Self Care for a New School Year
One of the first classes I took in seminary was taught by a modern day monastic. As I read about my upcoming assignments, the prof’s syllabus taunted me. “A solitude retreat?” I shouted to my husband. “Is this guy serious??” I had classes, a busy ministry and preschoolers at home. The idea of an entire day spent in on my own, conversing with God seemed as likely as one spent shoe shopping with a unicorn while drinking rainbow frappuccinos.
But the mad professor would not be convinced that I had more important things to do, and so that semester I did not one, but three solitude retreats. It was hard. And sometimes a little ugly- like the entire day I spent in my basement because I had no time in the day to travel. I may have even dozed off once or twice. But during those retreats- and those I’ve taken by my own choice since- I reignited my friendship with God and always came away with a sense of fresh vision and energy for ministry.
Modern contemplative Henri Nouwen explains that discipline in our spiritual journey is a little different than one might expect. He writes,
“Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.”
If you’re in ministry, then you’ve probably had a busy summer. You’re poised and ready to ramp up for fall and it may seem like your personal time with God is less important than the needs of everyone around you. For those of us with a call to serve, discipline is not about stretching ourselves further, but about intentionally staying connected to the source of our strength. Whether you can free up a day or even just a few hours, a spiritual retreat will help refresh, refocus, and renew you for the year ahead.
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Here are some steps to help you create your own (and no unicorns needed).
Choose your solitude space
No matter how inviting your sofa is, home may not be the best place to find focus. A retreat is a great opportunity to get creative. Camp out in your church sanctuary on a Monday morning– or ask the church down the street which looks inviting on the outside but you’ve never been inside. If you’re an outdoor person, I bet there’s a place you’ve been dying to and explore but you just never find the time. Borrow a canoe, or visit your favorite beach spot on a week day. And if you’re pressed for time, a quiet corner in your favorite coffee shop would do—just choose one which isn’t your local ministry hangout. Solitude is not so much an absence of people as it is the presence of God and the reawakening of your senses to experience Him.
Plan for focus
At this point, I’m going to interrupt us with a brief public service announcement: Your retreat is not the time to plan your fall teaching series. Or your activities schedule, or even your family meals for the next month. Remember what Nouwen said? Your retreat is a time for you to put God back in charge, and have the freedom to respond.
With that being said, let’s face it: our attention spans are short, and we’ve got a lot on our plate. So it’s best to go in with an aim, a question and a plan. Think about what you are hoping will happen during this time: Is it to delve back into scripture? Intercede for things which have been weighing on you? Maybe it’s just to renew your walk with Christ which has been neglected in your busyness. Knowing why you’re in this will help you choose how you use your time.
Once you have a clear aim for this time, think about what you’re hoping to hear as you spend time with God. The Psalmist gives us a great model for contemplation in Psalm 27, in which he declares,
“One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (v.4).
Most of our biblical role models come before God with both adoration and an inquiry, and we can learn from their example. God’s answer is not always what one expects, but seeking His advice is always welcomed as an approach.
The plan which comes most naturally for me is to follow my own church’s structure for worship services. I begin my retreats with worship, then spend time in prayer for things which are on my heart. Next, I meditate on the Word (choose a good chunk—but this is not the time to catch up on all the days you’ve missed on your reading plan. Expect to Spirit to interrupt from time to time!), and finally I process and respond to what I feel God has been saying.
How you plan your time is up to you- as are the ways in which you practice worship, prayer and scripture meditation during the experience. Sometimes I try a different spiritual practice when I take a retreat. I like to think of it as a little like Pilates: introducing a small imbalance (trying something new) helps to build my spiritual core strength and learn more about what I’m capable of. However, too much imbalance never ends well— resist the temptation to put the practice before its purpose. Choose a balance of familiar and/or creative that will best empower you to engage with what God is saying to you during that time.
Finally, because I know how easily my mind wanders down rabbit holes (seriously. It’s embarrassing.), I actually schedule an hour or two for each of these elements in my retreat day so that I don’t get too far off track in my mental meanderings. It’s not a solid tour schedule, but more like check-in points which bring me back to focus.
With time, place, and plan determined, you’re ready to be on your way. Battle distraction with preparation: bring your Bible, notebook and pen, weather-appropriate gear and snacks. Even more, be prepared for God to show up for some conversation! (And if you’re like me, try not to do all the talking).
Towards the end of your retreat, make time to journal about your experience. What were the biggest challenges for you on this retreat? What was surprisingly comfortable? How did God respond to your question? What messages will you take back with you as you re-enter your daily routine? And most importantly, what day and time are you free to meet with God again?
May you be energized, inspired, and surprised as you spend time with God, the source of all our energy and inspiration. And let me know how it goes in the comments below!
Rachel Dodd is Director of Youth Discipleship for Kent UMC in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and an MDiv student at Fuller Theological Seminary. She and her husband Carl have been serving churches students and families in England and US for over 15 years, and have two daughters who keep life full of sparkles, adventure, and coffee.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.