As many of you know, I recently had a personal, pastoral retreat for several days. On this particular retreat, I visited the Santa Rita Abbey, a Trappist convent where they have a very nice "retreat house" for outsiders like me!
I realized (based, in part, on the concerned reactions that some of our congregation had about the fact that I was taking a retreat) that I've never taken the time to explain about my pastoral retreats. So I wanted to do that now.
An idea takes shape
Very early in my ordained ministry — within a couple of months of being ordained, actually — I was listening to a series of lectures by Mike Bullmore, Senior Pastor of Crossway Community Church in Bristol, WI; and he made some passing references to his use of personal retreats for ministry planning and preparation. Then I found a lecture from him focused entirely on discussing how he uses his retreats. (These and other lectures from Dr. Bullmore can be found at the Sovereign Grace Ministries online store — the ones I mentioned are free.) All of this led me to think of how I might begin to take similar retreats in service of my pastoral ministry.
Thus, the following September, I took my first pastoral retreat; I made use of a conference and retreat center in the Memphis area, where they have two wonderful little "hermitages" for private, silent retreats. Because this place was very close, I was able to do it by day trip — I would drop the kids off at school in the morning, and then go to my retreat; I would return in the evening, maybe a bit later than I usually would (after 6PM), and do the same on the following day. I found that three days was a good amount of time — more would cut too much into my ministry and family time, but less was not quite enough to get to where I wanted to be.
My pattern was to take a retreat like this about every six months, generally at the beginning of the fall and at the beginning of the spring seasons. My Session in Tennessee was supportive of these, and the Session at Dove Mountain Church has likewise been supportive. Lord willing, I intend to continue having these about twice a year throughout my pastoral ministry.
Goals and plans
What do I do when I'm on retreat? For starters, I have several goals that are almost always a part of my pastoral retreats. These are:
- Personal spiritual renewal and refreshment
- Extended time in devotional reading of the Bible
- Longer seasons of prayer
- Long-term praying, thinking, and planning regarding my ministries of preaching and teaching
- Sermon preparation — getting ahead in cursory and early-stage writing of sermons
- Worship preparation — writing and assembling the liturgies for weeks or months in advance
- Writing projects — taking an inventory on where I am with the various projects I'm involved with, and what needs to be done next
When I'm on these retreats, then, I'm trying to attend to these various goals as I can. Sometimes one or two will necessarily take very low priority to the others, while other times I find a fairly even spread across them all.
For example, on this recent retreat I took advantage of the particular setting I was in — especially the extreme quiet that I found on one particular morning — and relished it for devotional purposes. I sat and read my Bible devotionally (meaning, I wasn't trying to study it for the purpose of teaching or preaching it) for over an hour, and followed that by a long time of silent prayer and meditation. I also simply sat and listened, watched, and soaked in the view and the surroundings during that time. Then I spent an hour or so reading for pleasure, in a fiction book that a friend of mine wrote. In all of this, I found some measure of accomplishment of the first three goals above.
Later that same day, I began to think about the preaching ministry over the next year or so. We have a sermon series planned on worship that will take us to spring of next year; I wanted to think strategically also about what to preach after that. Next, I looked over the rough plan for the new series on Worship: I already had the text assignments for the first 4-5 weeks, but one of them didn't work quite as well as another, so I changed that. Then I planned out the text assignments for the rest of the calendar year and into January 2013. After that, I began working on outlines for some of the upcoming sermons — determining the big idea, the main points, the sub-points, and finding appropriate reflection quotes when I can. This requires a good bit of reading, study, and consideration for each. I was able to get about 5 sermons outlined this way, and make a start into a couple of others.
At another point in the retreat, I began to plan out the worship service liturgies for the coming months. When I can work on multiple weeks in a row like this, I like to dig into particular aspects — the Call to Worship, for example — and find many of them at once, each as fitting and appropriate as possible to the themes of worship for a given Sunday. So I planned out the Calls to Worship for the rest of the year, and then started working on Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon.
Throughout the day, I take regular breaks from this kind of study and work. Sometimes I'll take a short walk, praying as I go; other times I'll sit and pray for a longer period, or read. Sometimes I'll get a snack — though often I employ some of my retreat time for fasting, which I've found is a great fit for this kind of time apart.
My retreats are often providentially timed, meaning that I will need them when they come around (sometimes more than I realize until I'm actually retreating). But they aren't a sign of burn-out or trouble, at least not so far, and I don't want them to be mis-read in that way. Rather, please think of them as — and pray for them to be — times where I am seeking the Lord for how He would use me in ministry to His people.
And let me take this opportunity to say thank you: to all of you, for allowing me this time away; to those of you who have asked about my retreat, and who prayed for me during it; and to the Session in their open and generous support. I realize that not every pastor gets to take this kind of time away (though I believe it pays great dividends throughout the rest of the year), and I don't take it for granted.