December doesn’t seem like the time to talk about planning a spiritual retreat. For some of us, no time sounds good for a retreat, but December might be the worst.
So this post is about planning ahead. Take a little time now to start thinking about what God might say to you if you gave Him a few hours or a day or a weekend to pray, think, plan, and listen for God’s voice with no distractions.
Many years ago I did this, took a whole weekend alone in a state park. It had its good moments, and it had its hard moments. But mostly it made me see how important it is to get away sometimes and spend time with God on my own.
Well, Jesus did it. More than once he prayed alone in the morning. Once he sent the disciples across the sea and said he would follow. Jesus spent huge amounts of time teaching a few and speaking to many, and he took time away. That means I might need time away, too. So might you.
God did it for Elijah the prophet, too, in Kings. Worn-out Elijah was given food, water, rest, and a renewed mission. All while in the wilderness alone. A strange retreat held under the shade of a broom tree.
There are verses all over the Bible about rest. We are told to be quiet. To be still. To pray and then listen. Do these require an actual retreat? No. But a few hours or days away are a great way to jumpstart this rhythm in your life, especially if it’s been weeks or months or years since you spent extended quiet time with God.
While December might not be the right time to retreat, it’s a great time to start thinking and planning. Give yourself time to anticipate and get excited. Spend time making a plan of what you might wish to say to God, what questions you have, what you hope to hear from him.
Start with the when
First you need to decide how long you’ll get away. You many not be able to take more than a few hours, but I suggest you work for half a day and include a meal. If you can do a day, an overnight, a weekend, go for it. Sometimes it takes more than half a day to quiet the clamor in your head to get to the part where you hear God.
But if half a day is all you have for your spiritual retreat, take it.
The length might be determined by what you hope to accomplish, too. If you’re considering a huge change in your life, make more time. Just need a short refresher? A few hours might do it. Once you have the length, find the time to make it happen. Pull out the calendar, coordinate with whomever you need to coordinate, and lock that date down. Date set with God–check.
Now to the where
This is the next most difficult question. You can clear your home and retreat in your residence, or you can find somewhere else. If you stay home, make sure phones are off, devices are quiet, and distractions are minimal. Clean the house the day before if that’s going to cause you trouble. Maybe decorate with something new to make your ordinary home into something special. This is a meeting between you and God, so don’t hesitate to spruce things up a little for your visitor.
If you choose to hold your spiritual retreat somewhere else, the length of your event will play a role. I spent two days and stayed in a State Park lodge. If you plan to be overnight, find someplace comfortable that speaks to you. I like the natural world, thus the state park. Maybe you want a hot tub and super-soft bedding. Maybe you want to wander an urban area. Perhaps you can stay at the home of a friend who will be out of town if finances are a problem, or you plan to do it in warm weather and want to camp in a tent.
If you’re not spending an overnight, consider places with quiet. Perhaps a small room in a library. A coffee shop. A table at a mall food court. You might feed on silence or the gentle background noise of people. Take that into consideration. If you know you want to move and walk at some point during your getaway, find a place with a sidewalk through a historic district or a scenic park. We have a monastery within a short drive of my home, and many of my friends take short retreats there.
If reservations need to be made, do that now. If this means changing your locked-down date, do that. Again, once this is on the calendar, protect it. The world will get in the way of you spending time with God because it doesn’t understand.
Now to the plan
So we’ve chosen a place and a time. It’s written on the calendar in permanent ink. Next take care of the details of your life to make it happen. Do you need childcare? A day off work? A car to borrow? Those are the next details, making sure life happens in your absence.
Then we get to the more abstract part. How exactly does one plan time with God? What does that look like?
I like to start my retreats with a little self care. I know that phrase rubs some of you wrong, so let’s call it mental prep. What will relax you and help you leave the cares of the world behind? A long walk? A hot bath? A nap? Do you want to spend a few minutes working a hobby you rarely get to work? Painting or fishing or knitting can help you slough off the cares of the world enough to focus on the main point of this time, which is time with God. So if you want to do any of these things, write on your plan the supplies you’ll need, whether it’s bath salts or paints and a canvas or live bait.
What to say to God
After this, decide what you’d like to discuss with God. Keep it flexible—I walked into my retreat thinking I knew what I needed to hear from God, but what I got was different. But it still helps to think about your life and faith.
Do you struggle with prayer? With regular quiet time? Are you trying to discern how to use your gifts at church? Is a prayer need weighing you down? A relationship hurting your heart?
