8 Soulful Things to Try at Your Next Retreat

Retreat.

It should be a refuge and a shelter from the wild places. A place to grow strong again.

Women's Retreat.

What happens when you hear those words?

Do you lean in and sign up immediately? Do you wait for a personal invitation? Do you cringe and hope no one asks if you’re going? Are you already crafting your excuse? Do you remember that left out feeling from the last one years ago when you vowed never to go again?

Read on, darling, and let's make going on retreats or trips of any kind worth it again.

When I was a girl, I dreamed of being a flight attendant and this is a good time to pretend. Not only by tying on a jaunty scarf and imitating their stellar packing techniques, but by crosschecking (not the hockey kind). When flying the friendly skies, have you heard the pilot say, “Flight attendants, prepare for crosscheck”? Before taxiing, the pilot is reminding them to double check each other's tasks to make sure the plane is armed for take-off.

We can do this even before signing up for retreats. There are a million kinds of retreats and as many ways to do them, so the first thing to consider is the purpose and culture of the gathering from the leadership perspective (what have they designed and what they are offering?) and then your own hopes in going (what are you looking for?). We have all attended retreats where those purposes have not been a fit.

I attended a retreat recently where I didn’t know a single soul except through a few Zoom calls leading up to the weekend. I was excited to meet a small group of women from across the country and around the world. Mostly, I was thrilled at the possibilities for learning, for strengthening and for new friendship. We were meant for meeting face-to-face and this was our chance. But I would not be honest if I didn’t admit to you, I had the usual insecurities about what I had to offer, how much I had yet to learn and that deep one, what in the world will I wear?

In the months leading up to the retreat, I did my homework, answering questions, preparing my offering and praying for everyone including the leaders. Somewhere between packing my kicks and a little black dress, I made some soul decisions for myself and toward the sisters I did not yet know. Maybe some of my soul decisions will help you attend your next retreat with grace and grit, and your whole beautiful heart.

1.Lower your dukes.
Sometimes we can come into new situations with our guard up. While I am an introvert and may not share my deepest soul the minute we meet, I have realized it is counterproductive to arrive at a retreat having built walls around my heart.

It is just so natural for our defenses to go up in response to our confidence taking a dip. For the days and weeks leading up to a retreat or conference are likely full of the hissing whispers of doubt and insecurities that rise when we take a risk. You know the ones, "Where do you think you're going?", "You don't belong there." and "You realize you're not ready for this, right?". Let’s just call those whispers what they are, accusations against our souls.

When I hear such negativity, I give 'em a right jab and then take off my boxing gloves. I remind myself to take deep breaths, shake off my tense shoulders and relax. Then I can lower my fists and take off the fighting gloves to meet and mingle with fresh faces.

Of course, it will take that uncomfortable feeling of raw vulnerability that we all try to avoid, but how disarming to your sisters to be wisely open and authentic. What if we go first and make everyone feel welcome by resting our identity in the One who made us?

The caveats here are two: share deeply in safe places (Sarah Bessey calls them "My Somewheres") and don't overshare and overwhelm your sisters. That being said, after years of going to retreats, I finally see both under-sharing and over-sharing as coming from deep pain or fear needing release (grace and mercy) and in some ways both are forms of putting our dukes up (think about it).

These next things might help to relax our defenses in the best places in just the right amount.

2.Bring a small offering to share.

We can set our hearts on what a retreat has to offer us and while that is not bad, it opens up a whole new big blue sky to consider what we will bring to give away.

This can be as simple as kind words and compliments. Everyone needs more of these so use them freely and lavishly. Besides, it reflects God’s abundant love not to hold back when you can bless someone else.

I have taken small tokens to give away and let God show me who needs them. You might feel like this is over the top, but I enjoyed the listening and paying attention it required, and doing it alongside the Spirit. Another way to bring an offering is a small note written toward the end of your trip to someone you meet who sticks with you in one way or another.

At this last retreat I attended, we took turns teaching each other stuff we love and so offered out of our gifts and passions. Together we were a teaching and learning community splashed with humility. We each had a chance to be on both sides of the table and it made for hearty and healthy relationships.

3.Listen.

This one takes practice and discipline.

When I was a mama to littles at home, I was so hungry for sharing that I sometimes forgot to just listen, and listen well. We retreat-goers would just go and talk until the wee hours of the morning, then all go home hoarse and tired-to-death, not at all ready for re-entry.

Maybe that was just what that season needed. But I have finally learned to leave some room for quiet even surrounded by people, both listening to others and listening to God. It might be as simple as a private conversation where you do more listening than talking or intentionally finding a moment alone to turn your face toward the sky, breath deeply and listen to what blows in on the wind.

4.Ask questions more than give answers.
Be curious. Rather than talk, start your conversation asking questions that draw your neighbor out. Whenever I meet someone who is skilled at asking questions, I admire them and come away refreshed.

