This is the second of two articles aimed at helping you think through what it takes for a group retreat to be an effective time of rest, reflection and meeting with God. The purpose of this second article is to help you think through the way you set up the environment and plan the flow of your retreat program.
Whatever you think of when you hear the word ‘retreat’ it does carry with it a sense of time away, of spaciousness and perhaps some sort of reflection. Many of us aspire to make personal retreat days a part of our annual rhythm, and perhaps we have attended a prayer day or silent retreat day at a monastery or another place of faith. Guided retreats, though, are a bit different to these kinds of experiences. In particular, there are some things to pay attention to regarding the pace of the program elements, and the actual space into which you invite retreat participants.
In my experience, this preparation is actually the hardest work of being a retreat host. The more thoroughly you think through your retreat plan ahead of time, the more relaxed and present to the participants you can be when you are all together. Your goal is to create a ‘safe container’ so that each person can feel held and safe, thus able to enter wholeheartedly into the vulnerability of the reflective process.
So what are some of the keys to establishing a safe place where trust in the process and the people can grow?
1. Communicate clearly
Your communication about the retreat begins the moment you first tell people about it. To communicate with clarity, so that expectations form in line with the reality that is likely to emerge, you need to be clear about things for yourself. In addition to all the practical questions people may have, what will the ‘feel’ of the retreat be? What will the participants be expected to do? Will there be freedom to not participate in things that feel too risky? Who else is likely to be there? What do you see as the ‘purpose’ of the retreat? What can people expect the outcome to be?
Then, of course, there are key moments during the retreat that require clear communication. At the beginning of the very first session, as you welcome everyone, it is important to communicate well: this is your opportunity to set people at ease. Remind them that anything that is talked about during the retreat is to remain confidential. Let them know that you welcome their questions, or concerns. Encourage them to navigate with you the line between taking risks and honouring their own limits. And give them an idea of the flow and rhythm of the program without getting bogged down in the details.
As the program gets underway, be prepared to explain each activity clearly and succinctly. You don’t want your explanations to be clunky or confusing so that people are lifted out of their reflective space. You do want a smooth transition into the next activity, with sufficient information that people know where to go, what to do and how long to take. If in doubt, trial some of your activities with friends or family members ahead of time, so that you know you can facilitate in an unobtrusive and supportive way.
It was Brené Brown who said that ‘clear communication is kind communication.’ There are times on retreat when unexpected things happen. Someone might have a complete breakdown and need some time alone. One participant may come to you privately to express a sense of not being safe with another person in the group. You may notice a particular dynamic that is impacting on the way people are engaging. It’s your job to communicate clearly and compassionately when such things arise, so that the trust within the group grows strong enough to support the process. Avoid people feeling like they don’t know what is happening by taking the initiative to communicate well.
2. Create a welcoming space
From the moment people step onto the property where you are holding your retreat, they should feel welcome. That might mean setting up some signs so that people know where to leave their car, how to find the meeting room, or where to register. There’s nothing worse than wandering around an unfamiliar property, trying numerous locked doors while hunting for where you are supposed to go! A simply dressed table with fresh flowers and a welcome sign goes a long way to letting people know that you are anticipating their arrival.
Creating a welcoming space might also involve printing out some information about the venue, or the program. For some personalities, having a clear sense of what to expect is an important part of being able to relax. Perhaps you will offer a small gift, or write a card for each person. It should be clear to people that you have gone to the trouble of preparing to receive them, as this helps them to enter into the retreat with a sense of anticipation rather than anxiety.
When I run retreats, I like to offer people many different spaces where they could sit and read, reflect, or journal. I like to create groups of informal seating where people can chat in pairs or small groups. Our processing activities often involve art-making and invariably there are one or two people who enjoy extra time engaging with the materials, so it’s nice to have a dedicated space with art supplies on hand, perhaps with the option of playing music in the background.
The thing here is to anticipate how people might use the space, and set it up to make that easier and more appealing. Could you create a drinks station, where people can help themselves to water or hot beverages? Could you set up some fun signs to indicate the route for a pleasant stroll? Perhaps you want to leave a basket of blankets by the chair on the porch, so that someone can curl up and watch the sun rise? Take some time to think through both the program elements and the free time, considering how people might want to use the available spaces and setting them up accordingly.
3. Create a rhythm
As we continue to build a secure environment in which people can engage the risky element of retreat, it can help to have some repeated rhythms that become signposts or supports for the overarching program.
