This article is adapted from Women's Retreats: A Creative Planning Guide, a book co-authored by Dr. Sue Edwards and Kelley Mathews (Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, MI, 2004) and available in the bible.org Store
Women’s ministries that transform lives plan periodic times away for women to be still, to draw closer to their Creator and to each other. We call these days away “retreats.”
A retreat will offer a place where women have an opportunity to share their lives with one another, in the manner of Paul when he told the Thessalonians, “we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves…” (1 Thess. 2:8). Yes, the gospel of Christ is shared—believing women have the chance to model, perhaps even discuss, their faith with visiting friends and non-believers who attend. And a retreat allows women to open their hearts to new friends, inviting them to enjoy a unique camaraderie.
1. The Truths of Scripture: however your retreat is organized, there should be solid teaching from the Word. A keynote speaker, workshops, small group discussions…any and all of these can teach scriptural principles and truths.
2. Worship: a good retreat will facilitate an atmosphere of worship, in song, prayer, meditation, and study.
3. Fun: Let the women relax! You can be highly organized without being overbearing and overscheduled. Give the women opportunities for free time as well as organized fun activities.
Before you initiate your retreat, know your purpose. It is often helpful to write out a purpose statement to keep you and your team focused during the planning stages.
Your retreat location should complement your purpose. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Something about being in God’s creation causes us to connect with God and consider eternal questions. The “natural” setting is the best place to “be still and know that [He is] God” (Ps. 46:10). Retreat centers, camp grounds, even farm houses or villas by a lake—they all take us into the country and away from bustling, stressful city life. We recommend holding your retreat in a “natural” setting if possible—and especially if most of the attendees are city dwellers. Of course, if most of your women live in the country, a retreat in a hotel setting surrounded by interesting shops might offer an exciting change of pace. Again, let your purpose drive your decision.
Consider these other elements that will affect your choice of location:
Where will you hold the main sessions? Does the retreat facility have a main room for your entire group to gather to hear the speaker, join in community worship, or hold a talent show?
How far will you have to travel? How difficult is the location to find? Many women don’t like to be too far from home. Can you find a location within an hour or two of your church? That’s the ideal.
How comfortable are the accommodations? Note the variety of women who will be attending your retreat. Can you offer such accommodations that different kinds of women can enjoy the experience? Work toward that ideal, and your retreat will encourage women from different ages and stages, personalities and temperaments, to participate and enrich each other’s lives.
Other questions might include: How’s the food? How much can women afford? How do I reserve a site?
We live in the southern United States and most churches in our region retreat in either the fall or spring—March through May and September through November. Other times are too cold or too hot, especially if you want to enjoy the outdoors. Consider your climate. What works in your region?
We recommend spending at least two nights away. We find that women really begin to unwind the second day. If you only stay one night, women never really unplug from life at home. Most retreats occur on weekends—usually beginning Friday night. We have observed that it is often Saturday night and Sunday morning when God works His will. It’s important to give Him time.
If your church is blessed with an organized women’s ministry led by a women’s minister or director, she will choose the retreat coordinator. In churches without a women’s ministry, God sometimes raises up a woman in the congregation with a passion to birth a women’s retreat. Often she has attended a retreat, seen the results, and wants this for her own community. If that is you, make an appointment with your senior pastor to ask for permission and support. Share your vision and place yourself under his authority. Ask him to make pulpit announcements and possibly arrange for a budget. Never short-circuit the important step of laying the proper foundation.
If you will be choosing a retreat coordinator, seek someone with these qualities:
What will the retreat team look like? The size of your women’s group will determine the size of your team. Not all teams will require every position we suggest below, and often one person can assume two responsibilities.
Program Coordinator: Find a creative, artistic woman for this role and unleash her. Be sure she has people skills to motivate her team and the discipline to work ahead. Her work is important in setting the mood of the retreat, making women comfortable and more open to God’s work in their lives.
Registrar: The registration coordinator is the first contact most women will have with the retreat and so should be a gracious woman. She handles the sign-ups, collects money and makes room assignments. Find a woman with administrative abilities and computer skills. If the retreat appears unorganized, women will not invest their time in attending. This position is key to the overall excellence a successful retreat requires.
Worship/Music Leader: A skilled, inspired worship leader is essential in preparing the hearts of the women to hear what God wants to say to them during the retreat.
Prayer coordinator: A prayer coordinator facilitates prayer for the leaders, speakers and participants.
Hospitality Coordinator: When women celebrate they want food! Your hospitality coordinator’s ministry may simply be to ask the women to bring their favorite snacks and arrange them in an attractive display, or she may prepare large amounts of food herself for either a meal or intermittent snacking. She may be gifted at soliciting donations. This is often a thankless job, so look for a woman with the gift of serving who enjoys staying behind the scenes.
