5 Mistakes Pastors Make when Planning Staff Retreats

Dave Berry, one of the funniest guys on the planet once wrote, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: meetings.” I’m not sure if he’s 100% right, but he’s close. Meetings, and extended ones like retreats, often don’t achieve their intended purpose. Why? Because we make significant mistakes when we plan them. Consider these five mistakes and potential corrective measures.

eraser and word mistakes

Here are some dumb mistakes I’ve made when planning and holding retreats.

  1. Packing too much into a retreat (which have ranged from 1-3 days). I once handed out about 20 different documents for review and study.
  2. Talking too much. At times I’ve talked/taught so much that I left little time for thorough interaction.
  3. Going too long. As the adage goes, “The brain will absorb only what the rear can endure.”
  4. Not including R&R.
  5. Including other leaders too late into the planning process. In one church I asked our elders to join us after we had completed our planning. They ended up not being on the same page and the pastors felt like our retreat was a waste of time.

As I’ve grown in my retreat leading and planning, these factors have contributed to better success.

  1. Narrow your discussion to a fewer number of topics.
  2. Create a “talk about later” list of subjects that surface during the retreat.
  3. Hold your retreat off-site rather than at the office.
  4. Begin and end at a reasonable hour. Don’t wear people out.
  5. Do something fun like watch a movie together.
  6. Listen more that you talk. Remember the acronym, WAIT, which means Why Am I Talking?
What tips can you share that have helped make your retreats effective?
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5 Nuggets of Wisdom I just Learned from my Coach

I strongly believe in coaching, a process that intentionally invites a wise person to speak truth into another. I’m being coached by Lance Witt, founder of Replenish Ministries and author of a great book called Replenish. We meet via FaceTime each month and that hour is worth gold. This week we discussed several topics and these gems of wisdom rose to the top. I’ve put them into my own words.

Coaching concept related words
  1. Overworked schedules lead to underwhelmed souls. 
    • When we don’t keep healthy margin in our lives, our souls will shrink.
  2. When we pastors get wounded, we must own those wounds and not let them get infected through bitterness and unforgiveness.
    • You will get hurt in ministry and as an old saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” What we do with our wounds is our responsibility. Wounds need healing and to a great degree we control that healing process. We can encourage the healing or we can allow those wounds to fester. Given time, as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, He will heal us. The scars may remain but the wounds get healed.
  3. Our current church culture sets up 100′s of pastors to struggle with pride and 10,000 pastors to struggle with failure.
    • This insight refers to the challenge pastors face when they realize they won’t pastor a large church. Speakers at most church conferences are pastors of large churches and it’s tempting to feel like a failure when we compare our smaller church to the really big ones.
  4. When you finish a staff meeting, make sure everyone understands what decisions you made and what are still discussions.
    • Often staff meetings end with fuzziness about decisions. This practice, however, can help us intentionally keep clear about actual decisions we make in contrast to ongoing discussions.
  5. When you finish a staff meeting, make clear who needs to know the decisions you made.
    • Related to number 4, this practice reinforces our need to communicate, communicate, communicate.

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5 Spiritual Benefits from Journaling (God’s Spiritual Cross-trainer)

Athletes understand that quality equipment helps them perform at their peak. A baseball player likes a broken-in glove. A basketball player prefers a leather ball. A tennis player wants a well-balanced racket. Although equipment varies from one sport to the next, every athlete requires good shoes. Since many people enjoy several sports, shoe manufacturers created a shoe style called a cross-trainer for use in multiple sports. Journaling, writing down our experiences with God, can serve a similar spiritual purpose.

Man writing down thoughts in journal

Richard Peace describes journaling as a spiritual cross-trainer that helps as an “aid to other spiritual disciplines” (Spiritual Journaling: Recording Your Journey Toward God). It becomes a powerful tool the Holy Spirit can use to develop Christ-likeness when we exercise spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading and fasting.

Although the Bible doesn’t command us to journal, several of its writers modeled this practice. Many of the Psalms represent David’s journaling as he wrestled with deep spiritual issues. Job struggles with the question of evil in his journal, the book that bears his name. Jeremiah’s journal, Lamentations, records his agony over Jerusalem’s fall. And Solomon pens his search for happiness in his journal Ecclesiastes.

Journaling’s simplicity and profound potential to create spiritual change eludes many Christians. If journaling is new to you or if you’ve tried it and become discouraged, consider these practical benefits.

1. Journaling softens our hearts.

Every farmer knows he must till the soil to soften it before he plants the seed. In the same manner we often need our hearts softened. Hosea said, “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts . . . “ (Hosea 10:12, NLT). When softened, our hearts respond more readily to the Spirit’s promptings.

 2. Journaling sifts truth from error.

As a child I remember helping my mom bake cakes. She let me sift flour through her aluminum can-like sifter. When I rotated the handle the sifter removed the lumps from the flour. Just as lumps were interspersed in the flour, sometimes we unintentionally mix “lumps” of lies in our self-talk such as, “I’m a rotten person,” “God is mad at me,” or “I’m worthless.” When we journal and put these thoughts on paper, it’s easier to sort out truth from error. Then we can counter them with God’s Truth and experience a more biblical outlook on life.

3. Journaling slows our pace.

My first driving experience at age nine on the Model-T ride at Six Flags disappointed me. Expecting to burn rubber when I floored the gas pedal, I barely reached 5 mph. My dad later explained that a device called a governor kept the engine from running at full capacity. Many Christians run their lives at full capacity with life’s “gas pedal” pushed to the max. Journaling acts like a governor to slow our frenzied pace and force us to listen to the Spirit’s voice.

4. Journaling builds faith.

Few of us will remember what God taught us last week, much less last year unless we write it down. Journaling builds our faith when we record God’s faithful acts. Then we can refer back to that record to remind us of his continued faithfulness. Psalms 77:11 says,I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” (NIV)

 5. Journaling releases pain.

I still remember the staccato hiss from my mother’s pressure cooker when she cooked fresh green beans. After she locked the main top into place she placed a small metal cap over the pressure release valve. This allowed the pressure to slowly release. Similar emotional pressure can build up inside us to the point that we want to explode at others. Journaling provides a spiritual pressure release valve for our pain that can prevent that explosion. David encouraged this when he wrote “. . . pour out your hearts to him . . .” (Psalm 62:8, NIV).

Journaling, God’s spiritual cross-trainer, offers many spiritual benefits. If you want to try it, consider these six practical guidelines.

  1. Get a notebook.
  2. Set a consistent time in a quiet place.
  3. Make a commitment to stick with it.
  4. Date each entry.
  5. Write from feeling, not from fact. Don’t just record what happened in your life. Write down how your experiences affected your heart and emotions.
  6. Periodically review your entries to discover spiritual trends in your life.

How has journaling helped your walk with Christ?

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The Worrying and Fearful Leader

Worry and anxiety can stifle the effectiveness of the best leader. In my life when anxiety gets the best of me, my leadership always suffers. So, what goes on in the mind of a leader when he or she worries and what can we do about it? Consider these suggestions.

anxiety brain

When we feel anxious, a process in our brain starts because God created our brains to help us survive. When we feel threatened and anxious from a roar we hear outside our tent while camping or from a roar from a nasty email, it initiates a flight-fight response in our bodies.

One significant component of our flight-fight brain structure is called the amygdala, two almond shaped clusters of brain cells (neurons) that activate when we sense real or perceived threat. 2/3′s of the cells in the amygdala are wired to look for the negative. That’s why it’s so easy to get anxious, worried, or fearful. The amygdala is always looking for a problem.  

 Unfortunately, it’s not good at distinguishing between a valid and real threat.

Worry and fear show up in our bodies in several ways:

  • Our heart rate and breathing increases.
  • Our pupils dilate.
  • Saliva production slows (that’s behind dry mouth when we feel anxious or fearful before we speak).
  • Our muscles can tighten (many of us carry our tension in our shoulder muscles and neck).
  • We can feel goosebumps (think of how you feel when you hear the ‘bump’ in the night).
  • We get that ‘anxious’ feeling (norepinephrine, also known as adrenalin, is released in our bloodstream as a hormone and into our nervous system as a neurotransmitter).
  • Memory, decision making, motivation, and attention get diminished (our fear center hogs our limited mental resources).

So what can we do to minimize the effects of anxiety and fear upon leadership.

  1. Awareness: If we constantly live with low level anxiety, our fight-flight centers are more sensitive so it takes less to push us into serious worry, anxiety, and fear. The term, metacognition, means to be aware of awareness or aware of what you are thinking about. Instead of mindlessly rushing through life, often stop during the day to ask yourself these questions to become more aware of your inner world and the chatter in your mind (metacognition).
    • What am I thinking about right now?
    • What are my feelings right now?
    • Are these thoughts and feelings based upon reality?
  2. Labeling: We’ve often been told that to make painful emotions go away, ignore or suppress them. Actually, studies show that doing so does the opposite. Ignoring or stuffing them actually makes them stronger. Instead, take the power out of your painful emotions by recognizing them and naming them. Scientists have discovered that when we label them (i.e., I am feeling anxious), we actually calm our fight-flight centers.
  3. Distancing: Another very helpful way to calm anxiety and fear is to take the proverbial ‘fly on the wall’ perspective as an observer. When you experience these emotions, imagine stepping back as a third person observer and observing yourself and the situation at a distance. Distancing has proved to be one of the most effective ways to calm our fight-flight centers.

I love how Martin Laird, a college professor and writer, uses the metaphor of a mountain’s response to weather to picture how we should respond to unpleasant emotions. He bases his thoughts on Psalms 125.1. Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever.

Mt Zion symbolizes God’s power, blessing, and protection. So, when we trust in the Lord and redirect our thinking and our attention, we are like a mountain and how it responds to weather.

A mountain has weather around it all the time. The mountain does not become the weather. It simple observes it. In Christ we are like that mountain with all kinds of external and internal weather around us. Now we may prefer certain kinds of weather, but we are not the weather.

Your anxious thoughts and emotions are not you.

They are simply the weather.

The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video [of our internal world, my addition]), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured … When the mind is brought to stillness (what Paul calls thinking on these things) we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. [Laird, Martin (2006-06-07). Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Kindle Locations 287-293). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]

So, paying attention to our thoughts and emotions is essential for good leadership. If we don’t pay attention to our inner world, we become captive to it and blinded to its potential negative effects upon our souls and upon our leadership.

What has helped you deal with worry and anxiety?

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How Often should Preachers Practice their Sermon?

I’ve served in ministry over 30 years and I’ve preached a lot of sermons. Some have been good and some, well, not so good. Three factors have made the biggest positive difference for me: preparing my heart before the Lord, scheduling adequate study time to avoid feeling rushed, and practicing preaching my sermon. In this blog I suggest a few benefits from practice and describe my practice/preparation process.

gray word on red wall

As a framework, a few insights about me.

  • I’m not an A++ communicator. I’d say I’m a solid B+. God has gifted me with a good mind and relatively good speaking abilities, but I don’t command a multi-thousand person church audience. I’ll speak to several hundred people on an average Sunday.
  • I don’t have a photographic memory that allows me to memorize my sermons.
  • I don’t have unlimited energy, need 8 hours of sleep at night, and go into a semi-comotose mode at about 8:30 each night. So, I can’t pick up extra study hours at night. If study gets done, it must happen during daylight hours.
  • I study slow. I can’t quickly craft a message. Even after three decades of doing it, I still need 15 hours or so to create a message, excluding practice time.

Even with my limitations, I’ve discovered that practicing my sermon yields several benefits.

  1. Familiarity: When I practice, I become more familiar with the homiletic part (how will I say it), a different kind of familiarity than hermeneutic familiarity (what the Bible says).
  2. Improvement: When I practice my message, I notice how I can say things differently which improves what I eventually do say.
  3. Shortening: Practice often helps me realize that I can remove some parts of my sermon without affecting the message I want to convey. I almost always shorten my sermon as I practice it.
  4. Confidence: The more familiar I become with my sermon, the less I have to think about what “comes next” when I preach which increases my confidence during delivery.
  5. Memory: Although I don’t memorize my messages (I work from a complete manuscript), the more I practice, the more it imbeds into my subconscious which frees me to connect better with the congregation through eye contact and body language when I deliver it.
  6. Timing: I usually try to use humor in each message. Professional comedians practice a lot to improve timing in their humor. When I practice, it helps me improve my timing.

Here’s my routine.

  • I complete my study and write my manuscript at least two weeks ahead of time.
  • On the Thursday prior to the Sunday when I will deliver it, I review it again, tweak it, and highlight key phrases (all in Microsoft Word).
    • I save it as a PDF to my iPad app Notability, one of the best PDF markup apps available. I preach from an iPad mini, instead of paper notes. You can read about my experience with an iPad here.
    • I go to an upstairs closet in the church and preach it out loud once.
  • On Friday, I slowly and silently review it, further tweaking it directly on Notability.
  • On Saturday, I preach in out loud in my bedroom closet (second practice).
  • On Sunday morning, I practice it out loud one more time in my closet (third practice).

So, I practice it out loud three times and silently tweak it twice.

I’ve found that this pattern allows me to best prepare, without overdoing the practice.

What is your prep routine?

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