I like to have ‘bookends’ to each day that become familiar to people. For example, you may choose to start each day with some way of checking in with people: how is everyone doing today? What are some of the things that happened yesterday that have remained with you? There are many fun, creative and disarming ways to do this. You might ask everyone to bring an object to the morning session that represents in some way how they are on that particular day. Offering everyone the opportunity to describe briefly the object they chose and why, gives them the chance to ‘find their voice’ at the beginning of the day, and to be heard by the rest of the group. Alternatively, you might arrange a number of items you have selected to go with the theme of the retreat, and invite people to engage with them in a similar way.
As a poetry lover and sometimes writer, I use carefully chosen poems as a means of helping people take a reflective approach to the day. Poems require no explanation or analysis, they can simply be offered. They will often trigger thoughts that remain with the listeners throughout the day, prompting them to make connections as they move through the different activities.
Similarly, I like to close each day with some sort of liturgy, such as a written prayer or blessing. I am often surprised that a short piece I had selected several days previously connects so strongly in the moment with what has emerged throughout the days conversations. Sharing a final reading, prayer or blessing can be an elegant way of bringing closure to the day without needing to say too much. And this is an important point, that as the facilitator yours is not the main voice that participants need to hear. They have come on retreat to hear from God and to listen to their own hearts. Our goal is to say enough in order to facilitate a process, without speaking so much that our voice becomes invasive or distracting. This is an art that may require some practice!
4. Facilitate timing, pace and flow
Another skill that takes some practice is the pace at which we move people through the process. We may have taken a lot of trouble to think through how long our different program elements will take, and then we encounter the human element! It is not easy to predict how long people will talk on different topics, which activities will stir a lot of conversation, how long people will take to return from that walk you sent them on, or even whether the dominant ‘personality’ of a particular group will be fast-paced or more contemplative.
As a facilitator you will learn how to hold your schedule lightly, making adjustments as needed. You want to move people through the key activities and lead them to some sort of closure, while at the same time remaining willing to lose some of the non-essentials along the way. Likewise, some people will talk as long as you let them, and part of your role is to gently steer people through the program – this, after all, is what they are trusting you to do.
One thing that helps with timing is to give people clear instructions on how much time they will have for the activity they are moving into. Making it clear that there are boundaries around each segment encourages people to make the most of the time they have, and can stimulate creativity and intuition. Similarly, give people a reasonable warning when they are coming to the end of an activity so that they can wrap things up. Again, we do all of this in an unobtrusive and peaceful way; our goal is not to create a sense of rush but rather to help people slow down.
I have found that the flow of each day works best when the participants are moved between individual reflection, sharing in pairs and then group feedback. In this way, people have the opportunity to listen to what is going on for them personally, before articulating that in the more private context of speaking with one other person. So many of us are thirsty for the space to pray, reflect or listen to our hearts and need time for that before we are able to engage in an authentic way with anyone else. When insights do come, it can be very helpful to put into words what we are discovering, and this often clarifies what came to us individually. When it comes time for group feedback, there is always the freedom to speak or not, and to share whatever one feels comfortable sharing with the wider group. Indeed, when people hear from each other it can stir fresh thoughts for themselves personally, or help them to look at things in a different way.
5. Allow the process to build incrementally
There is a skill to planning activities and program elements for a retreat. Your goal is not to throw people in the deep end and expect them to share deeply personal insights from the get-go. We all need to first dip our toe in the water, to do something light or fun with which we can easily engage. Then we might find ourselves open to something a bit more reflective, and we will start to become more in touch with some of the things moving inside our hearts that we hadn’t noticed in the hubbub of daily life. And as we move incrementally into a deeper and more personal space, a more intimate space with God and the other retreatants, we may become open to paying attention to something that we would otherwise have resisted.
One of the most precious gifts you can offer the participants in your retreat is this incremental, deepening process. It takes practice and experience to build your activities and program elements together in such a way that you gently invite people into a deeper waters, places of greater vulnerability and self-exposure, yet with a feeling of being safe.
There isn’t really a formula for this, you have to feel your way into it. It will help you to be aware of the outcome you hope for from each activity and how you would feel to participate in that process. Consider the open questions you could ask in order to deepen the experience of each activity. And be sure to insert lighter, easier moments to give people a chance to catch their breath and check in with others in the group, before re-engaging their own reflections.
Guided retreats can be extremely rich experiences for both participants and facilitator! I hope these five points help you to think through how you design your retreat, as well as how you lead people through the program. Drop a comment to express interest in attending one of the guided retreats offered by the Centre for Christian Formation and Discipleship. Or let us know if you would be interested in a attending a retreat designed to train you in designing and leading your own group retreat.
Christine Valters Painter (2010) Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction
Heart Language Cards – a visual tool to help people connect with how they are, and find ways to share that with others.