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Example #1: Interview with Donna Jenson

Donna Jenson is an independent organizational development consultant in Montague, Massachusetts. Before becoming a consultant, she spent 15 years working with three different grassroots organizations, putting together boards and staff and being involved in every aspect of getting a new organization off the ground.

CTB: Could you tell me just a bit about what kind of retreat services you provide?

Jenson: By and large I do retreats in conjunction with consulting to an organization--From time to time I'll come in for a one-shot deal and facilitate whatever process they're wanting to go through, but most of the retreats I do are part of an on-going consult that I'm doing.

The purpose for the retreat often has to do with anything from major crises that happen to the organization--for example, say the founder is leaving after 15 years; what does that mean for the organization, or other examples might be an organization that's growing and needing to think about how they're going to meet the growth spurt that they're in, or losing a major part of their funding and having to regroup around that. And I do retreats if there's major conflict with in the organization and people need a carefully thought-out process to deal with the conflict and with their different feelings and perspectives, what's going on.

CTB: Can you tell me a bit about how you go about designing a retreat when you have a specific task like that?

Jenson: Well, I learned early on in my career that you have to have people with different perspectives and roles within the organization involved in the planning to make sure you cover the spectrum of perspectives. Planning a retreat with just one person in an organization is usually deadly. And I think there are some things you should make sure you do at the retreat no matter what the process, no matter what the content is, so that every retreat starts out with someone in the organization setting the context. Why we're here and what we want to accomplish today, and why it's so important that we're all involved.

Another thing I always do is have everyone introduce themselves and I throw in a light-hearted question, something like, "What's something about yourself that this group might not know?" I have people speak in their introductions so that there's a little bit of bonding that goes on and people getting to know each other and getting a chance to talk at the very beginning in a non-threatening way.

CTB: So, even when you're working with a group that knows each other well you just try to bring up something that causes them to think about each other in a new way?

Jenson: Always, absolutely. I just think it's important that everybody gets a chance to speak at the very beginning. The other thing I do at the very beginning is build a set of group guidelines for the retreat. And that's just sort of the rules of the road--what do we want to do in how we work with each other? The first one is always full attention to whoever's speaking and I do a little lecture about how important attention is and then I get the group to formulate their guidelines. Some groups have 15 and some can't come up with two--the guidelines can get very, very nit-picky or they can be extremely general, like let's make sure we start on time and end on time. Then I get everyone to agree to follow the guidelines and help each other stay on track so I don't become the policeman.

The other thing I give them is what I call the parking lot, which is a big sheet of paper for anything that's not on their agenda that comes up during the retreat. We put those things on the parking lot and then at the end of the retreat they figure out when and how they're going to deal with that issue. Believe me, all these little things have been due to 20 years of not having them, or learning from experience.

CTB: You told me about some things that you see as essential parts of them, but can you give me sort of a general definition of a retreat?

Jenson: Well, ideally it means finding a site that is conducive for relaxed introspection, and often it's a time that you communicate with one another on levels you usually don't. In other words, you're not just talking about the week's work plan, or day-to-day things; a retreat is more in-depth. For example, talking about your mission is definitely something you don't do every day; that's very typical content for a retreat because it takes more reflection, more debate, those kinds of things that don't necessary happen at your average board meeting or staff meeting.

CTB: Pretty much everything I've read suggests that for it to be a retreat you need to get out of your usual environment.

Jenson: That's a pretty good rule of thumb, to be as they say in the field "off -site" you change the tenor of the process. It just does something to get away from where ever it is you normally work together, so I'd probably put that in the definition--an off-site experience with a group of people who are working together, to engage in more in-depth analysis and process.

CTB: I know with most retreats there are of course very directed tasks that you're working on, and I know that often people include some optional activities, like a block of time where people can be doing something fun or they can just be taking time to themselves. What are some optional activities that you might suggest people do?

