Perhaps the last church weekend away you went on was a bit of a disaster. It was wet, cold and windy, and you spent most of the time praying that your tent wouldn’t blow away. Maybe you were stuck with a particularly irritating group of people, or the speaker told endless self-promoting stories without once opening the Bible.
Or maybe your weekend took you to the spiritual lap of luxury. You lay in the river of God’s love, and then soaked a little more in the hot tub of humanity. Perhaps you’d always been on the fringes at church before and finally felt welcomed into the fold.
Many of us have mixed memories about church weekends away, but how do we ensure that there’s more heaven than hell when it comes to organising the next one?
Here are a few tips to help you get you off to a good start. But be warned: things won’t always go according to plan…which may prove to be a blessing in disguise.
BE CLEAR ABOUT DIRECTIONS
The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass: Adrian Plass and the Church Weekend (Hodder & Stoughton) is the latest in Plass’ range of comical novels on the misadventures of being involved in local church ministry. For anyone who has ever organised a retreat of some kind, it will strike a few chords.
One of the funniest themes running through the book is the story of Leonard and Angels, a couple who spend practically the whole weekend reaching the venue and then stay only for a matter of minutes so they can on with the return journey. They develop a love-hate relationship with their satnav (‘Katy’) and suffer a series of misadventures – including a ferry ride and a brief encounter with a hedge – all of which are communicated to Plass via cryptic phone and text messages.
ENCOURAGE PEOPLE TO EMBRACE THE ADVENTURE
While this account is exaggerated for humorous purposes, it’s worth remembering that not everyone in your church will be a natural map reader. Find a venue that is easily accessible with plenty of parking. Print out maps for those who aren’t Internet-savvy and provide a postcode for the avid satnavers.
There’s no point whisking everyone away without considering the varied needs of your group. Remember that older and disabled church members may find long distances a struggle, while teenagers may not fancy spending an evening
doing crafts or playing board games.
Those with babies may need additional facilities and support, and don’t forget to find out if anyone has special dietary requirements (let the venue know about these as soon as possible). Most importantly, do all you can to ensure that no one feels left out. Linzi Blundell from Christian retreat centre Scargill House believes inclusivity is key. ‘Get everyone on board,’ she says. ‘Encourage people to embrace the adventure and not get bogged down in politics or petty jealousies. But bear in mind that a small percentage of your congregation will turn into strange alien beings, resisting all efforts to join in, relax and have fun.’
Rev Helen Edwards from Christ Church Norris Green in Liverpool agrees. ‘It’s important for us that the weekend away is open to all and is suitable for all ages,’ she says.
DON’T TAKE YOUR CHURCH “ON TOUR” WITH FIXED SCHEDULES
‘We take many families with us. We take people who are new to church or who are involved in the wider life of the church. There’s an open invite, and that’s key for us. We want this to be a shared experience with a real sense of belonging to the family of God.’
Not everyone who goes on the trip will be your closest friend. You may find yourself eating your lunch within inches of a particularly messy eater or sharing a twin room with someone who snores. Whatever happens, be as patient and accommodating as possible. You never know, you may find an unexpected new buddy, or have the chance to encourage someone who is going through a hard patch.
The theme for the church weekend Plass organised was ‘Where is the love?’. Here is an example he gives in the book of an instance when love (and lashings of patience) were required:
‘May I say something?’ asked Joy Vernables tentatively. Joy is from our church and she’s a dear, but she does tend to take a rather convoluted journey towards the point.
‘Yes, of course, Joy,’ I said, ‘only do bear in mind that we have very limited time…’
‘Oh yes, I quite understand that, Adrian, and I’ll make my point as quickly as I possibly can. Er, how long would you like me to take? Would two minutes be a little long, or should I stop after three or four minutes and ask you if it’s OK to carry on until I’ve got to the…’
‘Joy, just say it – just say it.’
