Leading Your Leaders Retreat

After noting in passing on Monday that we were about to begin our annual staff retreat, I’ve had a surprising number of people ask about the why, what, and how of these retreats. I don’t pretend to have stumbled upon any magical formula when it comes to leadership getaways, but they are an important part of what we do at University Reformed Church, so perhaps something in our practice may be helpful for others.

I am entering the twelfth year of pastoral ministry at the church, and in almost every one of those years I’ve helped to lead two retreats: a staff retreat and an elders retreat. They aren’t elaborate. They aren’t groundbreaking. They aren’t terribly long. But they are definitely worth it. The most important reason to do a leaders retreat–and every church no matter the size has some group (or groups) of formal or informal leaders–is to spend time with those leaders. Yes, the size of retreat, the structure, and the location all matter, but what matters most is simply being together to share, laugh, eat, and pray. If you never get away with your key leaders (whether staff, elders, trustees, fellow pastors, small group leaders, whatever), you are missing out on an extremely valuable opportunity to strengthen relational bonds and build up relationship collateral.

So what do we do on our retreats? Here’s a snapshot.

Staff Retreat

Who: As our staff has grown over the years, so has the staff retreat. We’ve had as many as eleven; this past week we had eight people on the retreat (senior pastor, associate pastor, youth/children’s director, counseling director, director of community, director of international ministry, campus director, campus staff). Normally, we have two or three women staff members on the retreat, but this year (sadly) only the men could make it.

When: End of August. This is a busy time, but a good time for our staff to get together. The summer programs and summer vacations have ended and the fall kickoff is a week or two away. We are able to reconnect after being scattered for a few months and talk through any important issues that need to be addressed before the whirlwind comes.

Where: We try to find a cottage (or two) up north somewhere, preferably on a body of water. We usually end up driving for 2-3 hours.

How long: We left around lunch time on Monday and were home by noon on Wednesday. We’ve done two days instead of three before, but it’s better to have at least one full day without coming or going.

Why: I have three aims for our staff retreat. 1) I want us to spend time sharing and praying together. 2) I want us to have fun. 3) I want the schedule to be relaxed enough so that people can read their Bibles, get enough sleep, and get outside. I’d rather this retreat be under-planned than so packed with activities and information that people come home needing to recover from their “relaxing” getaway.

What: The “what” in planning is driven by the “why” of the retreat. This is not a planning retreat or vision retreat. We don’t normally try to tackle big issues or plan for the coming year. I’ve scheduled retreats like that (when they are necessary), but the purpose of this annual retreat is different. And that difference is reflected in what we do. We usually have plenty of down time for running, swimming, going to the beach, playing board games, reading, walking, and just enjoying leisurely conversation. We do have some structured time. In past years, we’ve had everyone share for 20 minutes and then receive prayer for 10 minutes. We’ve gone around the circle with everyone being asked a question (silly or serious) by every other person in the group. We’ve used a book to guide our time too. This past week I led us in two sessions (2-3 hours each) where we reflected on the categories “I am needy” and “I am needed” from Ed Welch’s book Side By Side.

Elders Retreat

Who: The pastors and elders. For us, that means two pastors (teaching elders) and twelve elders (ruling elders). Several of us on the staff retreat will also be on the elders retreat (because in addition to the pastors on staff, some of the directors are ruling elders).

When: September or October. Our elders serve (repeatable) three year terms. The new term starts in June, so ideally we would have our retreat at the beginning of the summer, but trying to get us all together during the summer is a futile exercise. So we aim for sometime early fall.

Where: If we can find a nice place within a couple hours that can accommodate all of us, that’s preferable. We’ve also met at church or someone’s home in town, which feels less like a getaway but does allow the men to sleep in their own beds (which they appreciate).

How long: Since most of the elders have jobs outside the church, the time away is shorter. Typically, we leave around 5:00pm on Friday and get home around the same time the next day.

Why: The purpose is similar, but not identical to the staff retreat. The average age of our staff is probably mid-30s, where most of our elders are 55-65 years old. This means we probably won’t try to go tubing (sorry guys!) and sleeping on air mattresses is frowned upon. The elders also do more in our polity to set the overall vision and direction for the church. So while we definitely still want to have fun, hang out, and maybe even play a game or two, our time is more focused. We only have 24 hours, so there is little opportunity for an outing or extended downtime.

What: We’ve done different things over the years. We’ve worked our way through a book. We’ve tackled one big issue (e.g., should we leave the denomination?). We’ve engaged in a time of brainstorming about the future. We’ve spent the whole time praying through the church directory. Normally, I think of three main sessions, one on Friday night and two on Saturday. One will be for prayer and sharing, one will be for visioning or problem solving, and one for teaching, singing, or more time in one of the first two categories.

In closing, let me reiterate that the when, where, how long, and what are not nearly as important as simply getting away and spending time together. Ministry is hard work. Inevitably, there will be stressful moments. There will be conflict. There will be sad and painful experiences. Every retreat is an investment in getting through those times. You’re building memories. You’re eating together. You’re talking about families. You’re praying and sharing and hearing each other snore. Find a way to spend unhurried time with your leaders. You won’t regret it.