5 Steps to the Personal Retreat Day You Need

Do you ever feel like the urgent is crowding out the important? Like there’s so many things that have to be kept up with that you just can’t seem to get ahead?

I do. Everybody does.

I often talk with other pastors about how ministry is a “black hole” where there’s always more you could do. Over time, I’ve concluded that ministry isn’t unique — all kinds of people have demanding roles that seem to require being “on” all the time. Just ask a mom.

Personal Retreat Day

I’m not sure how it started but a few years ago I began a practice that has made a significant difference in helping me not just work in the ministry, but on the ministry: The Personal Retreat Day.

A Personal Retreat Day is a day set aside to recalibrate and refocus on what is important, big-picture, and vision-oriented.

Everyone needs a day like that every so often. If you’re a leader, you especially need a day like this. And it’s more doable than you think.

Over time, I’ve identified five simple steps that can help make a Personal Retreat Day a refreshing reality.

1. Put a firm day on the calendar.

This is the most important step, because without it a Personal Retreat Day will not happen. The urgent things of life will always give you a reason to do something else.

It can also be the most difficult step because you have to find a day that you can afford to be unavailable and other logistics have to be factored in. I want to schedule a day like this about every six weeks or so, but it’s hard to do it that frequently without some real intentionality.

2. Find a new location.

Personal Retreat Days happen best in a change of scenery, because it puts you in a different frame of mind that allows you to have a different focus. If you go to the typical places you work, you’ll end up doing typical work.

I typically try to get 45 minutes – 2 ½ hours away because that puts me out of my typical radius and it allows me enough time to enjoy the drive. The drive is a huge part of the experience for me, because I typically listen to something thought-provoking on the way there and then listen to my favorite playlist of worship music (while I sing along loudly) on the way back.

3. Take a personal inventory.

The first thing I do when I arrive to my destination is some kind of personal reflection. In this time, I’m asking the question, “How am I doing…really?” I cannot lead where I am not going and I can’t call people to have a thing with God that I don’t have. So reflection and inventory are crucial.

One of my favorite inventories is a series of questions I adapted from a talk I heard years ago by Bill Hybels on “The Art of Self-Leadership” (turned into an article here):

  1. Is my calling sure?
  2. Is my vision clear?
  3. Is my passion hot?
  4. Is my character submitted?
  5. Is my pride subdued?
  6. Are my fears at bay?
  7. Is my pace sustainable?
  8. Are my physical and spiritual practices healthy?
  9. Are my ears open to the whispers of the Spirit?
  10. Are my gifts developing?
  11. Is my heart for God increasing?
  12. Is my capacity for loving deepening?

Journaling through these questions has proven helpful every time.

4. Enjoy some extra time with God.

As a follower of Jesus, I love spending time with him. But the demands of life make it hard to spend generous stretches of unhurried time with God. So use a portion of the day to spend some extra time with God. For me, this often looks like taking a long prayer walk, usually related to things that emerged from taking inventory. Other times, it means studying a portion of scripture that I’ve wanted to examine, reading a book that I’ve wanted to get to, or listening to a sermon.

5. Work “on” your work.

The E-Myth Revisited helpfully explains how leaders cannot just work in their work, but must work on it too. Spend the balance of the day stepping back from the daily grind of tasks, and think about the big picture.

What is your organization’s mission? What’s your role in it? What are the top few things that you bring that nobody else can or is responsible to do? Are you doing enough of those things to keep things moving in the right direction?

Think through the next 30, 60, or 90 days and ask two questions: What is already coming that needs my attention? What can I proactively do to move the mission forward?

Consider doing a 6×6 plan, where you identify the six most important priorities over the next six weeks. If you have an annual plan, spend some time reviewing it.

This space can also be used to work on a bigger project that you’ve had a hard time getting to in the typical routine of work life. I find that I often make bigger progress in shorter time when I do it on a day like this.

It’s Worth It

This practice has been so valuable to my personal life and ministry leadership that my wife often will gently and encouragingly ask if I have a retreat day on the calendar. She’s not just trying to get rid of me for a day–in fact, it’s often a little harder on her when I take these days. But she’s seen the value so much that she encourages me to do it anyway.

