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A Leader’s Guide to Online Retreats

Host a fun and meaningful online retreat
by Faith+Lead | March 4, 2021

By The Rev. Lauren Eanes

After a year of pandemic life, our church leadership board was ready to take a step back and do some big-picture visioning for the future. We knew we needed to get away from our day-to-day responsibilities and create space for new ideas to be considered. In the past, we’d held an annual retreat which allowed for this kind of time together. But how could we do that when it wasn’t safe for us to gather in person?

We decided to give an online retreat a try. I’m happy to report that it went well, and we all left the experience feeling energized and excited about our future. Here are some tips based on what worked well for us.

Before Your Retreat

Get Focused

A full day-long retreat is simply not a good idea when your format is online. Zoom fatigue is a real thing, so limit your time together to 3-4 hours. This means choosing a focus and sticking with it. Set a reasonable goal for what you want to accomplish in that time, and write a detailed agenda to help keep everyone on track. If you think you’ll need more time, split your retreat over two days (for example, a few hours on a Friday night and a few hours Saturday morning.)

Get Excited

Let’s face it, spending four hours on a Saturday in a Zoom meeting doesn’t sound particularly appealing, no matter how interesting the topic is. But there are ways you can help get folks excited and interested in the event ahead of time. Put together a Retreat Survival Kit that includes things like granola bars, a coffee drink, a notepad, colored pens, a small candle (to light during the retreat’s time of worship) and something fun to fidget with (such as Play-Doh, Silly Putty, or a handful of Legos.) Include a folder that contains an agenda and any pre-reading you’d like them to do. Mail or deliver them ahead of time to all participants. 

Get Prepared

Speaking of pre-reading, I believe this is imperative for a successful retreat. You want to use your retreat time to interact with one another, rather than simply convey information. Choose an article or a few chapters from a book that participants can talk about once they’re together. Or give them a compelling question to consider and be prepared to discuss. 

During Your Retreat

Build Energy

Start off with an icebreaker that will wake up people’s brains and help them get to know each other better. My favorite for Zoom is “Speed Friending.” You can use Zoom settings to automatically, randomly assign people in pairs to breakout rooms. Ask a question such as “What was the first movie you saw in a theater?” or “If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” Then send everyone to breakout rooms and give them 60 seconds to answer. Set the timer so they know how much time they’ve got—it goes by faster than you’d think! Bring them back and do it again with another question and a new partner. Keep it moving quickly, and after a handful of questions, you’ll bring people back to the large group much more ready to engage. 

Have a Scavenger Hunt

Use the fact that everyone’s in their home to your advantage! The most successful part of our retreat was when we gave the group two minutes to find something in their house that represented generosity to them. Everyone came back to their screens with interesting items: some had photos of grandchildren, others shared gifts that had been given to them, while still others brought a Bible or cross. We gave each person 2 minutes to talk about their item and why it represented generosity to them. Their off-the-cuff reflections were profoundly personal and thought-provoking and invited us more deeply into the theme of our retreat.

Use Breakout Rooms

If you’ve got more than a handful of participants, make frequent use of breakout rooms for conversation. This ensures everyone has a chance to speak. Pose a question and send everyone into small groups of 3-4 people for conversation for a set period of time. Then invite the small groups to report back to the large group. This process may feel like it takes more time than staying in one large group together, but it results in much greater overall engagement. 

Have Fun

Keep things lively with some unexpected fun activities. Zoom Bingo is a great way to keep a long meeting interesting. Create your own Bingo boards with squares like, “Screen freezes on unfortunate facial expression,” or “Cat walks across keyboard.” Personalize it with things you know your people in your group are likely to say or do, such as “Pastor Alex shares his screen” or “Julie makes a pun.” Include the Bingo sheet in the Retreat Survival kit and have an amusing prize ready for whomever gets a Bingo first!

You could also consider providing each participant with stickers in their Retreat Survival Kit. They can be the motivational stickers that teachers put on students’ papers, gold stars, or anything that’s a little bit silly. At the beginning of the retreat, instruct participants to award each other stickers throughout the event. I told the members of our leadership board, “Anytime someone says something that makes you stop and think, ‘Huh, that was a good thought,” then tell them they get a sticker, and they have to take one from their bag and put it on their shirt.” I’ll be honest—I wasn’t sure our group of adults would go along with this, but by the end of our council retreat, every single person was proudly displaying multiple stickers on their upper chests. It was a fun, concrete way to encourage participation and show appreciation for each other.

Take a Break

We scheduled a 10 minute break every hour, and it was needed. Everyone needs a chance to get away from the screen and refill their coffee cup. Productivity and enjoyment both decrease without these breaks. 

After Your Retreat

Get Feedback

Send an email to all participants asking what worked and what didn’t, so you can make your next retreat even better.

Follow Up

Don’t let the retreat be a one-time event that doesn’t carry over into the congregation’s life and ministry. If this was a board retreat for strategic planning, make sure that plan doesn’t get put on a shelf to die. If this was a women’s retreat to learn about prayer, invite the group back a month later for a half hour check-in and group prayer. Help participants take what happened during the retreat and put it into action.

The upshot of all this is: You don’t have to wait until it’s safe to be in person to take advantage of the benefits of a retreat. You can make it happen now!

About the Author
The Rev. Lauren Eanes serves as senior pastor of Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg, VA. The pandemic has helped her discover a newfound love of jigsaw puzzles and backyard fire pits with her husband and their four amazing children.

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