The Gospels tell in several places of Jesus going off by himself to pray. Luke 5:16 tells that Jesus "would withdraw to deserted places for prayer." The footnote to this verse in the Common English Bible states, "This is his standard practice."
If Jesus, who is not only Lord and savior but also our model for ministry, could find time for rest, prayer, reflection and time apart, shouldn't his followers do the same?
That is why United Methodists are avid supporters of camping and retreat ministry. While the former may be more familiar to most – sending children and teens to church camp, the long-standing tradition of the camp meeting, so forth – retreat ministry may be something less familiar.
In The United Methodist Church, however, hundreds of thousands of people of all ages attend a retreat center every year, according to Jen Burch, administrator for the United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministry Association (UMCRM). Burch said there is no typical person or group that goes on a retreat, since every retreat setting is different.
Going apart to sacred places
"Generally, our retreatants spend time in Bible study, topical studies, shared meals, nature trails and outdoor meditation," she said. It is also common for people to spend time in corporate and individual prayer and singing, and conversations with others.
UMCRM sites host retreats in which the focus ranges from environmental programs and outdoor education to confirmation retreats and Walk to Emmaus and Chrysalis weekends. The centers work with churches of every size. They provide space to help groups organize mission trips, host religious study or choir retreats and serve hundreds of other purposes.
One of the "7 Foundations" of United Methodist camp/retreat ministry, Burch said, is to provide sacred places apart.
"We partner with health and respite organizations on events for people with disabilities and health challenges, including cardiac diseases, asthma, cancer and HIV/AIDS," Burch said. "We partner with community organizations that serve urban youth, people living in poverty, and children in foster care or with an incarcerated parent."
The goal of any retreat is to remove or "unplug" the person from the usual routine to allow time to focus on God, themselves, others and the relationships between the three.
"Biblically, the idea of going out in the desert to pray is certainly there," said Melinda Trotti, interim director at Rolling Ridge Retreat Center in North Andover, Massachusetts. "Part of the theology of retreat is that it's going out in the 'desert,' disconnecting from technology, having times of silence, taking time to focus on one's own spiritual journey."
Grow in mind, spirit
Burch agrees, noting that retreatants grow in mind and spirit by creating and experiencing emotional safety, intentional community and trust with their groups, staff and fellow participants. "They share three meals a day, including the experience of table grace and breaking bread together in a family/community setting," she said.
Clergy come to retreat centers for times of personal reflection and growth, Trotti said. Often over-worked and burned out from giving themselves to others, it's important for clergy to take care of themselves. Retreats help.
"A retreat center like Rolling Ridge offers them an opportunity to be silent, to eat good healthy food prepared by someone else, to walk the labyrinth, go for a kayak on the lake, read, write or take a nap," she said.
The Rev. Kevin Witt, director of Camping and Retreat Ministries for Discipleship Ministries for the last 20 years, said retreat ministry is growing and has been growing for some time throughout the denomination.
"We're serving a lot more adults," he said. "Many of our facilities have worked to upgrade to better serve retreat groups, including lodging that allows for privacy."
United Methodist camping and retreat ministries in the United states serve more than 1 million people a year, Witt said, but it can be hard to parse the numbers because not every camp is a retreat center and vice versa.
Witt said United Methodist retreat centers are a good option because "we understand the spiritual formation aspect of a retreat," he said. "Having persons who are trained and called to lead and provide retreat services, you'll get a setting that's developed in spiritual formation."
Retreat ministry not only serves existing church members, but it's also evangelistic, providing an open door for others who might not ever come to a church building, Witt added. "These are places that draw people in for congregational life," he said.
Benefit to pastor, church
The Rev. Tim Woycik, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Chesaning, Michigan, has gone on an annual prayer retreat every year since 1984. He asks his congregation and others to submit written prayer requests for him to pray over. He then sends a note afterward saying he prayed for their concerns.
"I have to make time for this," he said, "because I get out of it that sense of peace and quiet that I need to do what I do here."
Woycik says his prayer retreats help both him and his congregation.
"It helps me become a little more intimately aware of the needs of some of people," he said. "I tell them it's confidential. The only person who is going to see the request is me. I send people their prayer request form back, so they have the original. I do keep track of the requests, though."
The benefit for the church is that it helps everyone realize the significance of prayer, Woycik said. "I'll have people come to me later, saying, 'Remember that prayer request I sent you? Here's what's happened now.' I get to see what God has been doing in their lives. I've always found that it makes a significant difference for the church and for me."
Church groups also go on retreat, something the women at Arden United Methodist Church in Martinsburg, West Virginia, are going to do for the first time this January.
"There is something incredibly powerful about having time away," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Sarah Schlieckert. "You can form and grow deeper connections between people on a weekend retreat than you can in months, maybe years of other church events."
This will be the first time the Arden women have gone on a retreat, but after having started the practice at a previous appointment, Schlieckert knew how effective this time could be. She will lead this first retreat, but hopes to establish a committee to take over the planning and leading in the future.
"Sharing your stories and hearing the stories of others are such important practices for disciples, but are especially important in a growing congregation like ours," she said. "If we grow wide without also growing deep, we will lose who we are."
At Arden, Schlieckert said, they have many young families with parents who are feeling hurried and overwhelmed, but at the same time are looking for opportunities to connect for fellowship and support.
"We are blessed with a growing multi-generational congregation," she added, "so even though we recently started a moms' group, we wanted to have an opportunity to pull women of all ages together."
Trotti's experience is that women are more likely to go on retreat than men are.
"Women tend to be more comfortable in a setting with personal sharing," she said. "Men often connect around a project or activity. Retreats for men could, and often do, involve a particular activity, such as a work project or having time for attending or watching a sports event."
So why go on a retreat?
"For people to come away for a brief time," Trotti said, "with the intention of physical rest and spiritual renewal allows them to go back to their homes, churches and families with renewed energy and purpose."
The Rev. Erik Alsgaard is an elder and editor of Connection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.