Jenson: It's interesting--I think some of the most important retreat work happens in those optional activities... Times like that are often when answers what you just couldn't figure out during the plenary session come to your mind. So I think those kinds of activities are important and a group can't have enough of them. I think there should be some free time in all retreats, with whatever the environment allows you to do. If I can get groups to do things like badminton or volleyball, it's just so wonderful, although it's very rare that I can get them to do that.

One activity I've found to be very restorative and useful is writing. I try to really encourage people to do some journal writing or free-association writing, especially around difficult things that are going on, whether it's a conflict in the organization, a problem that people can't seem to solve, or lack of communication in the organization. I try to find a really great question or bounce-off point for people to write from, then I encourage them to go find a spot in a place that's away from everyone else and write anywhere from ten minutes to half-an-hour. Then I have people get in pairs to read to one another what they have written, because in the larger group people have a hard time reading for whatever reason--maybe the content of they wrote or they're embarrassed or they're worried about their grammar. Free-writing is a very good process for non-task-oriented activity; it gets people's creative juices rolling.

CTB: How far ahead of time do you suggest people start planning a retreat?

Jenson: Well, it depends on, um, how much prep time the people in the group need to prepare for the retreat. I would say at least six weeks. Again, it's so arbitrary. It depends on how much work has to be done. Quite frankly, I wish every organization had a two-day retreat every year and a mini-retreat every six months. That would just be wonderful, but it's not always easy to convince a group to take that much time. Still, I think every board should have a retreat every year, and every organization's staff should have its own retreat just to have that reflective time where they can solve some problems that keep coming up every staff meeting but they don't have time to solve them. So at least six weeks and, um, you know, it might even take 3 months, but it depends on the retreat.

CTB: Is there anything about retreats that you think is important to include that I missed?

Jenson: Oh, a couple of things. One is another thing I do with every retreat no matter what it's about. The very last thing I do is have an evaluation of the retreat, and I do this with the whole group. I don't do little sheets of paper; I put up newsprint, and every person needs to say two things: what worked about this retreat or was the highlight, and what could have been done differently. It's a wonderful way to sort of close the retreat so that everybody says something just like they do at the very beginning. It's also a way that people can give closure to it so they don't get to the office Tuesday afternoon and say, "You know, we should have done this or that." It closes the circle of the activity. So that's in every retreat I do, I don't stop without an evaluation.

Also, I think small group work is important. The minute you get over five or eight people, it becomes necessary. And you should vary the way in which people are grouped--to not only meet in one same circle the whole time, but to break it up where people are talking in pairs or three-ways or small work groups is really important. And I think every retreat needs to have a goal, even if it's just "We're going to rest." Then at the end of the retreat there should be some acknowledgment of how much, if any, of the goal we were able to accomplish.

Example #2: Interview with Craig Garland

Craig Garland is the director of Rolling Ridge, a conference and retreat center in North Andover, Massachusetts.

CTB: Can you tell me about the retreat services you provide?

Garland: Rolling Ridge provides overnight accommodations, guest feeding space, and a variety of different rooms, and full food service, as well as big outdoor grounds where folks can relax.

CTB: When people call you up and say, "we want to have a retreat," do you do the planning for them? Or do you work with them to help them figure out how to do it?

Garland: Typically, folks bring their programs to us and actually run the program. We just host it; we let them do their own registrations, they have to provide deposits by a certain date. Then we just check on their needs and try to make available everything we can so that the program is a success.

CTB: How do you personally define a retreat?

Garland: A retreat could actually be defined I think a few different ways depending on whether it's for an individual, for a group, or for a church. Retreats typically are a time when groups can get away from the hassles of their life and get to the place where they can have a new perspective and then look at ideas in a new and fresh way and learn and relax. It should feel like a beneficial time. Typically retreats are something somebody goes on out of choice, not something they're required to go to.

CTB: What sort of activities do you see as important to include when you're organizing a retreat?

