Retreats: What Are They and Why Make Them?

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Over the years, I’ve led or been part of countless retreats: youth retreats, couples retreats, men’s retreats (never a woman’s retreat—surprise!), leadership retreats, strategic planning retreats, spiritual retreats. What I’ve learned is that there a lot of different ideas out there about what constitutes a “retreat.”

Some envision retreat as an escape from reality that has little use and should only be made as a measure of last resort. Some see a retreat as a glorified church service where you mostly sit and listen to great music and great speakers.

At Unhurried Living, we have definite ideas about retreats and why to make them. I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned from and about retreats over the last 30 years.

In this post we will:

  • Walk you through what the unique gift of a retreat really is.
  • Unpack an ancient idea of vacare Deo as a way of talking about focused availability for God.
  • Compare and contrast the difference between a conference and a retreat.
  • Look at the rhythm of retreat in the life of Jesus.
  • Give you options for next steps you might enjoy taking.
  • Share a few classical quotations about retreat.
  • Share a personalized prayer from Psalm 62.

What Are Retreats?

One of the great opportunities of retreats, especially for leaders, is the opportunity to rest.

I’m not just talking about the kind of rest that you collapse into after overworking for too long. That’s often more escape than refreshment. I’m talking about the kind of rest that is positive and comes before our work.

Rest is the good soil in which good ministry and good work grows. It’s a completely opposite rhythm to the one so common in our day.

Rest is the good soil in which good work grows @UnhurriedLiving

Consider Psalm 62. Verse one finds the psalm writer reminding himself that “his soul finds rest in God alone.” Later, in verse five, he urges himself to “find rest, O my soul, in God alone.” This is more than just a nap, a break, or a vacation. This kind of rest runs deeper and bears greater fruit.

So what in the world is a retreat. E. Glenn Hinson, who learned so much from Thomas Merton in the 1960s, wrote in Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership:

“The word retreat derives from the Latin retrahere, which means "to draw back." Retreat should not be seen as a ‘flight from the world’ pronouncing a not very polite curse on it, as some Christians have occasionally seen it. Not even the monastic retreat, in its true form, intended that. Quite to the contrary, the early monks sought solitude for the same reason Jesus did‑to get in touch with One who brought the world into being and who directs the world toward some meaningful end.”[1]

Retreat, in this understanding, is not an escape from the world so much as an intentional coming into the presence of God. It has a more positive definition than a negative one. It’s not defined primarily by what is left but by Who is encountered.

Thomas Green, a wonderful spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition, said this about a good retreat:

“I always suggest that three guidelines for a good retreat are, as a Dominican sister-friend of mine once noted, ESP: to eat well, to sleep well, and to pray the rest of the time. This means that I make it a real vacation. I don’t just give the Lord part of my time and part of myself; rather I seek, in the classic monastic phrase, to vacare Deo, to be totally free for the Lord.”[2]

Eat well. Sleep well. Pray well. The first two are there in service of the third. And Green uses the word “vacation” in a way few of us ever would. It’s a vacation with the Lord more than a vacation from something. It is, quoting the monastic tradition, to vacare Deo.

[ctt template="5" link="c7_Yy" via="yes" ]Elements of a good retreat? Eat well, sleep well, and pray the rest of the time. @UnhurriedLiving[/ctt]



Vacare Deo

Looking into this phrase, I find that some struggle to translate it well into English. It sounds like something vacant or empty, maybe with a hint of irresponsible leisure. But again it is about giving God the gift of my full attention when so often I give him only a small percentage of my attention at any given moment.

A form of “vacare Deo” is what is found in Psalm 46:10, “Be still [vacate] and know that I am God [Deus].” Paul uses similar language when he talks about married couples being “free for prayer” (1 Co 7:5).

In the Rule of Benedict, the word vacare shows up in chapter 48 to talk about being “free” or having “leisure” for holy reading.[3] There are certain ways of being present and attentive to God that are best cultivated in a place of solitary quiet.

The Rule of Benedict provides plenty of space in the monks’ schedules for holy leisure.

“He assumes the necessity, daily, for several hours of silent time, without pressure, without external activity, without discernible results. And he assigns for this time some of the best hours of the day, when minds will be fully awake, and able to give of their best.”[4]

So the idea here is to open up moments each day, space each week, and perhaps a day a month to simply be available to hear God’s voice—in scripture, in nature, in our own hearts and minds, to sense God’s presence, to discern God’s guidance. It is a mode of receptivity rather than a mode of initiative or intense activity.

