How to Plan a Retreat: Putting Together the Basic Timeline

We’re getting to that point in the retreat planning where you’re putting the peddle to the metal. You’ve put the building blocks in place. You have your theme figured out, you have a team in place, and you’ve put the basics down on paper. Now, how do you put these pieces together?

First, let’s do one more piece of administrative work.

Block out your time
Based on your flyer, you should have an idea of your retreat’s timing. Is your retreat a single day? Is it a weekend?
– Let’s start this session by listing out the day or days in hour chunks. I pick single hours for now, but we’ll modify everything as we go.
– Now, let’s put in the obvious chunks of time. Start with:
**sleeping – you’ll be on a retreat, so give the folks a generous 8-9 hours if you can. I lean towards 9 or more for this chunk of time so folks can get themselves pretty (or at least showered) in the AM before breakfast.
**eating – allow for an hour to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner
**church or chapel – depending on where you’re holding the retreat, and the nature of the retreat, chapel may already be on the agenda. Find that out and drop it in to your schedule; retreatants like to take advantage of that time.
**social – most retreats have a little ‘get to know you’ time, whether it be appetizers on the first evening before dinner, a welcome breakfast on the first day, or drinks on the middle evening

Once you know the structure of the day, its time to jump into brainstorming. I’m going to be open here and say this may be the hardest part to advise on in a blog format. What we’re embarking on here is the creative process, which is very different from the step by step nature of the planning process, which lends itself very cleanly to the written word.

If you have more of an “engineer” mindset, letting go and jumping into a free form brainstorming session might not feel natural. Then again, if you’re of an “artist” mindset, the earlier parts of planning may have been a stretch for you. I use these two mindsets only as examples, certainly everyone and anyone can be a success in all areas of planning and leading a retreat. I want to encourage you though, if letting go of control of this part of process feels scary, just go with it. I’ve found that being a retreat leader is as rewarding as attending a retreat, just in very different ways. You were called to be the leader, or to be a part of the planning, so own the role and be confident with your ideas.

As a group, you’re going to want to brainstorm on ideas for the content of your day. I fully encourage you to start by throwing out ideas, whatever comes to mind, and write them all down. One great way of doing this is with sticky notes, putting each single idea on a single note.

If you’re leading this exercise, acknowledge every idea that comes up, and write it down. In this phase, let everyone have a voice. If an idea doesn’t quite make sense, ask questions that shed light on what the contributor had in mind. There is no such thing as a “bad idea,” and while you likely won’t use everything that comes up, right now the objective is to get everything recorded.

As your team is talking, encourage people to come up with ideas that use different formats. For a spiritual retreat, I recommend batting around the following types of ideas:
Large Group Discussions – usually in a lecture format, sometimes as a Key Note. This is a format where the group is addressed all at once to go over larger pieces of content.
Small Group Work – Often times, topics are best covered by small groups of 4-6 people. If you’re going to use small groups, I encourage you to have them meet several times over a weekend. Small groups are best situated for retreats spanning over more than one day.
Silent time – Depending on your location, silence can be employed in many different activities. Silent walks, meditation, reflection, or even silent meals can be a nice way to spend time.
Journaling – Sometimes topics lend themselves nicely to a writing prompt that gives retreat goers the opportunity to record their thoughts on their own.
Partner time – Pairing up can be useful for doing a Lectio Divina, going on a walk, or sitting and discussing passages or other writings.
Free time – In retreats that last more than a day or so, its nice to give those attending some free time. This lets them “unpack” what they’ve been talking about, and can give them a break.
Ice Breakers – Even if your retreat group knows each other, its good to set the tone with a game or activity that gets people talking. This can be done by going around and having people introduce themselves, or by putting structure to the task.
Activities – During the retreat, you’ll likely want to have several other activities that are related to your theme. This could be showing an inspirational movie, breaking out to write poetry, having a singer come and teach your group new songs.

So now you have a ton of sticky notes representing all the ideas that the team has come up with, and you probably have a few patterns or a few items that seem to go together. Place those sticky notes with similar or related ideas together.

Now, start looking over your groups of sticky notes. You can likely identify the groups with the formats that are listed above. Take a moment and identify what kind of format each group of notes would best lend itself to.

For example, you might have: nature walk, leaf collection, silent walking meditation, spend time with nature. These are all pointing to an activity, which seems to be a silent alone activity.

Now your team is faced with groups of sticky notes, all organized by similar activities. Make sense of what you think the similarity of the group of notes is. Give a name to the group of notes. Decide what format the activity will take. And, decide if the activity is something that is do-able given your team, the location of the retreat, and the length of your retreat. Set aside any activities that won’t work because of the theme, team member skills, time frame, season, or other logistics. Building snow men in July likely won’t work, just as the workshop on how to chop down a tree might not be relevant to a scrapbooking retreat in an urban location.

Once you’ve done this with each group, take a look back at your schedule. Where does each thing fit in? If you’ve got ideas for Ice Breakers, those should probably go first. Place each thing in order based on the amount of time it will take and the order that makes sense for your day or days.

Once you’ve reached this point, designate someone to be the keeper of your documentation. You guys have done a ton of great work today, so someone should take the sticky notes and write up the activities and flow, and send them to the team via email.

There’s probably also a list of activities that popped up that have some research or follow up required. Assign these items to a team member, and give them a time frame to complete their information gathering. You’ll want to have all the facts (can we find a butterfly expert to join us? Does Bob know a Yoga instructor that might teach a course for us?) nailed down before you meet next.

Up next: Finalizing your schedule

Still confused? Would you like some input on your retreat? Why not drop me a note? welcomingspirit [at] gmail [dot] com.

Check out the rest of this “Plan a Retreat” series:

How to Plan a Retreat: The Beginning
How to Plan a Retreat: Coming up with a Theme
How to Plan a Retreat: Putting Together a Timeline
How to Plan a Retreat: Making the Flyer
How to Plan a Retreat: Using Your Resources
How to Plan a Retreat: Marketing the Retreat

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