You're Invited to a Retreat!
Years ago I was a part of a group that gathered weekly to discuss WNYC’s Radio Lab podcast episodes. In that group we hashed out the morality of pre-viable births and driverless cars, the science of eyeballs and bat guano, and the mystery of chromosomes and pharmaceuticals. It was, without question, one of the best small groups I’ve ever been a part of and we all had a hard time not talking about it in conversation with others. The more people we spoke to about it, the more people wanted to join (including my future husband—before I knew him of course). But the group had decided that much of the value we found in the discussions would be lost if we added more people to the room. Ten was the decisive number.
I struggled with this at the time. I try to be an inclusive person, but I’m also someone who struggles to say “No” to people without feeling guilty. To see a good desire for inclusion in someone and to not invite them felt smarmy to me. But to not be able to talk about a good and life-giving thing also felt smarmy. It was a clear case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Last night I arrived home from five days in a lakeside cabin with a few writer friends. It was, without question, one of the best things I have ever done vocationally and one of the most life-giving times I’ve had in a long time. We ate simple food, hung out in our sweats and yoga pants, took naps, kayaked a bit, drank hot beverages and wine, and had four full days of meaningful and purposeful engagement with one another about our vocations, bodies, spirits, and minds.
One of the things we talked about is how do we talk about this time together? We were faced with the choice: either be silent about the goodness of this time or talk about it, risking the envy or longing of those who weren’t included or who don’t have the same kind of thing in their life. Ultimately, I’ve decided to talk about it. But I am not going to share much of what we discussed or what was done in us or through us. That, in a very real sense, is holy and sacred work, and not for public consumption or opinion.
However, the best part of taking these online relationships into offline intimacy is that is replicable in your life too. While adding more people to our small and intimate gathering would negate the intimacy of it, it doesn’t mean that others cannot engage a group of three or four in the same exercises and reap similar goodness.
The value of taking online relationships offline for a time, confessing, encouraging, comforting, and building up one another cannot be overstated. All of us couldn’t stop talking about how very good it was to be able to dialogue about the things we wrestle with in online spaces with vulnerability and accountability.
In the spirit of sharing, then, I just wanted to share what we did in hopes that you can steal this idea and do it in your own life.
First, start with finding two or three others in your similar age bracket. I am all for inter-generational relationships, but the value of gathering with a few who have lived a similar amount of years in the world as you is that you see the world similarly. There is value to gathering with those who see things differently, but we’re aiming for intimacy and a space for vulnerability here, which means you want as few roadblocks to that as possible. You’re not looking for people who are the same as you, but people who are similar to you.
Next, say to the one you feel the closest to, “I feel the need for some intentional gatherings to talk about our vocations as XYZ, but also to come as whole people with whole experiences. How do you feel about joining me in that?” If they are excited about that, mention the two other folks you’d like to include, while keeping your hands open if they suggest a different person, or if they don’t feel completely at home with one of those people. The aim here is deep vulnerability, not networking or hob-knobbing. This isn’t an Instagram photo-shoot or a group for one’s resume. This is a group in which all of you will feel comfortable going deep with without much self-censoring.
When you have settled on your group (again, keep it under four—intimacy is the goal), make a group text and begin to plan your where and how. Stay flexible. (If it helps, know that this is the third group I’ve been hoping for this kind of momentum forward and the first one to actually have it.) We planned our first week at an old farmhouse in January and ended up canceling the day of because of some COVID stuff. It meant losing our deposit on the AirBnB and the flights that were booked. We were all sad, but we rallied and put another date on the calendar as soon as possible. Four months later was the soonest we could all gather, and sadly, one still had to back out at the last minute.
Find a place to gather where you’re not going to be distracted by nightlife or tourism or noise. A pathway to intimacy is a quiet heart and mind, so you want a place that can cultivate that.
Make a plan for your time together. Don’t wing it. It can be tempting to wing it because you want to stay flexible, but you’re going to have limited time together and a lot of free space can end up leading to unfruitful conversations. We made a shopping list of easy meals (lots of snack plates, toast, and salads), we made a schedule for every day together, and we stuck to it all. This was our schedule. Feel free to steal it.
