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Strategic Retreat

Two weeks ago I “withdrew to a quiet place” to be by myself for several days. About thirty-five years ago, I began going away occasionally to be alone somewhere for two days in order to concentrate on projects for an advanced academic degree. I needed to get away from the Good News Community office where there was always a flow of distractions. At the same time, I realized I needed part of the time for quiet prayer. I liked to sing, so my guitar came along.

Later, as pastor at Saranac Community Church, I continued this practice. I used half the time for meditation and singing, reading the Bible, journal writing, and prayer. With the other half I read the lectionary Bible passages and sketched sermon ideas for a month which was still several weeks off. This helped me avoid procrastination which plagued me in my early years in ministry. I found that having sketched out the basic ideas of sermons and classes, that during the following weeks additional ideas or stories popped into mind to enrich those plans. Most of us work much better when pressure is removed.

Since retiring from Saranac two decades ago, I have continued with frequent, but not monthly retreats. Now I have even more freedom to be alone with God, usually in a place set aside for such solitude. Since I served nine different churches as interim pastor during the last twenty years, I found several good places for retreat. For instance, I often used an isolated cabin in the woods provided by the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, while serving in that area. They provide three such cabins for anyone who wishes to take time to be alone with God.

Jesus modeled the practice of getting away from our daily routine, those little and big jobs that soak up our time and but leave us spiritually impoverished. You may wonder where and how you could possibly have a retreat. To start with, aim for a small time, perhaps only an afternoon, or a morning alone. Find a place such as a friend’s cottage or some other vacation place where you would not be bothered. Use whatever spiritual material, books, or just the Bible, and listen for God’s voice. Write some thoughts in a journal. Most of all it’s important to stop working, to stop being “productive” and let God shape your thinking. That’s a solo retreat.

The second retreat I attended happened to be scheduled for the very next week. One of the denominations where I have served offers this every fall for pastors and spouses. It is very different from the first one. With about seventy pastors and a few spouses attending, it was at a spacious lodge in a state park, a conference center. Meals were a social occasion where we enjoyed visiting with friends we seldom see. Four extended sessions were led by a well-known Christian author who writes about spiritual life and being quiet with God to receive his love. These times included quiet singing led by the presenter’s spouse. (Both of them are finely tuned spiritual leaders.) At times we were given a thought assignment, with a half-hour of silence to think, to pray, to write some thoughts down.

If you wonder why ministers need such times, it’s because pastors can get run down with the endless tasks of leading a church, committees, counseling, pastoral care, decisions and the problems of administration, to such a degree that precious time to feed one’s soul is pushed into a small corner. An annual retreat helps us get focused again on our personal spiritual journey.

Once when I was about to drive away from the church in Saranac, I saw a few guys working to tidy up the grounds, trim shrubs, and that sort of thing. I stopped and rolled down the window. One of the men was near and I told him I felt guilty driving away to my retreat while they were there volunteering faithfully. He looked at me and very seriously said, “Well, pastor, we do need you to set the right example. So you just be on your way.” I have never forgotten those wise and kind words. My example made a difference to him. And his words helped make me a better pastor.

There are dozens of reasons why people feel they don’t have time to get away as I have done. But I find it is easy for me to spend several hours watching TV only to realize later that it was very poor nourishment for my spirit, and perhaps a waste of good time.

In military language, a strategic retreat is for two purposes, first, to avoid being overwhelmed by the enemy forces, and second, in order to gather supplies and restore the troops and equipment so the next move will be a successful advance toward winning the contest.

Maybe you, my reader, will find a way now and then to withdraw to a quiet place to be alone with God. Perhaps a retreat to avoid being overwhelmed and to restore your spiritual strength will make all the difference in your life, as it has for me.

Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. Mark 6:31 NLT

© 2021 Stanley Hagemeyer

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