This first article invites you to consider your own approach as a retreat leader; the second article will help you think about the environment and program elements of your retreat.
‘We’re having a retreat!’ ‘I’m leading a retreat for our team!’ ‘The first day of the conference is a retreat!’ These are all things you might have heard, or even said yourself. Here in Spain, the idea of a retreat is not so common and I have to explain to my Spanish-speaking friends what I mean by ‘leading a retreat’. In fact, even for those of us using the English word ‘retreat,’ we can have many different ideas about what it means.
What is a retreat?
“The Christian retreat can be defined in the most simplest of terms as a definite time (from a few hours in length to a month) spent away from one’s normal life for the purpose of reconnecting, usually in prayer, with God. Although the practice of leaving one’s everyday life to connect on a deeper level with God, be that in the desert (as with the Desert Fathers), or in a monastery, is as old as Christianity itself, the practice of spending a specific time away with God is a more modern phenomenon, dating from the 1520s and St. Ignatius of Loyola’s composition of the Spiritual Exercises.” (Wikipedia)
Do you expect to be silent on retreat? Do you think of it as a teaching time? Are you anticipating lots of time for personal reflection, or more time discussing as a group? Will the retreat be guided, or more free-flowing? And if it’s guided, will there be one person leading the process, or a team? How prescriptive will the activities be, or how open?
The fact that retreats come in all shapes and sizes does not mean that ‘anything goes.’ The purpose of a spiritual retreat, as an addition to daily spiritual practices, is to temporarily leave behind the usual distractions we all face for long enough to allow both relaxation and for an inner change to occur: the ongoing conversion of heart that is critical to deepening faith. If you are to facilitate this kind of retreat time on behalf of others I believe there are some important principles to bear in mind.
There’s far more to it than replicating activities that you have experienced elsewhere, however brilliant those activities seemed when you came across them. This article, and the one that follows it, are an attempt to suggest some principles to help make your retreat a shared experience of deepening in relationship with God, as well as those with whom you share this journey of faith. In this article, we will talk about the approach of the facilitator, and in the next article, we’ll be thinking about the sort of set-up or environment that might be most helpful.
1. Be a safe person
When people come on a retreat, they don’t always know what to expect. Or perhaps they have a sense that there might be some vulnerable sharing, and they may be afraid that they’ll feel exposed, or pressured to share parts of their story they don’t yet want to.
The facilitator, then, has an important role in creating a feeling of safety for everyone joining the retreat. This means being open and non-judgemental, as well as modelling appropriate vulnerability. When we relate to each person in a way that makes them feel free to be themselves, and when we offer parts of our own story in ways that demonstrate our appreciation for the struggles as well as the triumphs, then we are on the way to creating safety.
There are parts of being human that we all have in common. We are all wonderful, unique, gifted people; and we all face areas of our own darkness. When we normalise what it is to walk in the tension of both these realities, we make room for people to show up more wholeheartedly. As we model our own need to change, grow and learn, we make it okay for everyone in the group to be learners and even beginners in this journey of becoming more fully themselves, more whole. By acknowledging our common humanity, we open more space for communication within the group and increase the likelihood of sharing a significant experience together.
2. Be whole-hearted in the way you show up
Let’s face it, a lot of us are so used to being distracted and having our attention divided that we don’t notice this dissipated quality in ourselves anymore. Other people notice it, though, you can be sure. Often people choose to go on a retreat because they are desperate for a moment in time when they can unplug from all their distractions and give themselves to one thing. There’s a longing many of us share to be gathered together on the inside, somehow. This is a longing for presence.
So the quality of your presence as a facilitator sets the tone for everyone else. If you are distracted, finding it hard to keep your attention on being right here, with just these people, then everyone else will struggle too. If you keep checking your phone, or duck in and out of the room when you feel you’re not needed, then you can expect everyone else to be distracted too.
For this time of retreat, your job is to be right here. Be attentive to the way the group resists or embraces the activities, notice the level of engagement of the individuals, tune in closely to how God is at work throughout the process. You can lay on the retreat in the most beautiful setting, and have the coolest, most creative activities, but this right here is the key to inviting people into a true encounter. When you take time to notice what’s really going on, then you have a better chance of asking the right question, or leaving the right amount of silence, in order to crack things open in ways that leave space for God to work. Supporting the work He is doing in people is our primary goal.
3. Be a good listener
It’s tempting to think this goes without saying, but it is always worth being reminded. The quality of your listening will create space for people to contribute during any times of group processing. Giving people the sense of being listened to at a deep level enables them to similarly listen to their own hearts, and to others. Often, we are not used to either listening to ourselves, or listening to other people. A retreat can be a special time of tuning in more deeply, listening more closely.
When we are listened to well, it encourages us to take seriously our own thoughts and feelings. We are given permission, somehow, to listen a bit more closely to ourselves; to pay attention to those stirrings within us that would otherwise remain hidden. Perhaps these are places where God wants to bring insight, or healing, or a measure of realignment. This can only take place if we first learn to listen well, to ourselves and others.
Of course, at the same time as listening to what is being expressed by those in the group, as the facilitator we are also listening to God. What might He be saying? What questions might He suggest to your mind? Of all that is going on, what seems most important to Him? This is a sort of ‘dual listening’ that we cultivate as retreat facilitators, so that we can follow the lead of the Holy Spirit as we bring direction to the process.
4. Be curious
Curiosity is a word that can have negative connotations. But in fact a journey of discovery – and we hope any retreat includes some discoveries – requires an attitude of curiosity and a childlike delight in encountering what is new. Perhaps a better word would be wonder, that attitude that is integral to the process of learning and growing. It is a posture that rests on a belief in the goodness of God and thus communicates love and affirmation, and a belief in the value of the discovery process we are in.
When we convey an attitude of delightful discovery about the people we are with, we give them permission to get curious too. They may be curious about what is going on inside them, of where God is leading them, or of how the retreat process will open up new spaces in their relationship with Him.
One of the ways we cultivate and respond to curiosity is through provocative question-asking. Open and disarming questions, designed to shine light in a non-judging and inviting way, can provide a means of creating just the right amount of disruption or discomfort for people to see things in new ways, or to see what they have never seen about themselves before.
5. Be relational
I suppose it is obvious by now that the gifts we receive on retreat come through relationship – our relationship with God and, on a group retreat, our relationships with one another. What this means is that the things we discover on retreat, while they may seem very personal to us, come to us in the context of these relationships.
As a facilitator, then, part of your role is to establish the retreat as a place of meeting. You prepare activities and reflections, not in some abstract way outside of relationship, but in ways that offer opportunities to interact with God and the others who are in the process with us. Indeed, when we meet with God we have a greater capacity to truly meet one another in ways that make us feel seen and validated. These can be identity-forming moments on retreat.
In the next article, we will talk about ways to move the process through times of individual reflection, to times of sharing with just one other person, to moments for group processing. All of these have their place and help to deepen our experience. Throughout these movements, the facilitator will have many opportunities to draw people’s attention to their own experience of grace. That is, to help them to notice and respond to the invitation to encounter the loving presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Reflect for a Moment:
What have been your most meaningful experiences of retreat with others? In what ways did the facilitator’s presence support this experience for you?
As you prepare to facilitate a time of retreat for others, to which of the points above do you feel invited to pay special attention?
Ruth Haley Barton (2018) Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God
David Benner (2012) Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation
Henry Cloud & John Townsend (2004) How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals about Personal Growth