Tweak Away…But Do Something

These steps are what I’ve used and enjoyed, but they surely won’t be best for everybody. So tweak them as necessary and find what works for you. But don’t let your tweaks be an excuse not to do it. The practice of getting away is so helpful that I’d hate for it to be lost in the paralysis of seeking perfection.

[A Note to Those Who Don’t Have Much Freedom]

I wrote this post primarily for the staff I lead at Redemption Gateway, for those who lead at high levels, and for many other pastors who I have relationships with. I realize that many people don’t have the kind of job with the freedom to have a day like this “count” for work. A few thoughts:

  1. The more of a leadership role you have, the more important a Personal Retreat Day is. If you’re working in a job more as a doer than a leader, you probably don’t need this kind of day as much.
  2. If you have a boss, ask about the possibility of doing a Personal Retreat Day from time to time. Explain why you think it would be valuable not just to you, but the organization. Ask to experiment with it quarterly and test the results.
  3. If you are a leader and can’t get time away from your boss, use personal time for it. Take a vacation day or set up an occasional weekend day. Sure, that can be costly, but it will probably be worth the cost.
  4. If you are a mom (household CEO), see what kind of support you can get from your husband or others in a way that would allow you to do a version of this from time to time. Just a few Personal Retreat Days per year could work wonders for your soul and your home.
  5. If you just can’t do something like a Personal Retreat Day, then don’t. This post isn’t designed to make anyone feel bad or carry extra guilt. Rather, it’s attempting to share a helpful practice for those who can benefit from it.

Have you done a Personal Retreat Day? What has been helpful for you?


Why and How to Create Family Rites of Passage

This past Monday was a special day for our family. Next week our second daughter begins Kindergarten, so it was the perfect time for her to experience her first rite of passage.

Simply defined, a rite of passage is “a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life.”

rite of passage
Chef David Traina talks with Caitlin about creativity

For our family, I’m thinking to create special experiences at 4 key stages in our kids’ lives:

1. Beginning school — preparing for a life of learning.
2. Turning 10 — preparing for a life of purity.
3. Turning 13 — preparing for a life of decisions.
4. Turning 18 — preparing for a life on your own.

So far, we’ve taken our two oldest daughters through #1 (more details below). It’s been wonderful so far, and I’m looking forward to how God will use the experiences to come.

Why Rites of Passage?

1. Special moments deserve special attention. These key transition moments should be celebrated and enjoyed in intentional ways.

2. Big moments create meaningful memories. We tend to remember more when something is a big deal. Thus, rites of passage are wonderful opportunities to shape our kids with important lessons through special memories. These memories also create markers that can be referred to in the future.

3. Rites of passage force parental intentionality. Thinking through a special experience devoted to celebrating and forming our children requires intentional thinking about who are kids are and what lessons we hope to impart. This kind of intentionality is tough in day-to-day life.

4. They are fun! That’s a pretty good reason.

How to do Rites of Passage

1. Decide when is appropriate. My moments are above, but yours may be different. Think about your family and decide what’s best.

2. Determine what you hope to communicate. Each rite of passage experience should be fun, but it should also be formative. For our kids pre-kindergarten experiences, we decided we wanted to share with them four important lessons they would need for their entire life of learning. While there was some overlap, we customized these lessons to the needs of our specific kids.

We wanted our oldest to learn:

(1) Endurance — being able to keep going when something is difficult.

(2) Fun — enjoying what you are experiencing.

(3) Courage — doing something you are afraid of.

(4) Trust God — believing God loves you and will take care of you.

For our second daughter, we kept lessons #1 and #4 but changed the others to better fit her needs:

(2) Teamwork — depending on other people who can help you.

(3) Creativity — using your imagination to create new things.

3. Design the experience. Figure out what kind of experiences (a) are reasonable to do, (b) would communicate creatively, and (c) sound fun. The experience need not be expensive, though it might be worth it if you’re only doing a few in a kids’ lifetime.

For our kids’ pre-kindergarten experiences, we created an experience that would correspond to each lesson we were hoping to teach. As you can see, some were more involved than others:

(1) Endurance — a morning hike up “A” mountain in Tempe. Quite a feat, especially with no complaining.

(2a) Fun — swimming at Mesquite Groves Aquatic Center, a local pool with a small water park.

