One fledgling new church gathered for an overnight, all church retreat. It was located at a retreat center not far from their temporary worship location in the city, and about half of their average Sunday worship were in attendance. Attendees of all ages reported they had a great time. One person reported "we truly became a close family during our time together." Sounds great doesn't it, until one takes a closer look at the long term consequences.....
1- In order to have an overnight, weekend retreat for committed insiders, periphery worship attendees were shut out. Sure they were invited, even encouraged to come, but people on the edges were not yet ready for such a deeply personal, high trust experience with strangers.
2- Building a "close family" out of these attendees continues an "insider-outsider" dynamic within the body. Again, everyone was invited and encouraged to attend; there was no intent to exclude anyone. The end result, however, is a growing familiarity with one core group. Those who did not attend the retreat have one more year of over-hearing insider stories and jokes which makes welcoming the stranger even more difficult. "Close family" bonding works for small groups but is a detriment for all-church events. "Close family" feelings are often the beginning of cliques and the enemy of inclusiveness.
3- Worship was canceled for the Sunday of the retreat. Sure, there was worship on site at the retreat and in the beautiful outdoor setting, God's creative handiwork took center stage but worship was canceled at their regular location. Sunday by Sunday momentum was interrupted, and if any first time visitors showed up for worship, they were greeted by locked doors and a simple announcement that the congregation was on retreat.
All church overnight retreats are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing. They can be very helpful for leadership building, problem solving, and looking strategically or longterm at many issues. When you plan one:
1- Do NOT assume a congregation wide event can experience and sustain small group intimacy. Small groups are the place for that. If you don't have small groups, or enough small groups, build new small groups during the retreat, which would continue when you get home.
2- Strengthen existing small groups at the retreat, clarifying their unique role.
3- Be cautious about holding any retreat over Sunday morning since it breaks the desired, hoped for habit of persons in worship attendance each week. Also, it is impossible to know what new, first time visitors you miss out on when you leave your site empty. There's a reason we don't cancel worship.
4- If an all church retreat MUST take place over a Sunday morning, have selected church leaders (and preferably the pastor) hang back in your normal Sunday morning worship location to lead a worship service for visitors and those who choose not to attend the retreat. Make worship special in BOTH locations.
5- Think strategically about what kind of events are best to:
a. build your existing leadership team b. train new and existing leaders
c. do vision and problem solving work d. build and strengthen small groups
e. build the corporate body