"Retreat!" The negative connotations of that word have led one church to rename their leaders’ away time together, ‘The Elders’ Advance’. Well, whatever you call it, do you have one?
Do you get away, ‘off-site’ with your key leaders to ‘pray, play and say’ (to steal the Christians in Sport tag line)? Do you ever create an environment in which, away from the pressingly urgent and seemingly important, you can discuss the truly critical, significant and strategic issues of church life?
Do you have time to share your dreams of what, under God, could be?
We never used to at Grace. Partly because I led a very small eldership (me!) with a few deacons in a small-to-medium-sized church. When we added a couple more elders, it was fun. We met up in a hotel’s lounge for coffee over the lunch hour to share how things were going.
As Larry Osborne describes it in Sticky Church1, we were the archetypal ‘golf buddy’ leaders. Friends who could share things easily and who had a great degree of tacit understanding. Having three of us chatting over people, needs, and progress in an informal way once a week was definitely better than my one head stuck in a study. Combine that with a monthly elders’ and deacons’ meeting, then it all seemed okay.
But it wasn’t.
We never had quantity and quality time where we could really think and pray about the future of the church. We were mainly dealing with things that had cropped up since our last meeting, or little projects that could be brought up and given ten minutes in a meeting. So it was pretty much all here and now.
For sure it was manageable. It didn’t seem that anything too much was neglected. But in a busy life and a (slowly) growing church, it was more about looking after the status quo than growing, developing and transforming lives.
The case for Retreating
One of my close leader friends had to prod me to get an away-day in the diary for our small leadership team.
The first was just a half-day but we tried it, and it was so helpful.
We had time, in a relaxed environment, to begin to dream as well as manage. The agenda was to talk about where we would love to be in ten years’ time and to describe how it looked.
It didn’t sound like my sort of thing and it certainly wasn’t very conservative evangelical – it almost sounded man-centred. But it wasn’t that at all. It was dreaming of what the living God might do. And if he did, what would our part be in that?
So we began to talk about a bigger meeting place. We thought about developing a larger staff and seeing the finances increase for the better. We especially longed to see more people saved.
I came away realising that getting leaders away is a key way of taking the church forward.
A worked example
So that’s how we started retreating. And a retreat became all the more important as the church grew.
One reason was that ‘golfing buddies’ turned into ‘basketball team’, to use Osborne’s parlance. That is we became a bigger team with specialist roles. Our eldership grew to eight, our diaconate to five and our staff to twelve. Just getting any of those groups together on regular basis proved difficult. Nearly always someone was away and we missed their contributions and they felt ‘left out’ from all that was discussed.
It became an organisational mess so we realised that we had to take time to plan properly.
So now we have different kinds of planning meetings. We take an afternoon as staff elders to develop an outline of the whole of a year’s teaching programme. Then we take a morning once a quarter to get the detail down.
Then we have an away day in the autumn and, especially, a whole weekend (Friday tea-time to Sunday lunch-time) once a year in the cold of January.
What do we do and how do we do it?
Preparation is important. I ask about two months ahead what the leaders want to put on the agenda. I review what comes in, add my own views and then come up with a programme. I outline what we are trying to cover as a whole, give everyone a slot to lead, and give some guidance about each session.
Leaders then do quite a bit of preparation beforehand so that they can lead the discussion at their session. And it is about discussion. Even disagreement. For we need to be straight with each other so that we can own the outcomes.
But we also build in two other key ingredients. One is, of course, devotion to the Lord and earnest prayer. Some of our most cherished times have been these. What could a leadership do more profitably than seek the Saviour for lost people, and for the well-being of his own sheep?
We also build in lots of fun – a shared meal on the journey, a good walk in the lovely hills in the part of Britain we meet in, time around a warm fire in a suitable hostelry, eating tasty food provided by our hosts.
We all bring treats to share. One year I came laden with chocolates and diet Cokes, only to find that nearly everyone else had brought a drink that seemed to them like nectar from Scotland, but to me seemed like paint-stripper.
Gentle banter at our own expense seems to flow easily and we come away humbled by our own weaknesses, heartened by all that the Lord is doing, and determined to seek the advance of the gospel.
That mental and spiritual space has meant we are able to discuss longer-term ‘strategic’ needs more thoroughly than we could ever otherwise do. The church has benefitted enormously. I would commend ‘off-sites’ to you. They are worth their weight in gold.
So if you want to go forward, retreat!
1. Larry Osborne, Sticky Church (Zondervan, 2008).