Planning Retreats

By Fr. John Matusiak

One way parishes, youth groups, and other church organizations have traditionally heightened their understanding and experience of the Church is by sponsoring an evening or day-long retreat. For some, planning a retreat provides exciting possibilities for stewardship, ministry, outreach, and fellowship; for others, the prospect of organizing a retreat is a simple matter provided that a number of guidelines are followed in the planning stages.

Taking the first steps

Before making any plans, think over these questions and ideas:

What type of retreat do you want to sponsor? Do you prefer an evening retreat or one that lasts an entire day? Do you want to invite persons from other parishes and the general public or would a strictly "in house" event be more desirable? Should your program include lectures, panel discussions, workshops, informal question-and-answer sessions, or multi-media presentations? Will you need speakers, discussion group leaders, panelists?

In making such decisions, evaluate your resources realistically. Do you have enough people in your parish or group to handle arrangements for a day-long event? Do you have people with skills who could conduct workshops or facilitate discussions? What are your financial resources? Should you request a speaker from elsewhere, such as a seminary? Whatever you decide, be sure the event you're planning isn't too much to handle.

Select a theme. Probably the most important element to consider when planning a retreat is the theme. You might decide upon something "generic", such as "The Meaning of Advent/Great Lent", or you may wish to focus attention on a specific subject, such as "The Sacrament of Penance" or "The Importance of Prayer". Whatever you decide, avoid selecting a theme that few will understand or for which there is little interest. Esoteric themes ("The Development and Observance of Great Lent in Sixteenth Century Bulgaria", for example) can herald the demise of a retreat before it is even held.

Where should the retreat be held? While most retreats are conducted in parish facilities, a change of atmosphere is a definite plus, especially if the public is invited to participate. Investigate local camps, retreat centers, conference halls, and the like. Whichever location you select, be sure the facilities are adequate for your anticipated audience and projected program. For example., a full-day retreat will, of necessity, include at least one meal, so be sure that the facility you select has kitchen facilities, tableware, etc. Nothing can dampen a retreat more than jamming 50 people into a space designed for 20!

Set a date and time. Select a date well in advance to avoid conflicts with other activities, services, or events. Consider the needs of the participants when deciding a time frame. Sample retreat schedules are included at the end of this article.

Plan meals and refreshments well in advance. Without a doubt, the greatest (and generally the only) headache involved in organizing a retreat is the food. Evening retreats are cake -- literally! -- as participants will only require a light snack to keep them going. Day-long retreats generally include at least a luncheon. Consider your resources and decide if it would be better to arrange a catered meal or to do your own cooking. A simple solution, especially if kitchen facilities are inadequate or non-existent, is to ask participants to bring their own bag lunches. The host can provide coffee, milk, other beverages and perhaps dessert.

It pays to advertise! How will the retreat be publicized: announcements in the bulletin, posters, telephone chains, letters to other parishes or organizations, personal contact, public announcements in the newspaper or on the radio? When considering this essential aspect of retreat planning, remember that you are trying to reach the widest number of potential participants. A little "Madison Avenue" can go a long way: any publicity you devise should be appealing. A sloppy poster means a sloppy retreat, while an unenthusiastic personal invitation will produce an unenthusiastic response. Plan to publicize the retreat well in advance.

Project your expenses. Establish an estimated budget. Be sure to consider the less obvious expenses. Food and travel costs for out-of-town speakers are obvious, but don't overlook the cost of paper for posters and flyers or the price of postage stamps. If you engage a guest speaker, be sure to include a reasonable honorarium. While you may wish to charge participants a nominal registration fee, keep in mind attendance is always greater at a "free" retreat. Charge a registration or luncheon fee only if you have no other means of funding the retreat.

Making Arrangements

Meet with your parish priest. Solicit his input and guidance from the very beginning of the planning process, keeping him abreast of all organizational efforts.

Establish a "production" schedule. Establish deadlines for publicity, making contacts, booking speakers, purchasing food and supplies, etc.

Delegate responsibilities. Assign individuals to assume various responsibilities or solicit volunteers. You'll require an overall coordinator as well as publicity, food, and financial chairpersons. Other positions should be devised as needed to implement your plans.

Establish definite deadlines. Hold at least one "progress" meeting shortly before the retreat itself to ensure that everyone and everything is in place.

Insist upon advanced registrations. Encourage participants to sign up in advance of the retreat in. order to approximate the number of participants. This is especially important if you are preparing and serving a meal.

The Bottom Line

Don't be intimidated by these guidelines. Sponsoring a successful retreat is easy if you have a group of dedicated and cooperative workers. The planning stage also provides a means for fellowship among the retreat's organizers as well as an ideal means by which new or less active parishioners might be nurtured and encouraged to develop personal bonds with others. For retreat participants, there is the promise of spiritual growth through a better understanding of the Orthodox Faith and experience, through a renewal of their commitment to Christ and their faith convictions, through fellowship and communal worship, and through the opportunity a retreat provides to "lay aside all earthly cares."

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries