So I figured that I have directed, wrote, and/or contributed to at least 50 retreats in the last six years. Some of those retreats were my own babies from top to bottom, and some were those where I was just plugged in to the speaking role of someone else's baby. To say that I love retreats is an understatement. Retreats are beautiful opportunities to tell the world to shut up so that God's voice can resound in your heart.
I like to tell the teens or young adults that a retreat is a unique time to withdraw from the world in order to hear more clearly three voices: God's voice, your own voice, and the devil's. Too often we confuse the three (usually I think I'm God).
Here are a collection of insights that I came up with for retreat making that I think are pretty important. And most of these are for high school students, which is the majority of retreats that I do. I will post on a variety of topics to keep the blog posts a little bit shorter for your consuming pleasure.
You Need to Set the Theme and Tone of the Retreat
Most retreats do not start on time. Arriving late can surely throw off a retreat. It produces anxiety, which results in the retreat leader wanting to just jump in and go, go, go! But it is crucial to establish the right tone for the retreat from the very beginning. Depending on the type of retreat this is and the type of retreatants that are attending, your tone can vary widely.
For example, if it is a mandatory high school retreat for Confirmation candidates, you need to overcome any hostility and pure rage that they lose a weekend because of "This Jesus Thing I have to go to". The tone should be set immediately- as in, the first three minutes upon arrival- or you will have to struggle to win the teens back.
Audio. Music is powerful. Great sounding music is the goal. Think about the music you have playing as the audience first enters the main meeting room. Have the right type of music (not necessarily "churchy music") playing nice, loud, and clean over good speakers. Pay extra for the bigger sound system. You can always lower the volume on a big system, but you can only raise the volume so high on small speakers without ruining it. Nothing sets a mood more than music. It creates atmosphere, so make sure every song selection, whether from a live band or over your iPod, is intentionally chosen for the most fitting atmospher. This also means making sure you or some helping you knows all the right sound board settings, ports, instruments, microphones, cables and connectors needed for the whole retreat.
Building Rapport. Have the main people, the musician and speaker most likely, create a sense of excitement and fun right from the beginning. This creates a rapport between the faces they will see all retreat long and the audience as soon as possible.
Prioritize the Welcoming. Realize the Welcome/Gather needs to be the highest priority for the first night. Put the right people in charge of the welcoming and make sure the housing situation as people arrive or get off a bus is flawlessly handled. The last thing you ned is a bunch of wide-eyed retreatants wondering where to put their bags for 20 minutes. Don't just make a checklist, strategize about the arrival, the welcoming, the housing, the opening music, the food and drink they get and when they get it. All of these things matter.
Define and push the Theme. Develop a strong emphasis right out of the gate on the theme for the weekend. This doesn't have to be a stupid slogan printed on ugly t-shirts, but is rather a proclamation statement of the spiritual movement of the whole retreat. This theme is the golden thread of all the talks and testimonies and prayer experiences.
Put your best foot forward. Bring in only the best "up front" people. High energy, loud and funny are the key characteristics for people leading games, skits, and ice breakers. Their energy is transferred to the people and excitement builds. Musicians need to know how to draw people into prayer and into the music, which means they are great with crowds and thoroughly competant with the music. Speakers need to be smart, agile with the content, and pastoral in their talks.
Leadership sets the tone too. You as a leader need to be prepared, organized, and ready for anything. You need to be flexible and build in flexibility to the schedule. And here is an annoying point that needs to be said: the best leaders are also participants! You do not get to bow out of the games and ice breakers just because you have a fancy clipboard and a space pen. Do not be the guy in the back of the room watching the kids from afar. You are not leading anyone. You need to be approachable and relational, looking for opportunities to make relationships and have fun, which means you need to be up front and in the middle, not the back!
The next post will be on Talks and Testimonies on retreat.