‘Reboot’ Your Vestry
Come Away and Rest Awhile
Contemplative Retreats for Vestries
In a line I’ve always loved from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus invites his disciples, “Come away to a lonely place and rest awhile” (6:31). They’ve been teaching and healing on the road for days and are no doubt exhausted by the demands of the crowds. Jesus knows that what the disciples need, as a group, is to step away together. They need to “regroup” and refresh themselves once more with prayer.
There’s something incredibly powerful about this act of withdrawing from ordinary activities – even if they’re the ordinary activities of a monastic community, a vestry, or a parish – which can help to refocus us in a specific, intentional way. Our annual community retreat is so important to my Brothers in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, that our Rule prescribes it as a necessity of our shared life: “The community shall have one week of retreat together every year under the direction of a retreat leader. The experience of shared silence and prayer deepens our solidarity in the Spirit and unites us in a common response to the living word.” People are sometimes surprised that monks who live and pray together every day still need to step away for a further, intentional time of communal prayer. And yet we do. For as our Rule explains, “Whenever we enter retreat we seek to be more available to God so that we may enter more fully into the divine life.” This is essential for every community of faith.
When deciding to “come away” for a time of retreat together, a community is faced with two possible models, which can be complementary or competing, depending on the circumstances. I suspect most vestries are well versed in practical retreats, during which they focus on planning and processing the future. But what about contemplative retreats, in which the vestry comes together to pray in silence? This latter model, the formational retreat, is actually in my view the more crucial of the two, because in that experience we rediscover who we are and whose we are. If we forget who we are and whose we are, then a planning retreat – where we debate flow charts, budgets, and upcoming offerings – might only cause us to lose focus further, getting lost in the minutiae. It does us little good to answer, “What are we going to do?” if we don’t share a very clear, collective understanding of why we’re doing it. That deeper sense of purpose – who we are and whose we are – can only come through prayer.
We Brothers have welcomed a number of vestries to the monastery for corporate times of retreat. It is always moving to watch these groups ease together into the silence. We’ve also been honored to hear, after the fact, how meaningful these retreats have proven for them. One rector and a friend of the community, The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, shared with us his reflections on his vestry’s experiences:
"Taking contemplative retreats together was part of a broader process of transforming our vestry leadership away from crunching numbers, going over the budget, and micromanaging administrative details, into becoming a body of deeply formed and faithful Christian leaders. We really turned the corner as a group when we began to view our collective formation, our spiritual growth, and our prayer as of equal importance to us, as a body, as the tasks we needed to accomplish. Over the course of six years – with yearly retreats to the SSJE monastery being the culmination of this time –our intentionality around cultivating a deeper spiritual life had a great effect on our conflict management: on the way that we spoke with and to one another, and especially on our handling of disagreement. Our decision-making becomes more exciting and hopeful, less anxious. I perceived that the group became more able to hold things with the proper sense of perspective. People looked forward to our meetings and didn’t resent them taking several hours. Above all, our attentiveness to one another was much greater.
"I have no doubt that this transformation grew out of our shared experiences of silence and prayer. It’s just as the Brothers and those who observe a quieter life say: we too often fill our day-to-day interactions with mindless talking. When we stop the chitchat and superficial conversation, when we’re with another person or a group of people in silence, we can pay more attention to them, rather than less. When we then come back together and talk, our words are more carefully chosen. The things we do choose to talk about have greater depth.
"What began for our vestry as a sacrifice, a leap of faith away from the planning retreats we’d taken as a group before, ultimately proved to be no sacrifice at all, because it was so richly rewarding to us as individuals and a group.
"Individuals who come on retreat at our monastery often remark that they were surprised at the sense of community that developed among the retreatants even though they were in silence together. For instance, we had a guest here recently who was on crutches. At every meal, one of the other guests helped her get a plate together and carried it to the table for her. It was very moving to watch this happen. These people didn’t know each other and yet, over the course of the week, relationships were built in complete silence, simply because people were paying attention. This happens even more powerfully in groups of people whose lives are already connected."
Individuals who come on retreat at our monastery often remark that they were surprised at the sense of community that developed among the retreatants even though they were in silence together. For instance, we had a guest here recently who was on crutches. At every meal, one of the other guests helped her get a plate together and carried it to the table for her. It was very moving to watch this happen. These people didn’t know each other and yet, over the course of the week, relationships were built in complete silence, simply because people were paying attention. This happens even more powerfully in groups of people whose lives are already connected.
Like the disciples, Jesus invites us, “Come away to a lonely place and rest awhile.” Jesus invites us into the silence, where we can really pay attention to one another and to God.
* Start small. Casey Shobe advises: “I began by introducing times of formation and prayer into our vestry meetings writ large. So the pattern of blending work and the administrative responsibilities of our vestry with the collective cultivation of stronger spiritual lives was already familiar to us. The retreat became an extension of this formational work we’d already been doing in our meetings, which made it more likely to succeed when we tried it for an extended period of time.”
* Seek help. Rather than trying to transform your meeting room into a sacred space, or having to “program” your prayer time from scratch, let an established retreat center or prayer community provide the context and content for your retreat.
Once again Casey offers an instructive example from his experience: “The first few years, we took an overnight retreat at a camp in Rhode Island, where we blended relationship building and strategic visioning with praying together. Those initial years were very hard work for the leadership staff, because not only did we need to do all the preparation of the informational components, we also had to cultivate the active prayer life of our group for over thirty-six hours. After doing that for two years, we realized that the prayer component was much more rewarding and that we were willing to jettison the flow charts. It was only once we had made the shift away from administration that I had the epiphany: we did not need to create the prayer component on our own. I realized that we could go and be immersed in an existing community of prayer – although it would mean completely giving up the strategic components of the retreat. And while the vestry was a little hesitant, we took the plunge. Ultimately, we learned that seeking a purely contemplative experience together, within an established community of prayer, was less work and bore much greater fruit.”
Br. James Koester, SSJE, was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada. After serving parishes in British Columbia, he came to the United States in 1989 to test his vocation with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Currently he serves as the Deputy Superior of the community.
R. Casey Shobe grew up in Temple, Texas. His theological training occurred at Virginia Theological Seminary (Master of Divinity), and he is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry from the School of Theology at Sewanee. He is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, Texas.
- “A Resource for Vestry Retreats” by Nancy Davidge, ECF Vital Practices’ Vital Post
- “Bootstrap Your Vestry Retreat” by Loren Mead, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers
- “Build Bonds of Joy in a Spirited Retreat” by Donald Peeler, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers
- “Making the Most of Your Vestry Retreat” An ECF webinar with Nathan Kirkpatrick, Alban at Duke Divinity School
- “Value One Another (Vestry Retreat)” by Linda Buskirk, ECF Vital Practices’ Vital Post
- “Vital Practices Digest: 5 Resources for Vestry Retreats” by Brendon Hunter, ECF Vital Practices’ Vital Post