A good average time frame for a personal retreat is about two to three days. Spending at least one night away allows you to settle in and get started, then sleep on what you have accomplished. You can then awake refreshed and ready to go farther and dig deeper. Three days and two nights is optimal, affording you a block of time that allows for unhurried prayer, thorough study, quiet meditation, sufficient rest, and even some refreshing exercise. How often one retreats varies by personal preference, but consider going two to four times a year.
The right environment makes a personal retreat especially productive. Neither the church nor home works well for this. There are too many interruptions and distractions. If someone in your congregation offers you the use of a second house, a cabin, an apartment, or other vacant residence, consider yourself blessed! If you live near a Christian camp or retreat center, there may be a room there that you can use. There are ministries around the country that provide retreat accommodations for people in ministry, often with very economical rates, some even at no cost. It is preferable to have no television or even Internet service. Control the access people have to you by having your secretary or your wife take messages and notify you of emergencies. Look and pray for some unique, out of the way place where you can meet with the Lord.
There are several different goals a pastor may have for his personal retreat. They may include long range planning for the church, personal spiritual renewal, seeking direction for a specific decision or problem, and others. As you begin your retreat, write out your specific goals. This will help you to plan your schedule.
One very profitable goal for a personal retreat is extensive studying and planning for preaching. If this is your goal, spend significant time praying for the Lord to lead you to the passages He wants you to preach from and the subjects you should emphasize in your preaching ministry. Then do background study, gain general knowledge about the book or section of scripture you will be preaching from, and begin “spadework” in some of the passages. You can plan your sermon texts and topics for months in advance. Circumstances later may require you to adjust, but it is better to have to change your plan than to have no plan at all.
There are two different kinds of schedules that I have followed on a personal retreat. One is very structured, with blocks of time for prayer, meditation, study, and even meals, rest, and exercise. I put a copy of the schedule where I can refer to it and pace my work accordingly. That way I accomplish my goals and avoid wasting time on distractions.
The other approach one can use is to not have a schedule. Begin praying and meditating on Scripture, and let God speak. As you find yourself concentrating on certain passages, begin digging into them. As you are drawn to certain truths, pursue them. Open your heart to the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit to you. Meet with God!
You will want to have all the necessary materials with you for a profitable time away. Your retreat checklist should include your Bible, key reference books you often use, commentaries on passages you may be studying, computer, pads, pens, highlighters, paper clips and sticky notes (for keeping notes organized), and your personal journal. Don’t forget to take some good coffee (or other favorite drink that helps you think!)
The idea of a personal retreat may seem like a luxury. Some may wonder how it is possible to fit it into their already crammed calendar. Pastors who are conscientious about their use of time and money may feel guilty. Who can justify the expense of going away in order to be alone? The truth is, if you schedule a block of time for intense prayer, study, and planning, you are making an investment that will prove extremely productive later. You will be spiritually and mentally invigorated. There will be noticeable purpose, precision, depth, and passion in your preaching. Rather than feeling like you are behind in your study each week, you will be encouraged by knowing that you have already done significant preliminary work. You will have the confidence that comes from really praying for God’s direction for your preaching ministry and responding to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Take a personal retreat. Your heart will be filled and your people will be blessed.