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APCE Annual Event workshop offers a how-to on retreat planning

Joel Winchip of the Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association shares from his decades of experience

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Standing in the back row near the center, Joel Winchip, executive director of the Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association/Campfire Collective, strikes up a pose during last week’s APCE Annual Event. (Photo courtesy of the PCCCA)

LOUISVILLE — Joel Winchip, executive director of the Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association/Campfire Collective, led a workshop last week at the APCE Annual Event that relied on his and others’ decades of experience helping congregations, mid councils and other groups to plan and pull off meaningful retreats.

Winchip, who also teaches courses on camp and conference ministry and recreation at Columbia Theological Seminary, called his APCE workshop “Planning Our Escape: Putting Together Your Next Retreat.”

Retreats can “go deeper,” he said, “because they’re a residential experience. It’s one thing to share a hymnbook during worship. It’s another thing to share a sink while you brush your teeth.”

In planning a retreat’s content, Winchip offered advice that included “do group-building from the get-go” and “use your surroundings. Don’t do Sunday school in the woods.”

“We want structure, but not too much structure,” he said. “Folks don’t want to go on a retreat to recover from the one you just gave them. We want people to feel the change of pace.”

If you’re on staff of the group that’s planning and doing the retreat, “delegate as much leadership as possible,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be cool if it was lay led?” That way, “staff can be part of the retreat along with everybody else.”

If children are invited, there must be content for them as well. Evaluations are a must, but don’t read them until at least a week or two following the retreat, Winchip suggested.

An important part of planning is budgeting. Winchip recommended charging what the retreat costs, “and scholarship it heavily,” he said. Do a “deep dive” into what the retreat center offers. Winchip once worked at one that offered free hayrides to retreat participants, but the information wasn’t included on the facility’s website. “Find out what’s around the site to do,” he recommended.

Promoting the event can include social media, announcements during worship and through newsletters, calls to people you’re inviting. and a staffed table at church where questions can be asked and answered.

Resources containing retreat curriculum and help finding retreat centers are here and here.

“There are plenty of options,” Winchip said. “I hope you’ll use them and adapt them to your situation.”

Winchip fielded questions following his presentation. One idea for a scavenger hunt he’s used is to distribute paint swatches to retreat groups with the goal of finding each color option in nature. “It’s not as hard as you think it is,” Winchip said. “God created all those colors in nature.”

Seminary students have learned the art of encouraging retreat-goers to use their phones to take scenic photos and as a group combine them into montages to share with others. “Bonus points for a living animal running around,” Winchip said.

One workshop participant had a good experience inviting youth at church to create TikToks to promote an upcoming retreat. Asked about creating a code of conduct or behavior expectations for an upcoming retreat, Winchip suggested having the youth come up with the standards. “Sometimes they’re harder on themselves,” he said. “Let them be the bearer of bad news to those who are going to act out.”

On the registration form, it can be helpful to include a line for people to indicate, “I’d like a scholarship in this amount” or “I’d like to pay for another family to go on this retreat.”

“We try to keep [the registration cost] low because we think it’s evangelism,” Winchip said. “But that price point is eating our lunch.”

Winchip had one final word of advice: “Go where your people need to go,” he said. “The most important thing is your people need to go on retreat and have an incredible time.”

Check for continuing reporting on APCE’s Annual Event, held last week in St. Louis.

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