‘Right. But you will tell me if I go on for too long, won’t you? Because I’d hate to…’
‘Look, Joy, start telling us what you want to say as soon as I finish this sentence.’
Pause. Joy leaned forward like a sprinter on the blocks. ‘Have you finished your sentence?’
There’s no point uprooting your congregation and swanning off to the edge of nowhere, only to present an extended version of an ordinary Sunday schedule. You may want to include formal ministry, prayer times, discussion sessions and times of worship, but leave plenty of time for fun and fellowship.
‘Don’t take your church “on tour” with fixed schedules, like you would have for normal services,’ Blundell says. ‘Go with the flow, kick back and enjoy. Be brave and try something different. Teaching is good, but sharing food, laughter, tears and fun is just as important.' Teacher and mother Mel Currer from Waterbrook Church in Bristol recently spent a weekend at Lox Lane Encounter Centre in Gillingham, Dorset. She said:
‘We enjoyed time away from busy city life in the countryside with our kids and with other members of our church. Our church is small and intimate, so it feels like a family.
‘In terms of things I would change, there were four meetings scheduled over the three days. I would have liked more free time. However, we did go on a treasure hunt in nearby Shaftesbury, and that was a great way of getting to know people better.’
The weekend should be fun and refreshing for everyone, so make sure the burden is shared. Give everyone the chance to be fed as well as ‘feeding’ others. If you’re in charge of organising the weekend, delegate tasks to as many people as possible. Check before you go that people know what they’re signed up to, and that they have the resources they need.
Edwards recommends going to a venue where everyone can get involved. ‘At Quinta Christian Centre in Shropshire there were many opportunities to “muck in”, as we did all the catering and cleaning ourselves,’ she says. ‘We all had a significant part to play and in the most part this contributed to our sense of community. At Scargill House we became part of serving the community and this was a huge blessing to us.’
Angie and Martin Harris organised the Waterbrook weekend at Lox Lane. They made sure everyone got to the venue (if only Leonard and Angels had had their number!) and that everything ran smoothly throughout the weekend. However, they were conscious that they couldn’t have done all the work themselves.
IT’S NOT THE THING YOU PLAN THAT WILL BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER; IT’S THE LOVE OF JESUS AND THE WORK OF HIS HOLY SPIRIT
‘Although there was a lot of organising to do, we had plenty of time to relax and chat. It was great to see people respond in times of worship and ministry, knowing that what we had done behind the scenes had in some way helped them to find breakthrough in their lives.’
BE AWARE OF FINANCIAL CONSTRAINTS
There’s no point having your weekend away at a swanky location if your congregation is on a tight budget. Money shouldn’t determine whether people can come along or not.
As Norris Green is among the top 5% of deprived communities in the UK, Edwards understands this situation only too well. Saving up for a weekend away simply isn’t on the agenda for some church members. ‘The church is made up of local people, many of whom struggle with the effects of deprivation,’ she says.
‘We ran our first parish weekend in 2006, and since then we have sought to provide a variety of residential opportunities, including Spring Harvest.
‘A key factor for us is cost. Most people we take away won’t have any other holidays during the year, and sometimes they have never been away until they come along.
‘Transport and cost are two huge issues. We work in partnership with two other Anglican churches, and once we established a pattern of going away they asked if they could join in. It’s now become an important part of our church life.
‘This year we were enabled by the Scargill community to receive a significant bursary towards the cost of a weekend away in Scargill. Previously, our weekends away had mostly been at Quinta. We loved going to Quinta and it was an affordable option with its self-catering and looking-after-yourselves option. Spring Harvest has also been generous with the subsidies for those on benefits and additional bursaries.’
BE OPEN TO FEEDBACK
While you may hope that everything goes swimmingly while you’re away (not literally, perhaps), it may be worth asking the group for feedback so that it can be even better the next time. Pass around feedback forms if it’s easier for people to write down their thoughts.