Comparing Conferences and Retreats

I mentioned earlier that, as a pastor, I led a lot of getaways that I called retreats. I now think that the word “retreat” should be reserved for a particular way of getting away that is more focused. The language I’ve come to use is to contrast a conference from a retreat. I think much of what is called a “retreat” in certain church or ministry settings is actually more of a “conference.” Let me suggest the contrast I see between the two in a side-by-side comparison:

Conference Retreat
Attenders role: primarily as audience Attenders role: primarily a personal or communal experience.
Often scheduled quite full of presentations and workshops Scheduled with plenty of open space for reflection, interaction, prayer and listening.
Content tends towards being Information-focused, with perhaps a strong lecture format. Content tends toward a more encounter-focused design (with God, with oneself, with others). Content seeks to offer opportunity for personal discovery and reflection, along with discussion opportunities.
Often the draw is quite personality-focused with a “big name” speaker as the draw. The leader/speaker is seen as the information expert. The draw tends to be more simple, personal and perhaps God-focused. The leader is more of a guide or facilitator.
Housing is often dorm styled to maximize the number who can attend (Conference center). Housing is usually for separate individuals or couples (Retreat center).
Gatherings are largely structured with little free, unstructured time. Gatherings are interspersed with open time for solitude, reflection, personal initiative.
Size: Ideal is usually a large group coming to listen to content provided. The more participants the better Size: Ideal is usually a small group to maximize personal engagement and interaction.
Participants mostly listen. Participants are involved in personal disclosure, discussion, interaction, reflection.
There is often more content than can be digested, assuming that participants will reflect further after the conference. Ideally, just enough content is provided for participants to be able to digest and respond.
Personal encounter with God is sometimes assumed or merely urged. Personal encounter with God is provided for within the structure.
There is often little space in the schedule for any surprises. There is a built-in openness to surprises in the schedule.

My contrast above implies conferences are bad and retreats are good. I don’t actually intend that. What I want to say is that a conference has different purposes than a retreat. Conferences tend to be more informational. Retreat have the potential to have a more transformational focus. That’s at least what I intend when I make or lead a retreat.


Jesus and Retreats

The Gospels, especially Luke, report that Jesus spent time in retreat before critical moments of his ministry.

“Retreat” Text Critical Ministry Moment
Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-14 Launch of His public ministry
Mk 1:35-39; Lk 4:42-44 Embarking on a preaching tour of Galilee
Lk 6:12-16 Choosing the twelve
Lk 11:1-4 Teaching the disciples to pray
Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42; Lk 22:39-46 Gethsemane—Jesus arrest, suffering and crucifixion

The idea of retreat is something modeled by Jesus. Perhaps our discipleship to him would involve following this rhythm of his life just as faithfully as we seek to follow him in our believing, our speaking, or our service.

Alan Simpson, an Anglican retreat director from a century ago, unpacks this sense of Jesus as our model for retreat when he suggests:

“The Gospels do not declare to us only the outward life of going about doing good. They show us, at least in glimpses, the inner life which lay behind all that in Jesus Christ has commanded the admiration of men. We see as part of this background forty days of Retreat before the ministry begins. When it has begun, at the very times when the opportunities of the kingdom were most abundant, when crowds were coming from the towns and villages demanding His teaching, and bringing their sick to be healed, we see Him deeming it neither a waste of time, nor a turning aside from duty, to go into the wilderness, or up into the mountain, simply to be alone with God the Father….

[Jesus] said to [His disciples], 'Come ye apart into a desert place and rest awhile.' But, what is most significant of all, and yet seems to have been strangely missed in much that has been written about Retreat, it was by our Lord's own appointment that the Upper Room was placed at the disposal of the disciples. There in seclusion they heard the Last Discourses, and witnessed the Institution of the Eucharist. There, after the Resurrection and Ascension, they waited in prayer and supplication for the Day of Pentecost.”[5]

I’ve come to believe that withdrawing to be alone and quiet with the Father was a critical rhythm in the life of Jesus. For us, retreat provides an opportunity to follow his way of life and leadership.

Where do I go from here?

  • Will you be leading a retreat anytime soon? What insight or two from this post could enrich or better focus your leadership?
  • Are you drawn to make a personal retreat? Where and when might you do that? (Take advantage of our free Retreat resource mentioned in this post).
  • Reflect on the contrasts between conferences and retreats above. What have been the gifts you’ve enjoyed in conferences you’ve attended? What have been gifts of a more retreat-like format?
  • Take a moment to read one of the “additional material” items below for reflection and prayer. Ask God to speak to you through one of them.
  • If you would like for us to lead a retreat for your group, feel free to be in touch with Alan or Gem.


Additional Material

Classic Quotations About Retreat

It can help us to listen to wise retreat guides from the past. Here are a few pieces of practical retreat wisdom I’ve collected over the years.

