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How to plan a successful Christian retreat!

As a PA Christian retreat center, the Bongiorno Conference Center, hosts hundreds of retreats every year. Many are very successful and are able to bring in large numbers of guests which meets the objective of the organization hosting the retreat. But then there are those that really seem to struggle; every year their numbers go down. I’ve had a chance to walk around during some of these retreats and make some observations.

I was observing a youth retreat offering a few different activities that were poorly done. Everything was so serious; it was all life and death, and there was not any fun; even during activities that should have been fun, I observed leaders who were talking down to the students. I thought, “If I was a teenager, I would never sign up to attend this retreat next year.” Those teens were from several other states. I would not want them to think all Pennsylvania Christian retreat centers were that boring and lacked fun. Let’s face it…kids will be kids and want to have fun; so do adults!

For the last 20 years, I have served as a Christian Education Director for a
denominational office resourcing over 400 churches. I have hosted and directed children's camps and retreats, senior citizens retreats, marriage retreats, training and equipping retreats and more. I have utilized several Christian retreat centers in Pennsylvania and other states. Not all are created equal. It seems some frowned on the idea of fun. I have learned a lot in my years as a pastor and CE Director.

Everything a participant does at that camp or retreat prepares them for what God wants to do in their life. And the challenge from God usually happens at a service of some type, many times in the evening after a full day.

When I hosted retreats, I had a particular goal or mission in mind. I wanted to challenge peoples’ lives - it was a serious mission. But I know from being a pastor, whenever I share a message from the pulpit, it’s a little easier to step on toes and challenge people when those people have laughed and enjoyed a humorous illustration or engaging story.

I would carry that same philosophy into a retreat setting.

Most Christian retreat centers in PA that I’ve observed usually offer two services a day; one in the morning after breakfast and one in the evening. So what about the rest of the day? Many will fill it with workshops, seminars and busy schedules. For many, this leaves little time for fun or enjoyment. I’ve also sat in many services, and, again, so serious! And it should be - we want God to challenge people's lives - but many times, there’s not an element of fun in the entire service.

What elements would you add to make a retreat setting more enjoyable?

Since everyone is wired so differently as to what they would enjoy, try a variety of activities. Some people really enjoy sports. Why not offer a time for basketball, tennis or volleyball? For the outdoors types, perhaps a nature hike around the grounds or a fishing excursion to a local stream or pond? Many Christian retreat centers in Pennsylvania are close to hiking trails, some even have the famed Appalachian Trail within a few miles of their property. Pennsylvania offers streams and lakes/ponds throughout the state.

Some people are game players, so bring some board games or offer group games. For those more introverted who prefer to spend some time alone to recharge their body and mind, offer something like a book, pamphlet or study guide. Giving them something they can read and digest quickly; perhaps something they could meditate on would be appreciated.

Maybe that ball cap says one size fits all, but, when it comes to people's preferences, one size doesn’t fit all.

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