Response: October 2014 Issue

Planning Great Retreats

Planning Great Retreats
Regional Missionary Hikari Chang writes in a journal at a United Methodist Women gathering at Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville.

Retreats help build healthy spiritual lives and are a necessary part of putting our faith, hope and love into action.

The Assembly 2014 theme, "Make It Happen!" inspired United Methodist Women members who had traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, in April to make a difference in the world, in their own lives and in their communities. Participants flocked to sessions on the Bible, spirituality and retreats, because when we deal with global issues such as climate change, human trafficking, economic oppression, genetically modified foods, etc., we need to have our spiritual houses in order.

One of the ways we feed ourselves and our United Methodist Women communities spiritually is through retreats. Planners of retreats at all levels know how important these soul-nurturing events are. So it was no surprise at Assembly to see women filling the seats of my retreats workshop.

Participants brought their whole selves to the workshop. We shared ideas and information and experienced elements of what I would call a "mini retreat." One woman even exclaimed, "The Spirit of the Lord is in this place!" I said a quiet prayer of thanksgiving.

When facilitating a workshop on retreats I try to build in an element of experiencing God in addition to talking about the practical matters of what works and what does not work in retreats. Almost everyone in the room in Louisville had experience planning retreats, so we had a cornucopia of expertise sitting around the tables.


Workshop participants talked about their best and worst retreat experiences and what contributed to those experiences. Overwhelmingly, people identified two key elements—location and leadership—as crucial components of a successful retreat.

If we are physically uncomfortable, it is difficult to go deep into a spiritual reality. Scripture that comes to mind is James 2:15-17: "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

There is nothing inherently spiritual about physical suffering. We can make the most of difficult circumstances, but when your body is comfortable and safe you can move beyond survival instincts to communion with God's creation and enjoyment of time with your neighbor.

Your retreat participants' well-being and comfort is a part of creating a space where they can take in the love of God and hear God's call to service.

Where will your retreat participants feel it is worth their time and money to be? The retreat location could be by a lake or in the mountains. Soul-inspiring aesthetics can also be found in an urban retreat center where Catholic sisters surround you with simplicity, beauty, hospitality and great food. The range of possibilities is enormous. Be sure to find or create a sense of place that participants will treasure.

When choosing a venue, accessibility is vital. Think of both physical and financial accessibility. Ask about the physical accessibility. Are there stairs? Is the staff accustomed to providing food for those with allergies? How close is the nearest medical facility? Can wheelchairs be easily accommodated or hearing devices provided? Are there long distances to walk?

Expenses for participants are always an accessibility concern. Travel and registration fees can be obstacles for some people. Be creative: charge more for basic fees so you can create a scholarship fund. Encourage local units to raise funds through events that also serve to announce the retreat.


The best retreats, no matter what location, have a leader who is on a spiritual journey, who cares about what happens at the event and who has the ability to engage the women who attend. Your retreat leader may or may not have extensive experience facilitating retreats, but it is important that someone on your team or in your network has a sense of who the prospective retreat leader is and what she or he brings to the table. Some retreat leaders come with an extensive track record of leading retreats, and others may bring their journey and enthusiasm but may not have a lot of experience. You and your team will have to determine what will work best for your retreat participants.

Give the leader as much information as possible—photos of previous retreats, of the rooms, dining hall and outside environment—­­so your retreat leader can get a sense of the space and possibilities. Let the leader know the formula for the schedule and how open the group might be to surprises and creativity. Provide previous schedules and topics and work together to come up with a theme for the retreat.

Plan to be surprised

At Assembly, I led my retreat workshop two days in a row. The second day, I went back to the same room to lead the workshop again. I set up my guitar, notes and PowerPoint, and a few people trickled in. I thought, "Hmm. Either everyone came the first day or word got around that it wasn't such a great workshop." Then (with help from the others) I realized I was in the wrong room—panic!

I was now late. I packed my things and ran down the hall to the correct room and found an overflow crowd getting restless. I decided to make it a teachable moment.

"What do you do when things don't go as expected when you are planning a retreat?" I asked.

Isn't that the way of planning? Half the battle is planning and organizing and making sure the food, location, leadership and travel instructions are in place. The other half is dealing with the unexpected, whether during the planning or in the middle of your event.

Plan everything and then be ready for surprises. Surprises will happen because of error or unforetold events—storms, equipment failure or a traffic delay that makes half the group late. Or a surprise can come in the form of a young person who brought an instrument and graces the participants with music. Stay open to positive surprises as well. Allow for flexibility in your schedule and keep your heart open for the movement of the Holy Spirit (who is always ready to surprise us).

Let the surprises come! When they happen, just say to yourself, "Here is one of those surprises."

Do have a plan

Openness to the Holy Spirit does not mean that we do not take the time to thoroughly plan our retreat. It means we take care of every detail we can think of and go forward knowing that we are in God's hands and that in every glitch or success God is with us.

Create a team to plan your retreat. Plan your retreat as a team, and you will nurture future leadership.

Finally, do not feel like you have to reinvent the wheel. United Methodist Women has a retreat planning booklet available on the downloads section of the United Methodist Women Mission Resources e-store at www.umw For additional resources and to read the outline for the retreats workshop at Assembly, visit

Use resources from the Reading Program, the Program Book, response and online materials. Use them for ideas about themes and bring them to the retreat to share. Always bring membership information and be ready to tell the story of United Methodist Women in mission to participants.

We have a story to tell about Jesus and what it means to follow him. We have a story to tell about the women who have gone before us who were faithful in mission. We have a story to tell about how our lives have been changed by Jesus who first modeled what it meant to reach out to women, children and youth and all those who were ever treated as someone unimportant to God.

Retreats give us rest, and they inspire us to keep moving forward so we can continue to "Make It Happen!"

Retreats: Topical retreat plans and guidance

J. Ann Craig is a former US-2 missionary and United Methodist Women executive for spiritual and theological development. She is founder of Craig Media Strategy and works with regional, national and international groups on social justice to utilize traditional and cutting-edge media to create impact.

Posted or updated: 9/29/2014 11:00:00 PM