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Pastors, Going to a Conference Is Not the Same Thing as Going on a Retreat

Pastors go to conferences and workshops to get information they can use.

They go on personal retreats so that God can use them.

Conferences give information about the way things should be or can be in a church.

Personal retreats are where God opens your eyes to the way things really are in a church—good and bad.

Conferences can give structure and shape to your vision.

Personal retreats are where you get visions, and where God nourishes them.

Conferences give you things to think about.

Retreats are times to evaluate what you’re thinking, and maybe whether you should be thinking about these things at all.

Conferences offer information.

Retreats offer private time with God, a by-product of which is discernment about the information obtained elsewhere.

And one more thing:

Conferences and workshops are easy to justify because they’re quantifiable. You can show your church leadership the conference handouts (or even a binder full of them), tell them what you’ve learned, and tell them why they should do what you learned. They will be impressed, even if they have no interest in doing what you learned. (By the way, how often has that happened? How often have you gone off to a conference to hear big-name “experts” and “consultants,” and then returned to your church to find that no one has any interest in these new-fangled ideas?)

Personal retreats are harder to justify. You don’t come back to your church with binders full of new things to do. You usually don’t have a neat “action plan” for the elders or deacons, and usually no new program(s) to implement. Instead, you’ve just “wasted” a few days spending time with the Lord, and letting Him spend time with you, and instead of coming back with a program of things to do, you may well come back with the sense that your church already has too many programs and that what’s needed are fewer programs and more “wasted” time with God for everybody! To the uninitiated (i.e., many church leadership boards), a retreat can look suspiciously like you’re being lazy.

There’s nothing wrong with conferences and workshops, of course. It’s just that pastors too often confuse them with personal retreats, and it’s important not to confuse the two. Getting information or improving one’s skills by going to a conference is a good thing to do. Going off to spend time alone with God is even better thing to do, though, because that is the context where we hear from God about what He thinks we need to know and about what skills matter to Him. God can meet us anywhere, but that meeting can be a lot easier when we set aside time specifically for that purpose.

So what is a personal retreat? A retreat is where pastors (or any Christian) can cut loose from normal life; can cut loose from the roles which their congregations use to define them and by which they define themselves; where they can cut loose from their daily “doing” and get away alone to be with God, who alone is the anchor and source of one’s identity. It’s where they can cut loose from laptops, smart phones, dumb phones, Tablets and i-Pads and spend some time off the Grid. This is particularly important. How often does “being connected” feel like being part of the “hive mind” of Star Trek’s Borg Collective? A personal retreat is the deliberate choice to go away to a quiet place to spend time alone with God as a friend with no electronic static.

This time away certainly will entail prayer, Bible study and other reading, but it will also include meditating on what you’re reading and not just reading it. It will include walks or other forms of exercise. It should, I think, include time enjoying and appreciating God’s creation. It is a time of listening for God’s quiet voice, speaking in Scripture or in the depths of one’s own heart. It is a time to enter God’s Sabbath rest. Which also means it may well be a time to sleep.

One of God’s great gifts for a pastor on a retreat is perspective. By getting away from normal activities, by getting away from the people who surround you daily both as physical and virtual presences, by getting away from the many daily demands these dear people make on your time and attention, you are blessed with perspective—you begin to see yourself, your ministry, and other people as God sees them. You begin to see how these people all fit together in God’s economy and what God is doing in their lives. Just as importantly, you begin to see what God is doing in your own life.

A great danger for pastors is to preach sermons about things of which they have no experience. One writer referred to this as sending people postcards from places they’ve never been. Personal retreats insure that preachers send postcards from places they’ve actually been to! They help insure that what we preach is what we live. Retreats are where pastors’ lives are nourished, so that when they speak of the “abundant life” Jesus promised, their hearers will experience that live in them without having to be told about it. They are a tool God uses to transform pastors so that their whole life becomes a winsome evangelistic sermon to the world.

The issue here is one of priorities. God wants us to learn and grow, so keep on going to conferences and workshops! However, more than that, he wants us to spend quality time with Him so that our lives and ministries are the overflow of that relationship. In other words, God wants our relationship with Him to grow, not just our skills or knowledge.

It matters that pastors know the difference between a conference and a retreat. The two do two different things. Both are important, but one, I think, is the better of the two. Pastors who attend conferences and mistake them for retreats, can quickly become overly busy, adrenalin-fueled, knowledge-driven, burned-out “Martha’s” who “are worried and upset about many things.” Jesus’ words about her sister, Mary, suggest the priority of retreats—of getting away, being still, and listening to the voice of Christ: “Only one thing is needed, “ Jesus said to Martha. Mary “has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42, NIV). In the final analysis, only one thing truly is needed, and that’s God, up close and personal.

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