How to Plan an Effective Retreat

How to Plan an Effective Retreat

“A retreat gives participants a time and space to be fully present, to do work that is hard to accomplish, or to partake in reflection that eludes us in the regular rhythm of our lives.”



Reconnect, Renew, Refresh: Retreat!
Retreats, as time and space set apart from the everyday demands of life, offer the possibility of renewing ourselves and our relationships with God and others. Throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus retreating for prayer in the midst of his preaching, teaching and healing.

Retreats can be especially effective tools for formation and growth within congregations. All you need is advanced planning, a clear understanding of your target audience, and a little creativity. Here are steps to take in planning a successful retreat for a parish or specific group within a congregation.

Purpose and Audience
What is the purpose of your retreat? Retreats can be designed to build community, to accomplish a task, to provide time for study and reflection, or to serve as sanctuary. A retreat gives participants a time and space to be fully present, to do work that is hard to accomplish, or to partake in reflection that eludes us in the regular rhythm of our lives.

Who is your target audience? You may offer a retreat for people representing one age group, an intergenerational age range, or a specific area of interest or topic. A youth group retreat has a distinctly different vibe than a retreat for contemplative prayer. If your audience is intergenerational, you will need to find a topic that will interest a wide range of ages.

Retreats can be organized around a sacred season, a biblical text, a spiritual practice, a mission, or a group identity. While Lent and Advent are good times to offer a retreat, consider scheduling a weekend retreat near All Saints Day for deepening discipleship or during Epiphany to focus on darkness and light. An adult retreat might be a time for celebrating “soul food” that features favorite passages of scripture, as well as a special food or beverage tasting.

If you are planning a task-centered retreat, identify a topic that is life-giving for the group. For example, a vestry wrestling with a decline in attendance might use a bread of life theme to think about where the church is being fed and what nourishment it might offer the wider community.

Time and Place
Creating a time and space apart requires planning. Consider how much time your audience can comfortably commit. A Saturday retreat may work for young mothers seeking a sense of community and respite, whereas a vestry may need a weekend to complete its annual planning. We are a “save the date” society. Communicate the date well in advance.

Convening in a different environment offers an immediate sense of separation from daily life. Many camps and conference centers specialize in retreats. If your budget allows, these spaces provide food, lodging and a variety of gathering spaces. Consider the specific needs of your group. Is mobility or transportation an issue? Does the space offer activities? Most groups benefit from the opportunity to be outdoors.

If you don’t have the funds or ability to go off-site for a retreat, consider transforming the space you will use. Use candles and music, fabric and flowers to make a familiar space special. Set up prayer stations or an indoor labyrinth.

Effective retreats intentionally provide safe space where participants experience both comfort and challenge. Hospitality begins with a warm welcome. When people arrive, a greeter should welcome them and be ready to answer questions, provide nametags, and paper and handouts if appropriate.

The first session sets the tone for the retreat. Contract with the group about the use of electronic devices—allow the group to set its own boundaries. Icebreakers work best when they reflect both the audience and the larger theme.

Create a schedule that allows for time together and time apart. While large groups are good for imparting information, small groups work well for discussions or brainstorming. Make time for movement for transitions in activities or meals. Walking from one space to another often changes the pace.

Time apart may invoke reflection, questioning, and quiet. Offer introductions to spiritual practices that may be unfamiliar, such as lectio divina. Include time for worship and praise. The most memorable part of many retreats is play.

Using a planning team promotes creativity and builds support for a retreat in the parish. Begin the retreat planning process with prayer. Ask a core group to pray for the retreat and its participants before, during, and after the event.

Encourage practical support in the form of preparing and providing food. The youth could cook dinner for a seniors retreat, or a church committee could provide lunch for a women’s day retreat.

Finally, good retreats require both advanced preparation and flexibility. After establishing a framework for participants to reconnect, refresh and renew, get out of the way – God is at work!


The Rev. Ginny Bain Inman is the Associate Rector at Holy Trinity Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.

This article originally appeared in the magazine Episcopal Teacher, published by the Center for the Ministry of Teaching.


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