Running Retreats with Small Group Discussions

Small group discussions can be the core of a retreat. They provide the informal and “safe” environment for participants to share their thoughts and questions on the topics being discussed. They are the place where participants can internalize the information being presented

After the Before moving into any of the talks, it is necessary to select groups and be clear about what is expected of them. This section outlines the basic format for group discussions and dynamics.

  • Selection Process: To begin this talk, you need to arrange participants into groups of 5-7. Groups should be selected at random on the spot or previously. These groups will remain the same throughout the retreat. If there is a serious personality conflict in a group or too much distraction for whatever reason, feel free to reassign members as needed. You will also need to keep track of who is in which group.
  • Leaders: Each group will need its own leader(s). You should find out who some of the most mature participants are ahead of time and approach them about taking on this responsibility. The task of the group leader is simple:
    • to initiate the group discussions and keep the group focused enough to accomplish each assignment. The team leader should have a sheet with the discussion questions and helps already printed.
    • to record the results of each discussion and prepare for report to the rest of the groups. They may elect another person to do this for the group.
    • to facilitate conversation among participants. (Encourage every member of the group to speak openly while ensuring that so that no one participant dominates the talk, including him or herself. )
    • to act as discussion leader. (In some cases, you may want a team leader to lead a discussion for the whole retreat group, if their experience and maturity are appropriate.)
  • Discussions: Each small group discussion lasts about 15 minutes. Following each talk by the retreat coordinator(s), the small groups will be given a number of discussion questions. The first few questions are designed to spark dialogue about the issues raised in the talk/session and the last is a reflection question in which the group as a whole is called upon to apply the ideas to a specific problem or challenge.
  • Location: These small group discussions should take place in different rooms/spaces private and far enough away from the other groups to avoid eavesdropping and distraction. Each group will likely stake out its own territory on the retreat grounds nearby where it will go to carry out its discussions.
  • Report: After the private discussions, each group must choose a spokesperson to report their conclusions to the general retreat. This spokesperson should be different for each session so that every member takes a turn. The group leader should take this job no more than once.
  • Assembly Format: When all groups arrive back from small group discussions, each will take a turn to respond to the reflection questions given by the retreat leader. Groups remain seated together in a semicircle facing the retreat master.
  • Group Name: Each group should develop an identity, often symbolized in a name. You may decide to let each group choose its own name or assign one. A nice option would to have each group select a patron saint for its name. This conveniently limits the options yet allows for creative expression, and of course, returns the focus to the Holy.
    Once groups are established you may proceed directly to Part II: Expectations Talk.
    Notes on running the small group discussions
  • Start-off: Once groups are formed and together they are ready to immediately go into the first discussion. For each talk the group leader have a copy of the talk's instructions. Groups should split off to separate locations and follow those guidelines, returning after about 15-20 minutes. All participants should also have a notebook/ journal book and pencil/pen. They will need to use these throughout the retreat. Announce this so that they make sure they do not misplace them.
  • Progress checks: You may want to wander from group to group during this time to note progress as well as get to know them. Make this regular but not intrusive. If they seem stuck or have finished too quickly, prompt them to further discussion with more questions, sharing examples from your own life as necessary. You'll need to be familiar with the group leader instructions yourself, of course. If they have completed the questions sufficiently, feel free to allow them the remaining few minutes to get to know one another better; this will increase openness later on.
  • Arranging the Space: While the groups are away the first time, this is a good time to arrange the space for the large group discussion. Depending on your situation, the space and the furniture, you should arrange the room such that each group stays together and is facing towards the retreat master. No one should be seated with his or her back turned to the central speaker. A semicircle of table works this way. It is important to establish a focused space with minimal potential for distraction. Finding the right space is often a challenge, and you will have to make do with whatever God grants. Do what you can.
  • Debrief: Whenever the groups return to the main meeting area (you may have to gather the flock with some effort), begin by restating the reflection question. Ask each group to put forward its spokesperson to give the main group its reflections. Then discuss as a whole the ideas and issues raised, using example from your life to illustrate them whenever possible or practical. This period of "debriefing" the small groups is essential to the group talks.

Expectations Talk


  • To share experiences in small group discussion.
  • To identify and voice hopes, fears, and expectations about this retreat.
  • This is a talk for each group to do individually. After the groups are divided they may be sent off immediately to complete the talk.

Leader Guide: Expectations Talk

Begin by stating your name again and something about yourself, such as birthplace, parish, school, etc. Each participant should do the same.
Reinforce the importance of honesty, respect, and be willing to be open, and to share and to listen. Give an example from your own experience of a time when you were faced with a new situation and had to be open with others.

  • Ask the following questions, giving each person, including you, a chance to respond out loud:
  • Why did you come to the retreat?
  • What do you hope to experience or learn at the retreat?
  • What do you think this retreat is about?

There are no "wrong answers" to these questions. If the answers given are very short, discuss them a little more to find out more about the group members. After discussing these questions, ask this last reflection question (then return to the main group):
The theme of this retreat is “Let Your Light So Shine.” What do you think that means?

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries