Pastor, prioritize the "mini-retreat"
Craving a “date” with Jesus
Pastoral ministry comes with some of the greatest joys and deepest sorrows. I remember a particularly draining season, filled with all kinds of pastoral discouragements. I was doubting my own effectiveness at discipling others, feeling the weight of bi-vocational ministry, and my soul felt sluggish. I was emotionally and physically empty. As it so happened, my daily quiet times were more consistent than they ever had been. However, I still felt empty, tired, and drained.
I remember putting the kids to bed, coming down the stairs, collapsing on the couch, and talking with my wife. We connect every day after the kids’ bedtime to see how each other are doing. When it was my turn to share, I broke down and started crying. “I just feel like I need a date with Jesus,” I said. In my heart, I felt the same way that I do when my wife and I are unable to go on a proper date for a while. The daily connection is critical but also I was craving something special. I wanted some unstructured, unhindered, unencumbered time to pursue Christ. My wife said, “Okay. Take tomorrow morning and go spend some time with Jesus!” My wife is pretty awesome. And I followed her advice.
The beauty of extended quality time with Jesus
I woke up the next day and went to be with Jesus. I grabbed my bible, a book, a journal, and a water bottle and drove down the road to the edge of Lake Auburn. I parked myself at a picnic table and spent three hours praying, reading, listening, and journaling. I didn’t know what to expect and had no idea if it would make me feel better or not. But it was amazing. I didn’t look at my phone. I didn’t look at the time. I just came to God and gave him my full attention. And I felt healed. I felt renewed and ready to keep going.
Ever since that day, I have prioritized these “mini-retreats.” I take 3-4 hours of a day (every 3-4 weeks) to have unstructured, unhindered, intentional time with God. These mini-retreats have become so sweet to me that now I could not imagine going without them. I would put forward this simple idea as something to prioritize in your life and ministry.
Could you keep up this pace for the next 40 years?
This is a go-to question for me when I’m talking with other pastors that seem drained. Most of the time, they say something like, “Oh no! I don’t think I could keep this up long-term.” My next question is, “Why then do you feel okay doing it now?” See, pastors love helping people. We love doing ministry (even in the hard moments). And often when those strong desires meet strong needs, we go all in (sometimes to our downfall). We burn out, lose steam, and our energy gets so drained that the joy gets drained with it.
A long time ago, I made a resolution in my heart that I wanted to be a healthy pastor. I want to serve God in ministry (if he lets me) for the next 40 years and then, as an older pastor friend of mine says, “die while still in the game” (shoutout to David Pinckney). That long-term vision cannot be attained if we are okay with unhealthy rhythms. If you never have times of Sabbath-rest, times of spiritual renewal, times of solitude and silence… you will not make it. But if you want to keep going for the next 40 years, then I plead with you to work towards healthy, sustainable rhythms now. Not that I have attained this myself but this is the end zone I am running toward: a ministry defined by physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
Destroying the idol of “wanting to be God”
I remember when I was approached by a man I had been witnessing to that was just kicked out of his apartment and was homeless. I grabbed him some lunch, prayed with him, and then drove around with him for two hours to all the shelters to see if we could get him in. All were full. Our town has a lot of impoverished and homeless people. I knew I had to get home and keep a commitment to my family so I gave him some cash and dropped him off at a place where I knew he would be safe and then had to drive home. But he was dejected. I was unable to meet his needs at that moment. The weight of this was crushing. I drove home and cried in the driveway. I prayed, “God, you have to help me. I need to give this over to you so that I can go inside and serve my family.” I had done all I could and needed to surrender.
I believe it was Peter Scazzero that said pastors try to be God in three ways. 1) Pastors want to be all-knowing (having the answer to every question). 2) Pastors want to be all-powerful (able to fix every problem). 3) Pastors want to be ever-present (available for every situation). Perhaps you connect with one or more of these desires. But the problem is that we are not God. We can never be all-knowing, all-powerful, or ever-present. We are not God and have to be okay with that.
Paul felt this when God sent him a thorn in the flesh to keep him from “becoming conceited” (2 Cor. 12:7). God intentionally limited Paul and humbled him so that he would not think too highly of himself. And in the midst of desperate prayer and pleading, God came to him. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). God is so jealous for his glory that he will not allow your ministry for God to become your god. The weight of the needs around us will crush us unless we become content with not being God. And we will never prioritize setting aside special times of pursuing him if we think we must be and do what only he can be and do.
