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eading Effective Retreats The workshop outlines provided on this website are building blocks for designing effective retreats for your church. Generally, it makes sense to lay a strong spiritual foundation from which other discussions can build, so many churches will begin with Discerning Christian Identity in Community and/or Becoming Disciples Who Help Jesus Make Disciples. It helps to develop an understanding of discipleship before trying to grapple with complex issues because that perspective will change the whole approach to any challenge. Occasionally, however, it will be appropriate to jump right into another foundational area (Growing as Leaders or Spending Time With God) or a particularly troubling issue (Leading Change in the Church).

To develop an overall vision and strategy for a church community, it is appropriate to work through all of the topics over a period of two or three years and to come back to the mutual ministry review at least once per year. As church leadership changes, areas may be revisited. In larger churches, some areas may be more appropriate to cover with ministry teams than with the governing board, but the governing board needs to spend enough time with each area for a general understanding. A ministry team might use a retreat to develop a ministry plan and then present the plan to the governing board in the context of a shorter retreat discussion.

The length of time for a retreat and the amount that can be covered in a retreat vary tremendously between church communities. It is important to have adequate time for prayer, worship, quiet reflection and social activities as well as the discussion and planning outlined in these retreat outlines. Generally, it is better not to break up these retreat activities and discussions with general business.

Dialogue is the most important activity in any retreat. First, is dialogue with God in prayer. This can take various forms throughout the retreat time. Each session has a brief prayer at the beginning. It's also important to spontaneously pray over difficult issues and to celebrate God's presence in the community. A good way to close retreat sessions is with a prayer circle in which each person can offer a prayer of thanksgiving, holding hands and passing the prayer by squeezing the next person's hand. The next most important dialogue is with one another during discussions, activities and social times. The extent to which a meeting will be more like a workshop or more like a retreat will depend on the engagement and the involvement of the participants. (For this reason, it may make sense to use an outside retreat leader to encourage and facilitate retreat discussions. This allows all of the community leaders to be fully involved in the discussion.) For any lasting change or growth, people need to be engaged by and involved in the discussion. They also need to appreciate one another.

If dialogue is emphasized, each retreat will focus more on discernment than on education. Discernment is a continuous process of defining and clearly articulating the unique mission of the congregation to respond to God's calling in the world, and identifying the populations, communities or areas the congregation is called to serve, the congregation's goals, how the goals are to be accomplished, and ways for the congregation to recognize progress toward the goals. We may approach discernment in three steps:

  1. Evaluation: Where are we? Who are we? What is our current reality?
  2. Vision: Where is God calling us?
  3. Strategy: How do we get there?
The goal of the first step is to provide us with the opportunity to listen to each other and share and identify core values and come to a consensus about beliefs. The second step involves unifying the congregation around a common identity. It is important to note that visioning is a process of identification, not an immediate means of solving problems or creating new programs. One of the tangible results of this step should be the development of an honest statement about who this congregation is, who this congregation is becoming, and who might find a wonderful church home in this congregation. Because the first two steps are so important, we need to avoid the temptation to jump directly to the discussion of strategy. If we talk too early about strategy, we can rule out possibilities for ourselves too early. We can keep ourselves from doing things we'd like to do by assuming they'd be too hard to do.

The retreat outlines are intended to suggest ideas, not propose a fixed development program. Discernment is not measuring ourselves against some third party objective standard of what a church should be. We need to be careful not to think that there is a single Way for a church to serve God. We need to be aware of our particular context and personality, recognizing that God makes a unique call to each community. And that part of God's call is leaving up to us the possibilities of choosing what we are gifted at or enjoy doing.

To encourage discernment, three ground rules are helpful for any retreat. One is respecting and encouraging everyone's input because there is no single, objective "right" answer and because we need to develop as accurate a picture of ourselves as we possibly can. We can truly measure the success of any retreat by how much each person contributes. Second, it's important that we especially focus on and celebrate our gifts and consider how we might use them further. Third, it's important that we are ever aware that, in God's love for us, God allows us to choose for ourselves and that we want to make choices that support the mission of the Church.

The educational material in each session may be worked into the session as the discussion progresses, but it does not all need to be used. It is meant to provide a basic understanding of the issues for further discussion. The presentation material is designed to be short and draw out discussion. Sometimes, discussions will naturally lead into material from other chapters. For example, a discussion of faith sharing from Session C is nearly always appropriate whenever it arises. We want to let the Holy Spirit and the concerns of the community lead! This is the benefit of having multiple outlines and a broad range of related materials to draw from. If we don't address a particular topic in one retreat, we can come back to it in another.

Most governing boards and ministry teams will need to spend more time learning about each area of congregational development and some session outlines list resources for further study. In choosing study topics, it may be tempting to spend time with familiar subjects in areas where the congregation is already relatively successful; but approaching areas where there is little experience or expertise will often reap greater rewards.

Recalling the caution against getting to strategy discussions too early, it is nevertheless important to set adequate goals during the retreat. Unless goals are set, a retreat is nothing more than talk. The church governing board or ministry teams need to set detailed goals for the community. Each retreat session contains questions that will help in goal definition. Once goals are defined, leaders need to create action plans and follow up on them. The easiest way is to create a table with columns for the goal, the particular action step, who is responsible for the action step, the time for achieving the action step and the current status of the project. Samples are included in the goal starter sections of the retreat outlines.

Once goals and action plans are defined, leaders must share them with, and have them affirmed, by the broader congregation. Leaders need to regularly communicate about progress toward the goals or the reprioritization or addition of goals. In most cases, there will need to be ministry teams to support and carry out the goals. The governing board needs to review project status and priorities regularly.

The church community will only become disciples who help Jesus make new and stronger disciples if a plan is made and executed.

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