Jesus was a great asker of questions, "What are y'all talking about?", “What do you want me to do for you?”, “Who do you say that I am?” and "What kind of father, when his child asks for bread, gives him a stone?".

My questions are simple, How did you do that so well? I like how you did that. Where did you learn that? What’s your favorite book? Where can I get one of those? What do think about that? What are you working on?

What is it about questions that makes a difference? Asking questions means we start from a different place, a wide-open space with a canopy of stars overhead. It is a place outside of ourselves. I find it is an invitation to the possibility of the asker being changed.

5.Re-arrange yourself.
I love to find my spot and my people, and get cozy among them. I love walking into a room knowing I have a seat waiting for me. I am the girl who likes to sit on the same side of church every Sunday.

This particular retreat was designed to keep me from doing any of that nonsense. We rode in one car group, roomed with another, were put in mastermind groups with yet another. It was always an interesting mash-up.

That design prompted me to sit at different spots around the dinner table, during our teaching time and around the lake. I got moments with each and every sister over the long weekend.

It was an invitation to re-arrange myself, to surrender my comfort and let my edges be blurred. To move within healthy boundaries and among safe people is to make room for seeds to sprout and blooms to unfurl like hostas in springtime.

I am taking that design and challenging myself to movement at my next retreat. That rolls right into this next one.

6.Not business as usual.
The very idea of a retreat is to get of out of our everyday patterns for a small bit of time. The point is to go back into our actual life and see things differently. When we travel and retreat, we miss something if we bring the kitchen sink. We are meant to leave much behind. We curate what we really need and try to do with less. So, at the end of a simpler rhythm, we can go back to our life and realize more fully the Imago Dei and be more fully ourselves.

Richard Rohr has given lots of retreats. He says,

“If we bring to a retreat all the baggage and mentality of business as usual, we aren’t really making a “retreat”. So nothing new or transformative can happen.”

Why go to all of the extra time, cost, preparation and schedule crunching to attend a retreat just to do the same old thing?

I came to this retreat with my questions, with my wonderings, my full-blown insecurities and my guard down. I was listening for pain and joy, for points of connection and learning with my sisters and with my Savior.

I left room in my soul to take home something I did not arrive with.

7.Try something new.
Boy, do I like to curl up with a good book and look through the picture window at the crashing waves of sea or lake. It is always good to take those quiet moments with your feet curled up underneath you and your fingers wrapped around a warm mug.

You might be sensing a theme here, one of wanting to stay in the warm and familiar, rather than the cold waters and the unknown. Yet, we want to grow and reach for our dreams which means getting off of the sofa.

I have to tell you, I was cozy by the window. In my packing light mode, I knew I didn’t have enough layers. I could see across the sweep of the lake, that the water was choppy. I could hear the waves slap hard against the dock. I was getting goosebumps just imagining the chilly water on my bare legs.

Against the grain.

I decided to go kayaking with a small group for maybe the second time in my life. The sky was just waking up in layers of pink and tangerine. We kicked off our shoes and smoothed our feet against coarse sand. We pushed off across the lake, getting the feel of our shoulder muscles dipping the oars, cutting into the morning water.

We talked about our good fathers and not assuming everyone has had one, we talked of how to look beyond the man. We talked about our good, good Father, of not taking Him for granted or diminishing Him, ever, no matter the man who gave you bread or a stone. Our good Father loves you better than them all.

I forgot the real goosebumps on my legs from dripping oars as we watched for nesting eagles.

At some point, I challenge you to try something new. Go against your grain and do something out of the ordinary.

8.Rest well and be wide awake.
The thing about going on retreats is that I come with a bundle of desires: to learn something new or teach something new or a need for friendship, sometimes for compassion and other times, I just need rest. Most of the time, I arrive in need of it all in some way. But, here’s where it gets interesting, some of my needs are hidden even from me.

It would be great to know what I need in the season I am in while still leaving room for God’s Spirit to move and lead. But let me be honest with you, sometimes, even after some soul searching, I really don’t know what is good for me or what will actually fill my tank or bless a sister. The best retreats can help draw out that hiddenness if I unclench my bony white knuckles and trust.

This unknowing of my own self means I have to find my rest in the One who knows me. It doesn’t mean I don’t need to do some good hard soul-searching. I do! I need to be actually rested, body and soul, and wide awake at the same time.

I hope any one of the first seven things listed above might help you get this last one. If not, then try the Psalms.

Here is what I want to tell you, darling. I certainly don't begin to know all you need for your next retreat. But the Spirit of the Living God will lead the way, cutting right down in between your marrow and bone with an accurate blade.

O Lord, you have examined my heart.
and know everything about me.
 You know when I sit or stand.
When far away you know my every thought.
You chart the path ahead of me
and tell me where to stop and rest.
Every moment you know where I am.
You know what I am going to say before I even say it.
You both precede and follow me
and place your hand of blessing on my head.

Psalm 139:1-5

Let's relax our grip and let Him do it. He knows and loves us well and good.