Jesus did “mini-retreats” and so should we
If there’s one human being that we would not expect to need those times, it would be Jesus. After all, he was God. But that’s exactly what we see happening. Jesus prioritized having times of silence and solitude in active pursuit of his Father. He was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matt. 4:1), “went out to a desolate place” often (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42), and “went up on the mountain by himself to pray… alone” (Matt. 14:23). Before his ultimate sacrifice, he spent time alone in a garden to pray and seek God (Matt. 26:36, Mark 14:32). The reason I’m calling these “mini-retreats” and not daily quiet times is because the gospel writers seem to express a uniqueness to those times when he would get away for extended periods of time for focused prayer and fellowship with God.
Jesus prioritized his relationship with his Father. And in that relational priority, he would set aside times where he would spend a few hours (or a whole night) in solitude to pursue him. This is not a sabbatical or an annual retreat. This also isn’t the same as a daily quiet time. This is kind of like when you go on a date with your wife. It’s a more extended time (often planned ahead) where you spend intentional, unhindered time pursuing the one that you love.
Why mini-retreats and not something else?
Most pastors have categories for a daily quiet time and some kind of extended annual retreat, often with others. I believe these are also important and the “mini-retreat” is not meant to be a replacement for these things. However, consider marriage again. Imagine a marriage where the couple sees each other every day but they never get away to go on a date. They have an annual anniversary trip that they enjoy but never have those special times of relational pursuit outside of daily rhythms. Would we consider this ideal or healthy? Probably not. And I think we should say the same of our relationship with God. The daily rhythms are important and the long retreats are important. But the mini-retreat accomplishes something these two do not.
Let me give some ways mini-retreats have benefited me.
1) A mini-retreat gives a regular space to search our own souls and look for blind spots.
2) A mini-retreat creates a regular context to focus on hearing from God in his Word and responding to him in unhindered prayer.
3) A mini-retreat helps recenter our affections and renew our joy in God.
4) A mini-retreat helps in the fight against feeling monotony in daily quiet times.
5) A mini-retreat helps establish the priority God needs to have in our lives.
6) A mini-retreat steadies us when life and ministry feel chaotic.
7) A mini-retreat helps fuel us for a fruitful return to people.
In many ways, a mini-retreat is like fasting. We are made to be in fellowship with others like how we are made to eat and drink to sustain life. But when we get away and spend extended time alone with God, it centers us and reminds us of what is most important. We can assess ourselves, enjoy the Father’s presence, and get energized to return to the work he has called us to.
Five suggestions for mini-retreats
1) Get it on the calendar (and guard it)
We schedule those things which are priorities for us. Find a time every month (or more often) where you set aside time to get alone for 3-4 hours. Guard that time. Don’t schedule something else then because you know it is open. It’s not open. You have a commitment. You have a date planned. And it’s important. Emergencies may happen but the way I think about it is this. Some emergencies would necessitate canceling a date with my wife to address. But it would have to be pretty urgent and important. I use the same criteria for my mini-retreats.
2) Plan what you will do (but not everything)
In the same way you may have to call in a reservation or pick out an outfit for a date with your wife, be prepared for this time. Plan to have some time meditating on a passage of scripture, praying for particular things, or reading a book that will grow your affections for Christ. But also plan to have unstructured time with God. I try to set aside time just to be silent and listen or to allow God’s Spirit to move me to pray for things I didn’t plan for.
3) Put away technology (and other distractions)
This is time for God. Social media and emails can wait for a few hours. I try to keep myself from even looking at the time. It won’t feel like a retreat if you feel distracted or hurried. You want to create a space and time where you can feel free to be with God without the stresses of life pressing on you. We need to learn to be okay with silence and solitude.
4) Be patient and persistent
New rhythms can feel uncomfortable. You may feel anxious or fidgety the first couple times. You may have high expectations that feel unmet. We cannot force God to give us a visceral experience of his presence. But we can place ourselves in his path and patiently wait upon him. Be patient and persistent. It will bear fruit.
5) Keep your focus on enjoying Christ
As soon as a mini-retreat feels like a box to check, it will feel like a burden and not a blessing. Remind yourself that you are doing this, not so that you can grow in intellect or feel good about yourself, but so that you may grow in love for Christ. A time like this will serve to make us more like Jesus, but only as our focus is fixed on Christ himself, not our own Christlikeness. We need to want Christ! We don’t retreat to be with him so that he will make us better pastors. We retreat to be with him because we must have him. We crave his presence. Our affections are fixed on our savior and we long to fellowship with him.
In the same way that going on a date with your wife for the first time in a long while may feel a little awkward, starting a new rhythm of regular, prolonged pursuit of God in solitude may feel awkward. But I implore you to consider adding it to your normal rhythms. Implementing a pattern of mini-retreats into my life has led to an explosion of spiritual (and emotional health). These “resets” of my priorities and affections have helped me endure and enjoy the labors of pastoral ministry. You may not think you need this, but as David Matthis rightly puts it:
“You may not know how badly you needed silence and solitude until you get to know them.” David Matthis, Habits of Grace