What Your Retreat Speaker Needs from You

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Planning a retreat is a lot of work. One of the most difficult parts of the planning process is finding a speaker and knowing how to care for her well. As the women’s ministry coordinator for my church and as someone who travels and speaks at other churches on a regular basis, I’ve been on both sides of the planning process.

Speaking at a variety of other churches has helped me grow in my ability to care for women who come as guests to speak at my church. I’ve realized just how exhausting it can be to speak multiple times and lovingly connect with new people, all within a couple of days. As much as I enjoy getting to do it, there is no mistaking the reality—it’s hard work.

Thankfully, I’ve learned from the example other churches have set for me. When it’s my turn to invite a guest speaker, I want to thank them for the work they’ve done and serve them well while they’re among us. And, while I typically interact with female retreat speakers, the things I’ve learned could apply to male speakers as well.

Churches that thoughtfully serve their speakers typically do three things.

1. Have a Reasonable Speaker Budget

I’m going to tackle the toughest, most awkward topic first—money. As you budget to invite a speaker, make sure to include travel costs, lodging, and an honorarium.

Travel costs

Your speaker may be close enough to drive. If so, prepare ahead of time to reimburse her for those costs. Or, if she is flying, make those arrangements with her (some speakers prefer to purchase their own tickets and be reiumbursed, while others would gladly accept your help) and reimburse her when she sends you the receipt.

In addition, some churches have asked me to send them all my travel receipts: food in the airport, parking fees, and Ubers. (By the way, don’t include reimbursement checks as part of her honorarium, since it registers as income on her taxes.)

We try to pay our speakers in three installments:

1. Before the conference: reimburse her flight expenses.

2. At the conference: provide an honorarium.

3. After the conference: reimburse additional travel expenses.

Lodging

Offer to provide your speaker with a private room. While she’ll want to connect with other women, she’ll need down time to pray and prepare for her talks. It’s difficult to do that if she has roommates.

If a private room isn’t possible, make sure to tell her that she’ll be bunking up with other ladies—or staying with a family—in your initial invitation. This will allow her to decline if sharing a room is uncomfortable for her.

It’s also important to let your speaker know if the venue is a distance from the airport. It can make for a long travel day to spend hours on a plane and then more hours in the car. For a number of reasons, she may not be able to spend that much time away from home. Many speakers also want to leave on Saturday in order to be back in their home church on Sunday morning.

Honorarium

The woman you invite to speak will put in a lot of work. She’ll communicate with your team, spend hours in preparation, and leave her family and friends for a weekend to be with your church. If she works full-time, she may have to take time off from her job. If she’s responsible for young children or aging adults, she may have to pay a sitter or nurse. It’s an honor to be asked, but it’s a costly endeavor for the speaker. Pay her fairly.

In your invitation to speak, communicate the exact amount you’re able to provide so she’s spared of having to bring up the topic of money. Generally, honorariums vary according to the speaker’s level of expertise. For a weekend retreat or conference, a fair honorarium will be between $500­­ and $3,000. (This is in addition to covering travel expenses, which is not payment.) If you’re asking a relatively new teacher, it’s fair to consider a range of $500 to $800. If the person you’re inviting works for a church or speaks regularly, consider somewhere between $1,000 and $1,500. If the person speaks regularly and has multiple books or a specific degree that makes them an expert, a range of $1,500–$3,000 is probably more on target.

If you can’t afford an honorarium, know that many speakers do a certain number of events each year at no cost. Don’t be afraid to ask if a speaker is willing to come without an honorarium. Just communicate your request on the front end, so the speaker can decide on the best use of her time. (One of my friends has a heart for church plants, so each year she speaks at one or two retreats for new churches with no expectation of an honorarium. Personally, I consider all the speaking I do in my home city as part of service to my community. I’ll gladly speak to a local MOPS group or small-group Bible study, since it doesn’t require me to leave my family for an extended period of time.)

2. Communicate Requests Clearly

In your initial email invitation, it’s helpful to communicate well in order to avoid multiple back-and-forths. Here are some details to include from the beginning:

  • Date of the retreat
  • Location (as well as additional travel time)
  • Number of talks (three talks is typical for a weekend)
  • Honorarium amount
  • Topic (or ask the speaker for her preferred topic)
  • Expected size and if this event is just for your church or open to all
  • Church name or ministry website

As you follow up with a speaker, continue to reintroduce yourself (and your church) in your communication. While you’re planning one retreat, your speaker may be communicating with multiple groups, and it’s easy to get confused.

Throughout the planning process, it’s helpful to share with the speaker about your church.

  • On the practical side: Give her a sense of the dress code for the event, the type of microphone you plan to use (this actually affects female speakers quite a bit because if the mic has a battery pack, dresses are really difficult), and ask if she’ll need any equipment (a podium, a Powerpoint projector, copies of handouts, and so on).
  • On the content side: Explain the general age range and demographics, as well as the spiritual maturity of the women. If there have been painful struggles or losses recently within the church body, it’s wise to let the speaker know. Communicating these details can help the speaker as she prepares her message and prays for the women in your church.

3. Offer Loving Hospitality

When I travel, the loving hospitality I receive always amazes me. Two specific ways to care for speakers while they are in town are gifts and hosts.

Gifts

Many churches provide lovely gifts! But I’ve talked to a variety of speakers, and they share the same struggle: Most travel with carry-on luggage, so they can’t take much with them. The best gifts are usually items that can be consumed while the speaker is there: water bottles, snacks, fruit, and mints. Items like lotions, candles, books, pottery, and mugs are often difficult to take home (and some can’t get past TSA).

If you really want to give her a specific gift, one option is to mail her something after the conference. Or, if she’s married, a gift card for a dinner out as a “thank you” to her spouse would be a thoughtful way to care for her. One of the kindest gifts is simply to follow up with a speaker and let her know how her teaching specifically encouraged and blessed your church.

Host

I’ve noticed that many churches assign one woman to care for the speaker throughout the weekend. Usually the host picks up the speaker from the airport, makes sure she has something to eat, and gets her to her hotel or retreat center. She helps the speaker throughout the weekend by keeping her on schedule, sitting with her at meals (or making sure someone is sitting with her!), and helping the speaker get away for ample time between sessions so she can review her notes. Having someone whose primary role is to care for and be hospitable to the speaker is a wonderful way to help the speaker feel loved and at ease among a new group of women.

The churches I’ve visited have taught me so much—they’ve cared for me well, communicated clearly, and offered gracious hospitality. In sharing what I’ve learned from other churches, my hope is to help others in the planning process—I know it’s hard work! I also know that retreats offer a special opportunity for fellowship, encouragement, worship, and spiritual growth.

Whatever your event, the most important planning practice is time on your knees in prayer, asking the Spirit to be among you, sharpening minds and enlivening spiritual affections. The best of speakers is powerless without the Spirit’s work. May he be the guest of honor as he comforts the hurting, convicts the wandering, and softens the hardest of hearts.

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