Decoration Coordinator: The décor sets the scene throughout the facility and during the main sessions. These theme props can be as simple or elaborate as resources allow. Look for a woman who loves power tools or is a whiz with a sewing machine. This team member brings the theme alive, creating a tangible representation of the speaker’s ideas. Encourage her to recruit a team of handy-women who love to create, paint, sew, and saw. Then let them go and stand back.
Small Groups Coordinator: Connecting with new friends is a retreat highlight, and relationships are often birthed in small groups. The small groups coordinator recruits leaders and assigns women to groups. She may train the leaders if needed and work with the speaker to create good discussion questions that complement her messages.
Entertainment Coordinator: Find a woman who loves to encourage others to use their creative gifts and give her the resources to produce a show that is fun and not too competitive. You’ll be amazed at what you see and this portion of the retreat will become a tradition that draws women year after year.
Break-out Workshops Coordinator: Your church is full of women with gifts and talents they seldom have the opportunity to share. Break-out workshops on a variety of topics—from prayer to pastries, running to relationships—connect women in smaller sessions and give them a chance to learn a new skill or gain needed information. Often these sessions are optional on a Saturday afternoon for women who don’t want to go into town antiquing or play volleyball.
Design these workshops with the felt needs of the participants in mind. Your coordinator needs to scout quality speakers, plan ahead and possess good communication skills. She will need to oversee the logistics of each workshop, advertise it well, and provide for the audiovisual needs of the speakers. Break-out sessions are optional but add variety and are a draw as your retreat grows larger.
Speaker Hostess: Choose a hostess with gifts of hospitality and encouragement, maybe someone she already knows. Then challenge her to do everything she can to make the speaker feel included and special. The dividends will be evident in the lives of the women she ministers to all weekend and beyond.
Until you have established a retreat “tradition” at your church, your speaker is often what draws women to attend. She proclaims the Word of God. She is the model of what Jesus can do in women’s lives. In a sense, she is the Lord’s representative, speaking on His behalf to woo women into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and to build up those who already know Him. The speaker sets the tone of the retreat, making it an inspiring God-glorifying experience—or a let down. Choose your speaker carefully and prayerfully.
Is she grounded in God’s Word? To transform lives, choose a Bible teacher. Be sure she teaches messages based on the Scriptures and sound doctrine. You may want her to affirm your church’s doctrinal statement to ensure her beliefs are similar to those of your church. Often friends or women in your church will recommend speakers they hear. Keep a record of these names to draw from when you are ready to begin the selection process.
The theme is the hook that draws women, enticing them to set aside several days out of their busy lives. Take time to create a theme that will woo non-believers as well as women in the church. Enlist wordsmiths to help you. Make it fun, possibly with a double meaning or underlying spiritual message.
If only money were not an issue in ministry! But since that will never happen, you’ll need a plan to manage your budget for the retreat. As with any financial issue, your main questions to answer are: What are the expenses, and how will they be paid for? Based on your budget, or lack thereof, you must first determine a price to charge each attendee.
What about a worship team? If there are singers or instrumentalists in your church who love to worship, use them!! Building a gifted and well-prepared team increases the depth of the musical and spiritual capacity of worship. Look for women who have:
1. Heart for worship—This is not a performance and there are no “stars!” God is the focus, not the musicians.
2. Musical talent
3. Willingness to attend rehearsals and learn new music
Women of all generations love fellowship. God created women to be relational as a reflection of His triune character. Women should never be ashamed of enjoying relationships. Building relationships—first with Jesus and then with each other—is second only to centering on Scripture. Small groups are the means to relationship and thus transformation.
Therefore you are wise to invest prayer, time, and resources into building your small groups. It is a key priority. The best small groups are mixed in age, spiritual maturity, and life-stage experiences. Because of the biblical mandate in Titus 2, God desires that we put women of different ages together. If we teach the younger women to take the initiative, natural Titus 2 mentoring friendships emerge out of the mixed small group. In addition, it is healthy for women to come in contact with all kinds of women.
Many of your tasks will need to begin six months in advance of your retreat. Recruiting your speaker may need to happen even sooner, up to two years in advance in some cases. But establish your lead teams, coordinators, and publicity procedures early, so there is sufficient time to plan, work, build, spread the word, etc.
We have given you an overview of crucial steps to making your women’s retreat life-changing. Our book Women’s Retreats: A Creative Planning Guide—from which this information was gleaned—has much more detail. We give more insight into how to choose a retreat speaker and worship leader, how to create an ethos that transforms lives. We give detailed timelines for tracking your team’s progression. We also illustrate an array of themes that have successfully worked at a large church, with suggestions on how to adapt to medium and small church settings, including a step-by-step guide to producing the decorations, topics, groups, foods, specialty items, etc.