that our primary calling in life is to worship God and to be transformed into his likeness. So it follows that the more time we spend with him, the greater the chances of these happening. Indeed, if we want to see our ministry grow in a God-led way, then we need to be bringing ourselves before him regularly. We need to have retreat days in our diaries regularly as part of our annual routine.

I have met countless youth workers over the years who just don’t know how to stop. The idea of taking a morning out to just ‘be with God’ is frightening enough, let alone the thought of a whole day or even longer. One wonderful youth minister was honest enough to tell me that he just didn’t think he could do it, he didn’t feel his relationship with God was strong enough to commit that kind of time.

Another time, I was speaking on a youth worker’s retreat weekend. As part of the programme there was an afternoon free for individuals to have time to spend in the Lord’s presence, in whatever way suited them. What saddened me was that I don’t think one person there did this. Instead people saw it as a chance for a table tennis tournament, a chance to check out the local shopping mall and, for one participant, a chance to visit a relative who lived locally.  Whilst, of course, all these things are good and do give us opportunities to connect with God and his people, it is so easy to use these as excuses for not actually meeting with God face to face.  I know, I’ve done it myself.

When I was first starting out in full-time youth ministry the idea of taking time away to be with God was completely alien to me. I knew church leaders who had done such a thing and it was always a profound experience, but I wasn’t like them, at least, not in my head. I finally succumbed, though, and thought that it was at least a day away from the office and treated it more as a day off! I booked myself into a retreat centre for the day. When I arrived I was shown around and then led to a room, which was to be my hideaway for the day.

The room had a desk, a chair, and a bed. I sat on the bed and considered how I might make the most of this gift of time suddenly before me. After about 30 seconds I took out a book I had brought with me (spiritual people always read, was my reasoning). I read for about an hour and then pulled out my laptop, wondering if there might be internet access. There was, brilliant! A quick check up on emails and a leisurely meandering through the internet (I probably bought a couple of presents for Christmas during this time!) and then my stomach was telling me it was time to eat. So I ate the packed lunch I had brought with me followed by a quick stroll around the centre grounds. Then it was back to my room and , well that was it. The rest of the afternoon passed me by as I slept all afternoon on the bed! I left that place having not opened my Bible, not really meeting with God but having had a great rest! What it told me was that I was working far too hard (and long) so needed to rest more, and also that my spiritual walk needed serious attention.

So now, I make sure I take regular retreat days and I plan them before I go. Here’s what I do as I plan:

1. Hopes I think about what I am specifically hoping to get out of the day. Do I want to talk to God about anything specific? Am I considering where he is leading me? Am I wanting to see which parts of my character really need to be more Christ-like? Am I wanting to hear his voice generally? What I want to get from the day will shape how I spend the time.

2. Plan I then consider what ways might help me to realise these hopes. Is it best to go to a retreat centre or to go for a long hike? Is it best to read lots of Scripture or to listen to worship songs? Are there questions that I need to ask of myself in the Lord’s presence? I start to come up with a whole list of ideas as to what I might be able to do to make the most of my time with my heavenly father.

3. Practicalities Think about venue, location and the environment which will best enable you to meet with God. This is different for all of us. I find often what’s best for me is to go to a country village, hang out in a coffee shop all morning then go for a hike in the country in the afternoon. I thrive off being around people so it works well, for me. But sometimes the discipline of being in a room in a retreat centre is good for me as I cannot escape the silence and the stillness.

What I have learnt is that the best retreat days do not happen if I stay at my own home. The temptations of work, the guitar, the television and so on are just too great. Thinking about the practicalities such as travel length, lunch etc will help make the day go well.

4. Timetable Finally I write myself a guide timetable for the day. This way I can see if I am trying to pack too much in (my usual tendency!) rather than slow down so I can hear God speak clearly, which ultimately is always my aim of retreating. The timetable is useful for getting me started on the day and for leading me in the direction I know I want to go in. I also make sure I timetable something fun for the evening. Retreat days are not the easiest of things to do, it is a spiritual discipline after all, and so planning something fun whether it’s watching a movie or seeing friends, it’s important to end the day well.

It seems to me that the better the retreat day, the better the pre-retreat day planning. Not because I want to stick to my man-made planning or an inbuilt desire to always be in control, but actually to allow God to lead me, I need to plan that into my day so I know this time is for God and no one else.

You may find a previous blog of mine on the importance of retreating to advance also helpful as you prepare for a retreat day.

May I encourage you to take a retreat day soon, especially if you have never taken one. You cannot afford not to, for the sake of both yourself and those you lead, and are a role model to.

What have you found useful to do on a retreat experience? What are some of the challenges you face in taking time out? What are you going to do as a result of this post? Please leave your comments below,