Plass records some feedback from church member Polly following a silent meal he had organised that hadn’t gone too well. Surprisingly, it had better-than-expected results:
‘It was supposed to be heartwarming and filled with grace and spiritual harmony and all that sort of thing, through the something-or-other soundless meeting of our eyes. I can’t remember the precise wording of the book.’
She giggled and shook her head in wonder. ‘The exact opposite of what happened, then.’
‘Yes. I’m sorry. It was a bit of a disaster. I’m not saying silent meals don’t have a place, but – well, this obviously wasn’t it.’
‘Oh, no, don’t apologise. After all, if Eamonn and Patrick hadn’t played up like they did Enid wouldn’t have complained, and Father John wouldn’t have said what he said, and Enid and I wouldn’t be such good friends now. I’m going round to hers next week.’
She chewed her thumbnail for a moment. ‘This is going to sound silly, but – do you think God sometimes uses these disastery sort of things to make something good happen?’
‘There’s not much hope for me if he doesn’t, Polly.’
Every church weekend cloud has a silver lining, but make sure you take a good-quality umbrella in case there’s a lot of rain to get through before you find it. As Blundell warns, ‘Don’t forget your wellies, waterproofs and sense of humour!’ (And your Bible, of course.)
Comedian Tim Vine on memorable church weekends away
I was at a place called Haldon Court, which I think is somewhere in Devon, and I came down for breakfast and there were the newspapers, announcing that Elvis had died. And I went, ‘Oh look, Elvis has died.’ That’s one of my strongest memories from that particular weekend…I subsequently became a massive Elvis fan.
We also used to go to a place in Clevedon in Bristol…I remember going down a hill on a sort of trolley. About six of us got on the back of the trolley and we just went down this hill on it. I’d only recently had my appendix out, so my mum was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be all right. But I was fine…
Vicar & Gogglebox star Kate Bottley discusses her experiences
Church weekends are strange events. It’s a bit like seeing your secondary school head teacher in Tesco wearing shorts during the summer holidays. The relaxed informality doesn’t suit everyone. The stiff, grumpy usher is out of his suit and, without a pile of notice sheets, he can either emerge beautiful, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, or, to put it bluntly, not. Worse still are the times when the church opts to camp together. There is something deeply disconcerting about seeing the same usher having a strip wash at 7am in a pink washing-up bowl.
I went on one church weekend to a rainy convent in Whitby, North Yorkshire. The good parts were the worship and the bar. The bad bit was a sickness bug that affected five women in the group. A few weeks later we learnt it hadn’t been the chicken chasseur at all. It had, in fact, been a sign that the crèche was about to grow.
We spent two days and three nights listening, praying and worshipping. I’d just become churchwarden, so I valued the prayer. The talks were ok, but I’m easily bored so I spent a lot of time looking out of the window. But it was nice to talk to Betty, who I hadn’t really chatted to before. She ended up being my son’s godmother…And I turned out to be one of the ‘Whitby Five’!
Some of the real joys of the church weekend away can’t be scheduled with the worship, teaching and ministry. You can have the best-planned itinerary with a balance of theological lectures, reflective worship and inspirational prayer, but actually the most memorable bits are sometimes the game of rounders or the treasurer indulging in his best Gloria Gaynor impression for the talent show. It’s not the things you plan that will bring people together; it’s the love of Jesus and the work of his Holy Spirit, even during a wet weekend in Whitby.
Top retreat tips from Scargill House
1// Book well in advance. A lot of venues are booked up months or even years ahead
2// Choose a venue that does it all for you: food, teaching, and kids’ and youth work. That way you can get on with just being together
3// Come with an open mind and an open heart. Give God a chance to do his thing
4// Communicate with your venue and seek their advice. They probably have more knowledge about church weekends away than you do
5// Set up payment plans, allowing people to pay in instalments. Ask those that can pay more to help those that can’t, and ask your venue about potential bursaries for those less able to contribute. Make sure you protect people’s dignity during this process
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