8am: breakfast as we woke, and then personal and morning prayers (adapted from BCP) together
9am: Physical, Spiritual, or Mental check in. We structured it with a timer. So on day one, physical check-in, it looked like this. A timer for 15 minutes was set and one person began to talk about their body, how it was feeling, how they were feeling settled or not, what was hurting or healing, etc.. When the timer went off, they finished, and the timer was set for five minutes of silence. When that timer went off, it was set again for 15 minutes, during which the other two people directed all of their attention toward the first person again, asking them questions, clarifying things, helping them go deeper. After the timer went off, we would both pray for the first person, and then we would begin the process all over again for the next person. While the timer might feel constrictive to some, it is necessary to help build trust among the group. If no timer is used, someone will invariably talk much longer than someone else, and stories will begin to be swapped, and the whole point of active listening is derailed. The timer never felt intrusive to us, it felt like a safe boundary line, knowing it would be honored.
11am: Break for bathrooms, refills, stretching, dressing, etc.
1pm: Lunch (we all just grazed) and then free time. We’d catch up with our families, get some work done, go kayaking, taking a walk or nap, talk more, or whatever.
5pm: Dinner prep and dinner.
7pm: Another round of processing, this time one evening for each person. That person could bring whatever they wanted to talk about for the evening and all our attention was on them for then next few hours. Each of us chose to talk about vocational work, but this could be different for you. We talked about big decisions we needed to make, future projects we’re thinking about or working on, struggles we’re facing in our current work, etc.. Each of us made a short list of what we wanted to process knowing it was a judgement and envy free zone. We talked money, social media, integrity, difficulties, etc.. All of our attention was directed toward whoever’s night it was. It wasn’t a time for swapping stories or comparing our own lives to theirs, we asked clarifying questions, issued challenges, spoke life where death had reigned, built up where doubt had made a home, and affirmed one another in their particular calling in life. There were no whiteboards or planners, this was spiritual work, more than physical work. Big and beautiful things happened in this space.
10pm: This wasn’t intentional, but each night the conversation rolled around to some more potent topics. We talked about how to talk about gender and sexuality, we talked about the social media practices of people we admire and the social media practices of people we struggle with, and articulated our own sins of idolatry or judgmentalism. We spoke about how to navigate talking about retreats like these online when it can often feel like a who’s in or who’s out club. We talked about perimenopause and sex. No topic was off-limits. And then we went to bed far too late for a bunch of mid-life women…
You can steal this schedule or make your own, but I do recommend plenty of space for each person to be able to talk without interruption and space for each person to be asked deep questions without moving the conversation too quickly to “Your story reminds me of this story of mine…” which can really derail attention. Intentionality is key.
Commit in your heart to praying for and with one another. Bathe the whole time together in prayer.
Commit in your heart to not gossiping. Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth. This isn’t a space for griping about the church or your family or your work. It’s a space to spur one another on to love and good works.
Commit in your heart to holding the words said and work done in you. It is not for public consumption. God could very well move in a profound and deep way in this time (as he did in ours), but it is each person’s own story to share in their own time. Trust is deeply important in order to make this work.
Commit in your heart to showing up as your full self. Forego makeup, don’t curate your outfits for photo-shoots, don’t pretend to have all the answers, don’t act like you do. Just show up “soul-nekked” as one of my professors says.
Make a plan for the future. Monthly zoom calls? A Voxer group? Next year’s retreat? Whatever it is, commit to continuing to show up for and with one another. Remember, this isn’t about networking. What you’re not promising to do is chatter about the others online, promoting them and their work, gushing about them all over the place. This is about an ongoing practice of humility, accountability, vulnerability, and authority in one another’s life and vocation.
Share the goodness! I mean, don’t share what’s not yours to share, but don’t secret away the goodness of a group like this. If someone shows interest or seems envious of your time, say, “You too can make this happen in your life!” There’s nothing magical or mystical about this. It took intentionality, some work, and a willingness to show up and be seen in totality.
And it was good.
And you’re invited to participate in that goodness in your own life.