Advancing Your Ministry by Retreating With Your Leadership Team

by Cal LeMon

A retreat can be a lot of work with minimal, lasting results. Sometimes only the memories of dive-bombing mosquitoes, evangelistic poison ivy, and sleep deprivation survive.

To be honest, the retreat format has become an organizational hula-hoop. The time demands of the two wage-earner family along with the constant intrusion of buzzing and tweeting communications channels have dampened enthusiasm to get away. After all, who has time to get away when you do not have time to get to your next appointment?

But, we are Kingdom people who have heard the beat of a different drummer. And, the Drummer often retreated to the wilderness. This biblical motif of following Christ into nothingness to rediscover significance is still valid. I am convinced the wilderness experience has immense spiritual benefit, but the practice does need revision.

The Wilderness Welcome Wagon

Here are five suggestions on how to update a retreat experience and put out the Wilderness Welcome Wagon for your leadership team. These are the best practices I have observed and implemented over the past 20 years in a corporate environment.

First, at your next regularly scheduled organizational meeting with your leadership team ask, “What do we gain as a leadership team in a retreat setting that we cannot achieve in our regular sessions?” The answer to that question will determine if reading the rest of this column is a good use of your time.

If the majority of your leadership team views a leadership retreat as a value-added feature of serving this ministry, but not essential, you may want to place the brochures of log cabins nestled in the middle of primeval forests into the circular file next to your desk. To drag or cajole a group of leaders 60 miles to sit in a conference room (with a marvelous view) and do what they always do is a poor use of time and talent.

Second, once there is unanimity about the value of retreating, make a group decision about frequency and projected calendar dates. Will your leadership team commit to one, two, or more retreats every 12 months? It is important that the leadership team, collectively, make this decision because buyer’s regret may become a reality. When the team realizes it is retreat time again, they may ask, “Who decided we have time for this?”

The calendar planning, in my opinion, is the most significant issue because the retreat date(s) will impinge on personal and family agendas. You will hear, “Sorry, that date is our family’s annual hiking trip in Utah.” Or, “That is my wedding anniversary and there is no way I will be given a gift of grace at home if I trek off with you folks.”

When everyone can agree to one date, this box on the annual calendar needs to remain inviolate. This is the only logical and equitable method to protect the integrity of the retreat in the future.

Communion and Creature Comfort

Third, attend to the creature comfort needs of your leadership team. We have all attended a retreat when the perspiration dripping off the end of one’s nose, the full frontal attack of some diabolical stinging insects, or a malfunctioning bathroom fixture became the predominant concern. Creative thinking, focused prayer, or fellowship with each other will come in a very poor second to suffering from some undefined intestinal malady or the pain of exposed bed springs.

This is not an appeal to schedule your next retreat at Atlantis Resort Bahamas. At the same time, if you ignore meeting the first two needs in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (hygiene and safety), self-actualization — or healthy spirituality in our parlance — will always be an unanswered prayer request.

Planned Spontaneity

Fourth, develop a detailed schedule for the day(s) you will spend together. I am convinced we ultimately exemplify our stewardship of people who share a common ministry with us in how we honor their time. If I have surrendered a Friday evening and all day Saturday to retreat with you and discover you function with the adage, “make it up as we go,” I will be frustrated, angry, and probably a no-show at the next spiritual outward-bound event.

As people of the Spirit, we are comfortable with spiritual intuition. At the same time, this theological and pragmatic truth does not excuse indolence. Frankly, for those designing the content of a retreat, this venue demands hard work that should result in planned spontaneity.

There should be four components to a leadership retreat for a faith community: (1) determining the strategic direction for the ministry’s future, (2) problem solving repetitive challenges, (3) providing skill development for leaders, and (4) encouraging a renewed personal devotional life which results in vibrant, shared worship. Here is more detail about these components.

Strategic thinking carefully reviews the realities of the present and then projects what the priorities of the ministry will be in 2, 5, and 10 years. To define this future, spiritual leadership has to research and then carefully define the “emerging congregation.” In other words, the consumers of the unchangeable gospel will change. Is the ministry preparing to get in front of the constantly morphing new seeker of God’s truth and presence?

Undoubtedly, the participants at a retreat will also have to admit to the tyranny of the present. This tyranny includes the systems, programs, and people who consistently are present, but are resistant to building the Kingdom. There is no better place than the boundary-less atmosphere of a retreat for God to dip His brush into the palate of His Spirit and then splash minds with iridescent solutions.

Another way to take advantage of a retreat setting is to provide leadership-development skills. Do the leaders in your ministry need to learn the skills of active listening, how to frame words in uncomfortable conversations, the merits of asking questions instead of just making declaratory statements, the skills to take the initiative in moments of indecision? The list goes on.

The final residue of any leadership retreat should be personal, spiritual renewal. A word of caution: We can use the scheduling of the four components just described as a great excuse to explain why there was “just not enough time” for what Henri J.M. Nouwen (The Way of the Heart) calls “the ministry of silence.” We can assume because we are retreating with a spiritual community, we have accomplished the spiritual by just showing up.

Identifying the Deliverables of the Divine

The fifth and final suggestion guarantees the longevity of the retreat. Before you pack your bags, grab your insect repellant, and stuff your favorite pillow under your arm for your trek into timber and theocracy, ask, “How will we capture and then implement the insights, strategic plans, creative solutions, and refreshed spirits when we arrive back home?”

My experience is that corporate institutions have a lot to teach the church about finding the “legs” in a retreat. A for-profit company will not keep writing a check for an event that does not promise “deliverables.” There has to be some tangible result that pays for the absence of time and talent in the workplace. So, here are four definitive methodologies to guarantee the retreat remains alive and well in your ministry.

First, in substantive discussions resulting in organizational change, you must assign sponsors who will commit to stitch this initiative into the fabric of your ministry. This means there is never a new initiative that leaves the retreat center without a participant’s name glued to it.

Second, when you birth creative ideas in the purity of the wilderness experience, your group needs to mentally sift these ideas at that moment. You need to leave with a gutsy, “ready-or-not-here-we-come” application. If the result of the retreat was, “You know, we had some really great ideas,” but no one can remember any of them, then you need a creative method to retrieve your creativity.

Third, report the results of the retreat to your ministry. Most adherents in your spiritual community will know the leadership team was retreating last week. What they really want to know is how are these leaders transformed people and what does their transformation mean for our future? They are looking for the return on their investment.

Finally, consistently ask the alumni of the wilderness, “What has the Holy Spirit taught us?” Our Lord, with great consistency, would ask His ragtag team of 12 to leave the throngs and follow Him into the nothingness of Middle Eastern hills. In the quietude, with its absence of the pleading voices and outstretched hands, He renewed His mission and His spirit.

The gospel is always advanced when we retreat to hear His voice … again.