Maybe you have a decision to make about a job or a move or disciplining a child. Maybe you need to change churches.
Author Rebekah Lyons, who writes about anxiety, takes a yearly inventory in her retreat, determining where her focus is and where it could be. So perhaps an inventory of the past year is in order.
Perhaps it’s more theological. Has your pastor been saying things you don’t understand? Do you need to know more about spiritual battle? Resisting temptation? Keeping your thoughts pure? Living in the Spirit?
Make a list. It can be long or short, but put your concerns on paper. Plan to bring your Bible along with a journal, pen, and any resources you might want to help you. For instance, if you want to know more about the Holy Spirit you might snag a book on that topic. Or collect some podcasts by your favorite pastors/teachers on some of these issues.
I’m here. Now what?
I can’t quite answer this, but here is an example for a spiritual retreat schedule. Let’s say I’m spending one night at a nice hotel. I arrive at 3 and will leave at 11 the next morning. I might start with a hot bath or a nap, if I’m coming into this retreat overwhelmed or exhausted. After that, I can open my Bible, my resources, my journal, and simply lay out my questions and concerns to God. Using a concordance or outside resources, I might look up anything I can on the topics that interest me.
If I’m making decisions, a few pro and con lists are in order. I can write or think or mull what’s on my mind, simply letting thoughts come as they will.
Eventually I need to eat. Eating alone is an interesting thing. Make it special. This is a meal with you and God, because you are still retreating. Is there a restaurant you want to try? If you’re at home, do you want take out? To make a meal you’ve been wanting to try? Pull out the good dishes and keep your mind and heart on your concerns while you eat. Whether you grab a fancy outfit or curl up in bed in sweats with Chinese take-out, remember this is still your time with God, and that can give your mind something to consider while you nosh.
Thoughts on longer retreats
If you’re spending the night, you have time for more time with God. Do you feel any new direction? Have you learned anything? Write ideas, directions, conclusions. You might only have more questions. Maybe you’ve decided to seek counsel from a pastor or counselor, friend, or spouse on some of these topics. Maybe you have a clear plan for a new ministry or feel healed of an old wound. If you’re feeling worn, take some time to get out. Walk. Shop. Find someplace to sell you a decadent dessert. It’s okay to take a break and go back to it later. This retreat can refresh your mind and body as well as your soul. A friend went ice skating on her time away. How fun is that, to revisit something she’d not done in years.
If you have an overnight, don’t stay up too late. Do what you can to have a good night of sleep. Then in the morning you might have more time with God. You might want to draw a few conclusions before heading home. Or you might want to make the next morning more fun and walk somewhere beautiful or do some sightseeing. Try talking to God about whatever you do–talk to him about the sunrise or the trees or the people at the shopping mall. A longer retreat gives you more time for personal care and refreshment. That’s not a bad thing.
And then it’s over
Eventually you have to go back. The world will again clamor. Noise and responsibility return. It can take five seconds for the retreat to feel far away. So set another calendar date a week in the future, this one much shorter, when you can pull out everything from your retreat and give it another look. If you didn’t have time before, make an actual plan now. Use timelines. Make appointments.
If it’s something you need to do, write the steps to get it done. Need an attitude change? Then make sure you have human advisors or books or Bible passages to hold you to it. If you need to fix relationships, schedule that. If God put a huge plan on your heart, you might need to schedule a whole other long retreat. Or maybe this next retreat needs to be with a spouse or friend, if your plan is something you won’t be doing alone.
This isn’t the end
Whatever you do, remind yourself that you can do this again. God may only touch one item on your long list. That’s fine. Focus on that and then return later to other things.
It’s not easy to take time away. If you do it often, you can take some spiritual retreats simply to bask in the quiet, no agenda necessary. Maybe you need a weekly hour at a coffee shop to sip your favorite drink where you let your mind wander. Maybe you need a once yearly inventory when you plan everything for the next year and give it all to God for his inspection. Or maybe once a month you need to super-clean your house and then sit in a hot bath with soothing music and pray.
I’d love to hear your ideas on spiritual retreats. I also included a downloadable checklist that might help you think through a retreat of your own. Whether it’s long or short, organized or freeform, we all need to spend time alone with God sometimes to let him care for us, speak to us, renew us, and set us back on the paths he wants for us.
A simple three-page plan to help you organize a personal spiritual retreat.