For many of us, leadership is a by-product of youth and children’s work. But we want to lead well, so each month we unpack an issue we face as leaders, and offer some guidance to traverse it.
When was the last time you took some preplanned, extended time to stop and think? How often do you pause to take a big-picture view of your youth or children’s ministry, reflect on your practice and consider how you could innovate to make it better? And how regularly do you take time out of your usual routine to create space for God to speak to you? If you’re answer is ‘not often’, you could be in danger of falling into one or more of the following leadership traps…
Trap one: Spiritual deficit
When you don’t have enough time with God to sustain your doing for God, you begin to operate out of a spiritual deficit – giving out more than you are taking in – resulting in a loss of joy, diminishing passion and a lack of ideas. This leads to stress, frustration, cynicism, apathy and, in extreme cases, burnout. And don’t forget, the primary thing you pass on to your young people is who you are, and you cannot give what you do not possess.
Trap two: Lack of revelation
If you are not taking time to pause and reflect, you are robbing the young people you lead of the thing they need from you most…revelation from Jesus. You are ‘the blind leading the blind’ and you will inevitably end up in a pit. God does not speak in the busyness, he speaks in the stillness; not in the noise, but in the whisper. Are you in danger of making plans for God without actually listening to God? There is no shortcut to hearing from God that bypasses time in his presence.
Trap three: Busy not fruitful
We end up filling our time with good ideas and missing out on God ideas. In other words, you become busy but not fruitful; make no mistake, busyness and fruitfulness are not the same thing. Busyness comes from multiplying activity, fruitfulness comes from being connected to the vine.
Trap four: Plateau
We carry on doing what we’ve always done, just because we’ve always done it. But what if how we’ve always done it is no longer the best way to do it!? To paraphrase Andy Stanley: “Experience doesn’t make you better, evaluated experience does.” Without time to pause, reflect and innovate, we cease to get better and our ministries plateau.
So how do we avoid falling into the leadership traps? Well, that’s where the fourth part in our leadership disciplines series comes in, with the practice of regular retreat.
“When you don’t have enough time with God to sustain your doing for God, you begin to operate out of a spiritual deficit”
Retreat to advance
The practice of retreat is where we intentionally and regularly take an extended period of time away from our usual activities to pray, reflect and strategise. I recommend taking a full working day every month for this practice, but if that seems unattainable for you, just start where you are. Three hours a month is better than zero hours a month!
How to prepare for your retreat…
Plan in advance
You know how life and ministry goes…your diary gets really full, really fast! So block your retreat times out in your schedule way in advance. I like to have my retreat days blocked out a full year ahead of time to ensure my diary doesn’t get filled up with more urgent but less important activities.
The degree to which you are prepared for your retreat usually reflects the degree to which it will be of benefit. I like to prepare in two ways. Firstly, I pray and fast the day before my retreat to prepare myself spiritually for all the Lord wants to do (see Leadership disciplines one for more on this). Secondly, I prepare a (loose) schedule for my time away. Ask yourself: what are they key things you want to reflect on?
What are the top priorities or major challenges in your ministry right now that could do with some extended time in prayer and reflection? What have you got coming up months down the line that would benefit from some attention today?
Make a list of these things ahead of time. Knowing what your priorities are before you go will enable you to get the best out of this precious time. With that said, don’t overschedule so that your time on retreat feels hurried – that defeats the whole point! And as much as it’s wise to plan your time, be willing to throw that plan out of the window if the Spirit leads you in another direction once you get going.
Protect the time
Inevitably, something urgent will come up that will demand you neglect your time in retreat in order to attend to it. But unless your house is literally on fire, resist this temptation at all costs. Remember, you are a spiritual leader and you cannot lead others unless you yourself are being led by the Spirit. These times are critical for ensuring that you stay on God’s agenda. So unless it is absolutely and completely unavoidable, do not surrender your time in retreat to the tyranny of the urgent.
What to do on retreat
So you’ve booked some time well in advance, you’ve prepared your heart to meet with God, and you have protected the precious time by saying no to competing demands. And now look, you’ve got a whole day of empty space in your diary! So what do you do with this margin you have created?
If at all possible, get away from the places and spaces in which you usually work and live. If possible, book a retreat centre and get away for a day, or ask a friend if you can use their space while they’re at work. What they say is true: change of place + change of pace = change of perspective.
The gift of retreat is to get away from the everyday busyness and noise of life. Be sure to switch your phone off and don’t fill the whole time with music in the background. I like to start every retreat with 20 minutes of pure silence. In doing so I slow down my heart rate, breath more deeply, quiet my mind, rest my soul and prepare myself to be attentive to the Lord for the day to come (see Leadership disciplines three for more on this).
The primary purpose of your retreat is to have some extended, focused time with Jesus. So ensure you have plenty of time for prayer in its many and varied forms. On my retreats I will often make a list of things to pray for and return to that list intermittently through the course of the day. As mentioned above, I begin each day with silent prayer. I also enjoy getting outside for a prayer walk, at times interceding, at times simply walking with God. You may want to write some prayers then speak them out, or read aloud a psalm or one of the apostolic prayers recorded in the New Testament. However it works for you, prioritise prayer.
Please hear me on this one: for a retreat to be a retreat you must slow down. Even while away on retreat I still sometimes feel the inward pressure to achieve something or come away from the day with something measurable to which I can ascribe value. But if the only thing you achieve in your retreat is to take some time out of the hustle to slow down your soul, then consider it time well spent. Don’t be afraid to take a nap!
I love to get out the door, walk in the countryside and observe the handiwork of God all around me. Take time to dwell on the things you would usually rush past: the song of the birds, the colours of the trees, the sound of the breeze. See the fingerprints of the Creator all around you and take delight in all he has made.
Reading is good for the mind and refreshing for the soul. Take something with you that will stir your heart and stimulate your mind. Retreat is a great time to delve into some of the spiritual classics and, of course, to take some extended time in scripture.
Use your time to think back on your last few months of ministry. What has gone well and why? What has not gone so well and why? What has the Lord been trying to show you over this last season that you may have missed? What are the lessons you have learned from successes and failures?
In my last retreat I took some extended time to reflect on a ministry initiative that didn’t pan out as I thought it would. What could initially have felt like a failure became a series of valuable lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life! So avoid the temptation to quickly rush on to the next thing, and take some time to reflect on what has gone before.
As well as looking back, think ahead. Ask the Lord about his plans for the future. Your retreat is the perfect time to lay out your teaching themes for the year ahead, or to develop a training plan for your volunteer team, or to think deeply about that presentation you’ve got to make to your senior leaders and so on. By taking time to plan for tomorrow you save yourself a lot of stress today!
If there were no restrictions on your time, team and budget what would you do? If you didn’t have any programme running already, how much of what you do now would you start from scratch and what would you do differently? What are needs and opportunities that you see in your community and how could you meet them? Your retreat provides the time and space to consider these types of big open-ended questions in the company of the Holy Spirit.
The discipline of retreat in this way has been my practice for many years and I cannot possibly describe how valuable it has been. Out of this time has come some of my clearest revelation and most fruitful ideas. On many occasions this space has allowed me to gain much needed perspective on challenges that previously felt overwhelming. Out of this time God has spoken to me in ways that have shaped my life for years to come.
Who knows, perhaps there is an idea waiting for you that will shape the future of your ministry if you would just pause for long enough to listen to God and take the time to dream.
So come on, pull out that calendar app and get this practice nailed down in your schedule as an immovable rhythm. You’ll be glad you did!
We have launched a video series based on ‘Leadership 101’.