Garland: There certainly needs to be time for real focus where folks can look at the issues they are discussing and spend some time on them. But, at the same time, you do that too long in a day and I think people start to lose perspective and get tired and so you really need to break it up and have some release time. That release time may be fellowship, it could be outdoor activities, it could be games, it could be an excursion, something of that nature.

CTB: How far ahead of time should groups start planning when they decide to have a retreat?

Garland: With today's economy where it is and the fact that a number of retreat centers have disappeared over the last few years, I really think people should start planning at least a year and a half in advance. I would strongly suggest that they plan their concept and then if they're set on a specific site for a retreat they really ought to work with that site to find a date. The group that picks a date first and then tries to plan is going to end up falling into whatever happens to be available, and it may limit the possibilities of the retreat.

CTB: Do you have any recommendations for bringing in outside folks to do programs at a retreat?

Garland: I think something that's really important is to find somebody who can provide that facilitation who knows something about your organization but doesn't have close enough ties that they're going to make decisions or try to figure out what the solution may be before they even work with the people. I think you also really need to have somebody from your group who's going to be leader for the event, even if you have a facilitator from outside. If you dump a group of people into a retreat setting with a facilitator and just hope for success, there tends not to be the continuity that you may need the program to really have it come out. Whereas if the group leader has the activities planned around the facilitators, it can really bring a group together.

Also, when you chose a site for a retreat you're going to want to decide what your goals are. If your retreat is focusing on a personal reflection or spiritual growth, you may want a setting that'll allow people some quiet time away where they can either spread out or find a quiet place to themselves. If your retreat is really about pulling a group together because they have a huge task in front of them in the coming years then you really want a place that brings a group together in a living setting. If you were to take folks to a hotel, then everyone's got a TV in their room. They're going to disappear in the evenings, and people keep their isolation, they keep their limitations. It's better to go to a setting where possibly there aren't TV's in the rooms or there are activities that draw people into a common area where they can continue to react and reflect on what they've learned during the day and grow from that. I think that's really important.

CTB: Is there anything you're thinking really should also be mentioned when talking about retreats?

Garland: One of the interesting things I've discovered is that with many of the events that in the health care industry or the state health departments or whoever may come in, people are required to come to them. And that sets up a whole different dynamic to the way the group interacts, and you really need to be careful that you set that up. Members really should know what to expect--when they're expected to be there and why they're expected to be there. If you include them and make them feel like they're a part of it they're much more likely to participate. It's just a way to get out of the normal ho-hum repeated work that you don't accomplish much at a retreat. With that in mind typically in church retreats people come because there's some excitement generated around the program that they're coming for. But I've discovered that despite excitement everyone's so overwhelmed with so many opportunities to do different things in their lives that once they're committed to coming, we really need to get their deposit as soon as possible (if they're paying one) so that they're committed to coming to the event. And we have to make sure that the resources are on hand so that they can pull it off.

CTB: Can you tell me a bit about the facility itself?

Garland: Sure. Rolling Ridge is a turn-of-the-century mansion that was built for an individual back in 1917. It's nestled into an affluent residential community in North Andover right there on a peninsula in the town reservoir. The grounds are about half forested, half field. It's got walking paths and outdoor activities and the landscapes are actually designed by Fletcher Field who was a student of Manning. The building itself was built at the family's home and was converted in 1948 when the Methodist Church bought it to convert it into a retreat center. The rooms themselves tend to vary, with anywhere from 3 to 4 beds per room, sharing a bath with another bedroom or a bath off of the hall. And then there are some rooms that are more dormitory style, and we do have a couple of private rooms. We serve 60 adults or 80 youths. We've got 80 physical beds, but some we don't find appropriate for adults.

Example #3: Interview with Sally Niermann

Sally Niermann is a freelance retreat consultant who organizes women's church retreats for groups in Wichita, Kansas.

CTB: Can you tell me a little bit about what kind of retreats you organize?

Niermann: Well, the ones that I've done have been religious retreats. I've done them mostly because I really enjoy teaching and how I got started was that a group of women from one of the Lutheran churches in the area asked me if I would be willing to just take a Saturday and work with them on really how to manage their time. I felt that it was really necessary, that the women needed to get in touch with who they were, where they were going with their lives, what their priorities were.

