One of the biggest challenges of getting guys to buy into a men's retreat is their fear (not unfounded) that it will be too churchy—and too cheesy.
"We're Not Going to Sing Kumbaya All Weekend, Are We?"
One of my goals for the congregations I've served has been to encourage younger men to become more involved in the life of the church and to nurture their unique spirituality. To that end, I've offered an annual Men's Retreat as a way to build relationships, invite them into Sabbath rest, and help them reflect on their faith and discover or rediscover God in their lives.
One of the biggest challenges of getting guys to buy into a men's retreat is their fear (not unfounded) that it will be too churchy and too cheesy. As one guy asked me before our first retreat, "We're not just going to sit around and sing Kumbaya all weekend, are we?" I told him absolutely not. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, you know, if Kumbaya is your jam.)
I've been doing these retreats for about 10 years now, and I think we have hit it the sweet spot between activities, adventuring, relationship building, and growing in faith. It has been a blessing—and in some obvious and other more subtle ways—truly transformational for the guys who attend and the churches to which they belong.
All of our retreats have been held at camps with outdoor adventure activities. For the last six years, we have gathered at Bear Creek Camp in the Pocono Mountains. Although it is a church camp, it isn't too churchy, and the idea of being at a camp mitigates some of the fear that the whole experience will be one long church service or Bible study.
The weekend is structured around outdoor camp activities. On Friday night, we have a big bonfire to welcome people as they arrive. On Saturday morning we have teambuilding activities, which might be some combination of a volunteer project, Low Ropes, archery, rock wall climbing, and lawn games. On Saturday afternoon we do a High Ropes course. And we top it off Saturday night with a Texas Hold 'Em Poker tournament. All of these provide good opportunities for relationship building. On Sunday morning, following worship, we head out for a hike up a small "mountain" and have lunch on top. Here's a full look at the weekend schedule:
9:00 PM Gathering Time around the Campfire
(Retreat Theme Introduction, Evening Devotions, Get to Know Each Other, Assign Prayer Partners)
7:45 AM Mindfulness Practice (optional)
8:00 AM Breakfast
8:45 AM Morning Devotions
9:30-11:30 AM Team Building: Climbing Wall and Camp Work Project, Lawn Games
12:00 PM Lunch
1:00-4:00 PM High Ropes Course, Leap of Faith, and Zip Line
4:00-5:30 PM Free Time
5:30 PM Dinner
6:30 PM Evening Devotions
7:30 PM Fellowship Time by the Fireplace, including Poker Tournament
7:45 AM Mindfulness Practice (optional)
8:00 AM Breakfast
8:30 AM Worship
10:00 AM - 1:00 PM Hike to Bald Mountain, Lunch at the top
1:00 PM Cleanup
1:30 PM Depart for Home
The Churchy Stuff
Within the container of this format, we invite the guys to reflect on a theme, which runs throughout our devotional times and into Sunday morning worship. In recent years we've added a mindfulness practice before breakfast, which has been surprisingly well received. (We just play a reflection from the Headspace app through a Bluetooth speaker.) On Friday night we assign secret prayer partners. You get to know and pray for the person throughout the weekend, and reveal his name at Sunday worship. During that sharing time, each guy says something about the experience of getting to know his prayer partner and how he is and will be praying for him. It is not uncommon for some tears to be shed. (I'm Not Crying. You're Crying.)
A few of our most effective themes over the years have been:
- An Altar in the World
We used the wonderful book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor, as a jumping off point for exploring a few of the twelve spiritual practices outlined in the book. For example, on Friday night we reflected on "The Practice of Saying 'No'" and what we had to say "No" to in order to come on the retreat. The sharing about stepping out of our everyday responsibilities was a powerful way of entering into the Sabbath of the retreat. We also reflected together on our retreat experience and where we would place an altar to symbolize where we felt close to God, using small rocks and a map of the camp to literally place an altar somewhere and then explain why. Following on, we discussed where we'd place an altar in our everyday lives.
- Band of Brothers
Inspired by the popular book and mini-series Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, we reflected on our relationships as sons, brothers, uncles, fathers, grandfathers, friends, and brothers in Christ. Band of Brothers was already well known and didn't require much in the way of explanation. It was a galvanizing theme for us. Many of the guys referred to us as the band of brothers for some months afterward. I read excerpts from that book as well as James Carroll's book about the complicated relationships between fathers and sons, American Requiem.
- Strength in Numbers
More recently, we explored the theme "Strength in Numbers," and reflected together on what it means to be strong as a man. Oftentimes, as men, we think (or have been told) that strength means going it alone, bearing the demands of family life, our jobs, and other responsibilities on our own. We think being strong means being distant or set apart. This can lead to some serious toxic masculinity. However, true strength comes through community, vulnerability, sharing the joys, challenges, questions, doubts, and hopes with friends and brothers in Christ. There are countless stories from the Bible about this. Just pick a man, any man from the Bible, and there you go. This may be a theme that you need to build up to once guys are comfortable with the setting and trust each other to be open and vulnerable.
Results and Ripple Effects
We have seen some great results and ripple effects from this commitment to hosting an annual men's retreat.
- One of the inadvertent results of the Men's Retreat is that our church now has a bunch of kids that go to Bear Creek Camp for summer camp each year. Bringing these dads to the camp and having them meet the staff was a great way to introduce families to the idea of summer camp. This has been wonderful for our kids, families, and our overall Christian Formation program at church.
- The relationships between our younger men at church is much stronger. You can see how guys gravitate toward one another on Sunday mornings. They have shared experience and inside jokes, and they have shared deeply of themselves with one another. You can feel the comfort and trust they have around each other. We occasionally have "reunion nights" where we get together to renew those retreat connections.
- Many of the guys who come to the Men's Retreat are already very involved in our church. For them, the retreat is just a time to be and receive. For guys who are less involved or newer to the church, it is an opportunity to make more connections and friendships that will keep them connected and involved over the years.
- Finally, male spirituality can be a tough code to crack. With the help of these guys and their willingness to participate in these retreats, our congregation and I as the pastor have learned a lot about how we can support men in their spiritual lives in good, life-giving, and healthy ways.
Keith Anderson is the pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania and the Associate for Digital Content for Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary.