Prayer retreats are an essential part of my self-care strategy (or rule of life). A few years ago, I learned that I needed time away with God to refocus and recharge for ministry. Without these retreats, I will burn out or become depressed. I suspect that more people than just pastors would benefit from extended time away with God. So, let me share what I’ve learned.
I have four levels of retreat that I use to stay healthy: daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.
Daily retreats are short periods of five to thirty minutes where I pause to be still before God and focus on his presence. My short prayer as I wake up, my beginning work meditation, a mid-day pause for prayer, or the end-of-day examen are all strategic withdrawals from the busy pace of life. They provide focus, clarity, and a chance to remember God’s love, which is an incredible weapon against stress and worry.
The second and most important level is weekly Sabbath. This isn’t an empty ritual or legalistic duty. It’s my favorite life-giving day of the week. For me, the Sabbath is a gift from God – a 24-hour period for joy, wonder, and love. I’m still learning to be consistent with this day, but when I miss it, my spirit suffers.
Monthly Day of Prayer
Once each month I try to take a full day for prayer. To be honest, I’m not consistent with this practice – probably three out of four months. This day allows me to prepare for the month by seeking God’s leading. I will pray over my schedule and offer it to God. Occasionally he changes a few things. Most often this practice just allows me time to think deeply about my work as an expression of intimacy with God. It prevents me from falling into the “work harder” trap (finding my identity in how much I accomplish).
Extended Prayer Retreats
Finally, I try to take a multi-day prayer retreat once or twice each year. These retreats can last from two days to two weeks depending on what I feel God is leading me to do (and what my body is telling me about my stress levels). These retreats require some advance planning. Ruth Haley Barton’s book Invitation to Retreat can help with this planning. Here are some things she recommends:
- Recognize God’s invitation to “come away . . . and rest a while” ().
- Consider your time away as a strategic withdrawal – like the way a military will pull a unit back from the front lines for rest and resupply.
- Start with rest and recovery for your body so you can truly focus.
- Establish a rhythm for prayer (Barton recommends using fixed-hour prayer).
- Use your retreat to identify and relinquish false spiritual patterns and truly surrender to God.
- Use retreats for discerning major questions or rediscovering your call to ministry.
- Find spiritual freedom from things that are not of God.
- See your time of retreat as a source of life for ministry.
“I no longer see retreat as a self-indulgent luxury or as a rhythm that can wait for times when I am less busy. I see it as essential for long-term sustainability and life-sustaining connection with the One who enlivens my soul and empowers my service.”Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat, p. 125
What Actually Happens on Retreat
When I challenged a fellow Christian leader to take time away for a retreat, he asked me, “What do you actually do on a retreat?” It’s hard to answer that question because every retreat is different. There are common elements like rest, prayer, worship, and periods of solitude and silence. However, going on retreat is not really about what you do – spiritual retreat is about what God does as we are present with him. The goal of a spiritual retreat is to be as fully present to God as we can be. Whatever happens beyond that is up to the Holy Spirit. Some things that may happen on retreat include:
- Intimate communion with God
- Deeper experience of God’s love
- Spiritual attack from the evil one
- Battling our own sinfulness and temptations
- God might remain silent
- The Holy Spirit may give you a new calling for ministry
- Fears, anger, bitterness, or sadness may surface in powerful ways
- Past trauma may surface so you can find healing
- You may have trouble eating or sleeping
- Your body may experience true rest for the first time in a long while
- Your mind may take time to quiet down (this can take three days or more)
- You may finally notice a stirring in your soul that required rest, silence, and solitude to surface
- You may experience deep refreshment and healing
Ultimately, whatever happens on retreat is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Some of the things on this list may not seem like gifts, but if you are seeking deeper dependence on God, then you will be able to trust that the Holy Spirit has a purpose (especially if you don’t understand why it’s happening).
Returning Home from Retreat
Each retreat is different, and each time I return home it’s different too. Sometimes I return home to greater power in ministry, either in my preaching, discipleship, or counseling. Other times when I return home I experience intense spiritual disruption or attack in ministry. In those cases, my retreat was just what I needed to be spiritually strong. Maybe that’s why the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism () – he knew that spiritual attack was coming. After fasting Jesus was physically weak but spiritually strong. Retreat can feel like that.