CTB: What do you see as the purpose of a retreat? And how do you define a retreat?

Niermann: A retreat is simply getting away from what you do everyday on a regular basis. One reason why I think the retreats (I've done) have been so successful is that we go out to the Spiritual Life Center, which is owned by the Roman Catholic Church, and we simply pay a flat fee. We don't have to worry about food, we don't have to worry about dishes, none of that kind of stuff - so what we can end up doing for the weekend is just tune in to ourselves and to the spiritual side of life. Whatever we do outside of that retreat--if you're a mother, if you are a single career woman, if you are a married woman with a career, whatever--you still have to know what you need besides all of these things. With a retreat, you get yourself away from all the nitty-gritty stuff. There's somebody else taking care of all that stuff, so that you have time to relax, you have time to think about different things besides whether the washing needs to be done, or if you have to get to the grocery store, or if you have to get to school, or you have to meet a deadline. There are no deadlines, you simply take a chunk of time and you use it to enrich yourself emotionally and spiritually. It's a very high trust environment because you only have to spill as much as you choose to spill. It's not a touchy-feely thing; it's just helping you simply get in touch with all of you, the whole person of you. If you have any religious beliefs at all then a retreat is a time for you to get back into touch with what you believe or what you don't believe.

CTB: So when you're having other types of retreats, say a staff retreat for an organization; it's still kind of the same basic thing--you're taking some time to remember what your purpose is.

Niermann: Exactly, getting away from the clutter of everyday existence. (The facility we use is) a quiet place where you can go to walk if you want to be by yourself, there is a library, there is a chapel, there are places where if you choose to be with a group of people you can do that, but at the same time you can also have a great deal of private time on your own, if this is what you need. But there are also organized activities during free time--a bible study and group discussion--if you wish to partake in those, but you don't have to.

CTB: That leads to the next question I was going to ask, what sort of activities should you plan for in organizing a retreat?

Niermann: Well, for the last two years we have had suggested reading material ahead of time. The main thrust for our retreat this year is the whole business of hurt, anger and forgiveness. So we have some books that the women are going to read before the retreat so that they can have a discussion on them. We always have structured time for bible study. At one of our retreats, we had an hour of yoga. That worked well, since yoga is something you can do to your ability--you can go the full way or you can do just a little bit of it.

I think that retreats are about helping people get centered again, so if there needs to be suggested or required reading material, there also needs to be also free time where people can sleep, take a walk, sit and talk with somebody, whatever--there has to be free time too. A retreat should never be an attempt to make people think a certain way or change their minds to your liking. A retreat is simply to help you to know your own mind.

CTB: It sounds like you really shouldn't go into a retreat thinking, "I'm going to come out of this with x, y, and z results"?

Niermann: No, I don't think you can. You might come out of it knowing yourself better than when you went in, or you might come out of it with some new insights on your organization, though.

CTB: That really answers all the questions I had. Is there anything specifically about retreats that you want to add?

Niermann: I think probably to make a retreat successful, you need to make it a hundred percent worry-free. If you can stay somewhere where you don't have to worry about feeding people or cleaning up after, that kind of thing, that probably has more to do with making the retreat a success. Because when you have to worry about things like taking care of the breakfast, things can get stressful really fast. Somebody doesn't come that said they were going to come, so then you've got to double up the work, or you use paper plates and then somebody gets offended because they think paper plates are ecologically unacceptable, but you can't take the time to do the dishes--the food preparation and cleaning up afterwards can become a major pain.

CTB: So you try to find retreat facilities that provide it?

Niermann: Yes, I think that if its possible you try to get retreat facilities where you don't have to sweat the food preparation stuff, I think the food stuff ends up being the hardest and the most complicated to deal with. I don't think that the participants can really concentrate when their attention is really being divided by this kind of thing.

Chris Hampton