The Value and Importance of Personal Spiritual Retreats

A few years ago, I decided to start working into my schedule a personal spiritual retreat, where I withdraw for a few days, away from the church and away from the family, to devote myself to reading, prayer and planning. I have found these retreats so helpful that I now recommend them to everyone engaged in full-time vocational ministry.

The value of personal retreats was brought to my attention by a pastor named Mike Bullmore, who taught a workshop years ago titled, “The Strategic Role of Personal Retreats.” Perhaps a personal retreat sounds extraneous to you, unrealistic, or maybe even self-indulgent. If so, I highly recommend that you listen to Bullmore’s workshop here.

Another advocate of personal retreats is the great John Stott, who recommended that pastors set aside concentrated reading time in the following segmented time frames: a one-hour session each day; a three-hour session each week; a one-day session each month; and a one-week session each year. The one-week session is basically the personal retreat that Bullmore recommends in his workshop.

Retreats are not vacations. They are not occasions to watch TV or play golf or catch up on Words with Friends. They are extended times of quiet and solitude where one can devote extra attention to Bible reading, prayer, theological reading, spiritual self-assessment, vision casting and planning.

When I go on retreats, my goals are generally to catch up on my personal Bible reading plan; devote more prolonged time than normal to prayer and journaling; examine the movements of my heart to discern the areas of sin that need to be identified and repented of; engage in introductory reading for my next sermon series, along with the planning of my preaching calendar over the course of the coming three to six months; and seek to make significant progress through one or two reading projects. If you fear that you’ll be bored on a retreat by yourself for several days, I ask you to think again. Never have I been able to accomplish all that I set out to do on a personal retreat.

Bottom line is that there is simply no substitute for ongoing, unhurried, non-interrupted, Spirit-led reflection. Doors are opened that would otherwise remain shut. Ideas spring up that would otherwise remain buried. Clarity is given where there would otherwise be murky indecision.

Finally, don’t forget that retreats are biblical. In Mat. 14:13, Jesus withdrew to a “desolate place by himself.” In Luke 6:12, Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and stayed there all night. If Jesus needed to withdraw, to get away from ministry demands, and to be by himself for a time, then it’s a safe assumption that you and I need it too.