One of the questions I’m asked whenever I talk about a personal retreat is, “What do you actually DO there?” Furthermore, some of you who might be interested in this might be wondering the same thing before you walk into your next elder’s meeting and ask for the time off.

You can structure your week/month in a way that fits where you are. For me, I’ve always used it holistically–as a time to pay attention to the personal, spiritual, and “professional” aspects of life. Here’s what it isn’t:

  • A monastic retreat.
  • A work camp.
  • A spa.
  • A vacation

It’s a personal retreat, and the reason we have so much difficulty figuring it out is because it’s a concept largely foreign to us. While it’s none of the aforementioned things exclusively, it contains elements of work, rest, spiritual renewal, and intense reflection. Some years, certain things need to be emphasized more than others, but allow me sketch “what” I try to do over a week:

  • Rest: No alarm clock. I go to bed when I’m done for the day, and get up when I’m ready. Ironically, I can’t recall ever sleeping more than about 8 hours in any given day. However, I have 3 young children and a busy schedule, so 8 uninterrupted hours feels like 16. For the first time in at least a couple of years, I saw no dark circles under my eyes when I looked in the mirror last Friday. Sleep changes all sorts of things. I also choose serene environments with inclement weather. I usually go to Princeton in late November or Early December. It’s freezing and boring from an entertainment perspective. I do it so it will help me focus. I stay in the seminary dorms. The accommodations are adequate, but quite Spartan. It’s also finals time and the only stuff going on is Advent/Christmas related. So, it’s spiritually nourishing, but keeps me indoors and free from distraction.
  • Reflection: I probably average 3 hours a day thinking and praying about my walk with God, life at home, and emotional well-being. I try to be as brutally honest before God and the mirror as I can. How is my purity? How is my relationship with each of my daughters? How is my prayer life? How are we doing with money? Are there emotional needs I have that aren’t being met? I then write observations and actions steps (if they exist) to help improve things, or continue the positive things. Then, I spend time in prayer. One word of encouragement: spend at least half of your time counting blessings and thanking God for what He’s doing in and through you. If you don’t, you can find yourself kind of depressed. That’s not the point. The point is self-honesty and unearthing what’s really inside you–while reflecting on God’s activity in and around you.
  • Research. For me, the work portion of the retreat is built around two things: preaching/writing, and long-range planning for the church. However, preaching By the time I leave, I like to have the next years’ sermon calendar planned (more on that in a future post) so I know where we’re going theologically for the next year. That helps me work on the longer range stuff more productively. The sermon calendar will have the series, sermon title, text, and the “big idea” of that sermon. I also plug in time away, and do the background reading for the first sermon series of the year. When I get back, I have a huge running start on the year. I do the background reading (commentaries, history, theology, topical), for the next series while I’m preaching a particular series. To do this well can take up most of the week on it’s own. However, the staff will thank you and the church will. I’ll do a specific post on this soon, and show some examples. This preaching practice has helped my preaching more than any other. Know where you’re going before you get there.
  • Resolve. Lastly, I look at various goals personally, professionally, and spiritually and sketch out steps I need to take. I do what’s called a “Weekly Review” every week, and I will stare at the these once a week until next year.

A sample day may look like this:

8am – Devotional and breakfast

9:30am – Sermon planning

12:00pm – Lunch, reflection and light reading

3:00pm – Reading and research

5:00pm – Evening devotional

6:00pm – Dinner

7:00pm – Every other night – Reading, Research, or Sermon Planning or Something fun (movie, etc.)

9:00pm – Done for the evening.

On this year’s retreat, I finished the entire year’s sermon planning, did substantial background reading for the second series of the year on Romans 1-8, read 3 books, honed a life plan, renewed my walk with God, rested, and recentered my personal life. That was in 5 days this year (that’s all I could find time for this year). One thing I would recommend is you take a Sunday off on the front or back side, so you don’t have to spend this valuable time preparing that Sunday’s sermon.

Make time for it however you can. It may not be this way specifically, but do whatever you must to stay healthy and on top of your ministry.