“The Church has never advanced, in this or any other way, by roads authoritatively engineered and pontifically declared open. Revival has always come, after an age of dryness, by the spurting out of spiritual energy from unforeseen quarters, and not seldom, indeed, in unauthorized ways. The saying may be trite, but it is true, that religion must be caught before it can be taught. It is not, therefore, by devising ever fresh means of bringing people in the mass within range of accredited missioners' voices that very much gain is to be hoped for--none at all indeed if that is to stand alone. Wider conversion will come only by deepening in the Church such a spirit as will produce prophets and apostles among the people themselves.”[6]

“Retreats are of many kinds. There is the corporate Retreat, and the solitary Retreat. There is the critical Retreat, when some great issue of life is to be faced, or some momentous choice is to be made. There is the Retreat that is undertaken as a special preparation for some act, or way, of service. There is the periodic Retreat, that is intended for the reordering of life and the renewal of spiritual power.”[7]

Recently I have been thinking of four kinds of retreats that would help us practice the presence of God.
One is a daily retreat. For me that has consisted of a three-mile walk each morning. I cannot tell you exactly what happens during that walk. Sometimes I just walk. At other times I meditate on a passage of Scripture. At other times I pray for someone. But I can tell you the outcome: I am collected. I am present where I am….At least once a month, we need an all-day retreat. We do not have to do that in a retreat center. Go to the mountains. Go to the sea. Find solitude and spare some time for God. A couple of times a year, we need longer retreats of thirty-six to forty-eight hours. Finally, we need sabbaticals. Our culture has reached a stage where sabbaticals should not be for professors only. Mothers need them. Doctors, lawyers, and ministers need them. People in all walks of life need them. The world needs them.”[8]

“The Lord may, and often does, take the retreat as an ideal time to lead us to a deeper level of prayer. In that case, the retreat may not be a time of election, of any big decision, but rather a school of contemplation. In that case, the election, decision or choice that we make is simply to say ‘yes’ to God drawing us deeper. He calls us to let go of the security of our insights or of our feelings of his presence, and to let him draw us to something new, to a more transforming and less consoling prayer—prayer that is more like surgery than like a birthday party. That in itself is abundant fruit for one retreat.”[9]

A Personalized Prayer from Psalm 62

Another practice I enjoy on retreat is taking a meaningful passage of scripture and personalize it in prayer or in journaling. Here’s an example from Psalm 62.

My soul is restless everywhere else but in God.
         He alone saves me.
         He alone secures me.
He alone protects and establishes me.
         That's why my soul finds rest only in Him.
I get so tired of feeling harassed inwardly.
         There is an enemy of my soul
         who wants nothing more than to see my life take a tumble.

I'm a wall ready to fall,
         an old, broken-down fence.
         Why would anyone bother trying to bring me down?
The evil one wants nothing more than to rob me
         of God's high calling in my life.
He whispers his minuscule but mesmerizing lies.
He makes fine-sounding promises,
         but secretly covets my demise.
I need to be more awake to the voices in my head!  

So it's time to start looking in the right place for rest.
         Stop looking to the computer,
                  to the refrigerator,
                                    to the television,
                                                      or to accomplishments as places to relax.
O soul within me, rest in God alone.
         Realize that He's your only hope.

Only He can make you solid and saved.
         He alone can protect, secure and found you.
If I'm going to live a life of wholeness and nobility,
         it will depend completely on the faithful activity of God in me.
O God, You indeed are my only mighty rock.
         You are my refuge.
I don't have another truly safe and solid place.  

You can always trust God, you know.
         It's safe to speak your deepest feelings in His presence.
You won't provoke Him to turn you out
         with your bluntly honest words.  

Backwoods nobodies are but a breeze.
         Downtown somebodies are mostly posers.
If you put them both together on the same end of a teeter-totter,
         they wouldn't even tip it.
Next to Almighty God, human highs and  lows are really nothing.  

And don't ever think you can manipulate
         or steal from others what you most need.
More money and more goodies don't fill an empty heart.
         Only God can carefully carry your heart.  

God speaks in wholeness and unity,
         even if we hear what He says in different ways.
God alone manages to be wholly mighty and wholly tender.
         I tend to be one or the other.
         May the actions of each one find their reward in You.


[1]E. Glenn Hinson. Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1999, p. 150.
[2]Thomas H. Green, S.J. A Vacation With the Lord. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1986, p. 21.
[3]From an Oblate Letter dated May 1998 from Pluscarden Abbey in Downloadable as PDF from
[5]Alan Simpson. The Principles and Practice of Retreat. London: A. W. Mowbray, 1927, p. 8-9.
[6]Ibid., p. 48-49.
[7]Ibid., p. 12.
[8]E. Glenn Hinson. "At Eternity’s Converging Point." Weavings May/June 2002, p. 26-27.
[9]Green, p. 116.

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