November 2009
Vestry Retreats

Build bonds of joy in a spirited retreat

It is truly unfortunate when a vestry gathers in retreat to address only the mundane business that confronts every parish. Our vestry of All Saints in Omaha, Nebraska, has learned instead to overtly invite God into our annual retreat — we call it our “Spirited Retreat” — so as to build both our personal relationships with God and our spiritual relationships with each other. This in turn allows us to better serve as vestry members and as lay ministers to our parish. The difference becomes reflected throughout our vibrant parish life.

Our experience is that it is not possible to develop these necessary relationships during a busy monthly business meeting. And so the first task is to escape the distractions of everyday life in order to craft our faith-filled visions for the future of our parish.

Two important criteria determine the success of a Spirited Retreat: the location of the retreat and the use of a retreat facilitator.

We utilize the overnight, dining and meeting facilities of a Christian-based campground amidst rolling hills overlooking the glorious Platte River Valley. The first order of business at our Spirited Retreat is to lead each participant to the awareness of God’s presence all around us, and the thirty mile drive from church provides a physical separation from home, work, and church that readily welcomes God into our midst. Our solemn surroundings set a spiritual tone from which it is easy to express our gratitude for our many blessings, and dream together to build a future with His direction. With all the necessary services provided, we may then focus entirely upon our spiritual growth, assisted by a retreat facilitator. Professional meeting planners will claim special qualifications for facilitating spiritual retreats, but we have found only one special qualification: that the retreat facilitator NOT be a member of the vestry or our parish clergy. There is no place in a successful spiritual retreat for rank or title. All participants are children of God, clergy included, and must participate on an equal basis, in full trust and vision, so that the future to which God calls us as a group may be completely embraced in love by all.

A desire to answer a special calling In selecting a retreat facilitator, do not ignore the special gifts of lay persons within your parish. Our best facilitator had no greater qualification than a passionate love for Jesus Christ, and a genuine desire to answer a very special calling.

The facilitator will direct the spiritual program, but often does not serve as its leader. Rather, it is up to the retreat facilitator to only facilitate such leadership. For example, our retreat includes fellowship through worship, the singing of hymns of praise, Bible study, prayer, and team building activities. The facilitator assigns leadership responsibilities for each activity, asks the questions that serve to initiate and stimulate discussion, and helps keep us on task and on schedule. 

Other important criteria include the length of the retreat — ours spans twenty-four hours — and the program objectives of the retreat which may be set through a prior discernment of the core values of your parish. Our initial Spirited Retreat helped us define the core values of our parish through the sharing of ideas and suggestions, and prioritized the items to be worked upon in the coming year.

Most important is the development of the bond of joy between participants whereby all might better work together to fulfill God’s calling. Recently when my father was hurried to the hospital with heart and kidney failure, it was a vestry meeting night. I shared our situation, and then there were prayers for not only for my father, but for my mother, sister, brother and myself. 

The doctors say that Dad has had miraculous improvement. Each of us has been richly blessed by inviting God into our lives. May your vestry find fulfillment in a Spirited Retreat.   

Donald D. Peeler has attended All Saints Episcopal Church in Omaha, Nebraska, for twenty-four years, and is presently serving in his second year as a vestry member there. Don and his wife, Melissa, were founding co-chairs of its Christian Outreach Mission Team in 2006. They remain active in its many mission initiatives, including a trip to Nicaragua this summer to serve deaf students and their families.

This article is part of the November 2009 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Retreats