(2b) Teamwork — a blindfolded obstacle course through a local playground/park, directed by the voice of sister, mom and dad. Also, a 300 piece puzzle that required help.

(3a) Courage — a horseback riding experience with an acquaintance who was so gracious and kind.

(3b) Creativity — a backstage kitchen tour with our friend, Chef David Traina, at Liberty Market followed by a chance to create her own pizza.

(4) Trust God — a “real” Bible, with name engraved.

As you design the experience, think about the people you know, resources you have, and places you could go. Also, for both #3 lessons, I found that people were eager to help us create these experiences with limited cost once they heard what it was about.

4. Deepen the lessons with reminders. Because these moments are so memorable, they provide many opportunities to remind and reinforce the lessons. Even today we can say to our oldest, “Remember when you rode that horse and needed courage? Here’s another chance to be courageous.”

It’s quite likely that not everyone would enjoy something like this. It fits my entrepreneurial, learning-driven personality really well. We have a blast doing it. That said, rites of passage are not a moral imperative. They also are not a golden bullet that are guaranteed to produce some particular result. But so far, they’ve been a lot of fun!

What are some ideas you have for rites of passages?


Lessons From a Weekend Alone With the Kids

home-alone-featureThis past weekend, Molly traveled to Ohio for a baby shower for her brother’s wife. She was gone Thursday-Monday and I was home alone with our 5 and 7 year-old daughters. We had a great time and I learned a few important things.

1. My kids are a lot of fun. They are creative, funny, smart, and kind (98% of the time). We had a great time taking a bike ride, playing Monopoly, climbing at Riverview Park, and trying to do cartwheels (harder than I remember). Additionally, I went to visit a friend in the hospital on Saturday night and was able to leave the girls in the waiting room by themselves, knowing they would be respectful and patient enough to handle it.

2. Being a single parent is tough, especially without some help. Fortunately, my parents are around and were able to take the girls a few times when I had some things I needed to do alone. I needed their help more than anticipated. Gave me a new level of compassion for single parents, especially if they don’t have family around.

3. My wife works really hard. Molly is a “work-at-home” mom (I like that phrase), meaning her “full-time job” is to care for our kids and home. She’s amazing at it. And this weekend showed me (and the girls) how much work it takes. At one point, Abby was folding some laundry and exclaimed, “Boy, maybe I should help mom with this! It sure is a lot of work!” I felt the same thing as I loaded laundry, cleaned up, and tried to keep the house from looking like a bomb went off. I appreciate her at a whole new level.

4. Electronics are an easy (and sometimes really helpful) distraction. It’s easy to rail on electronics and we all know the many ills and temptations that come with them. Too many parents’ parenting strategy seems to be to plop a kid in front of a screen to distract them. This weekend showed me why this is such an attractive option — it’s hard to match energy levels with kids. And it’s a lot easier than helping them figure out how to play together. At the same time, I thank God for Minion Rush on iPhone. There were a few moments when it was wonderfully helpful to have a few moments alone to gather my thoughts while they clamored over the game. Used sparingly and intentionally, electronics are great.

5. I love my wife. It’s not the same without her. She’s an amazing fit in my life and I’m weaker without her.


A Simple Plan for Daddy Dates

Every good dad I know intentionally spends time with his kids. Most dads also think about how to spend good one-on-one time with each kid. But many dads I know want to do daddy dates more often, with more intentionality. They need a plan.

daddy dates

Here’s the plan that I’ve been using with my two daughters: We do something special every month on the day of their birthday.

Abby’s birthday is July 11 and Caitlin’s is October 25. So on the 11th of each month I do something special with Abby and on the 25th of each month I do something special with Caitlin.

“Something special” doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to be intentional. Sometimes I make the plans and sometimes I let them pick. We’ve gone to FlipSide to play $5 worth of arcade games, we’ve gone to a park for a homemade picnic, we’ve gone to the movies. Today (the 25th), Caitlin and I will go to breakfast — she’s hoping it’s McDonalds.

This plan has a few advantages:

1. It’s scheduled automatically. Instead of having to think about when to do a date, I can just think about what we’ll do.

2. The regularity gives the girls (and me) something to look forward to. They know their day is coming and they begin to build anticipation even a week or two in advance.

3. It’s a sustainable tradition. It might be great to do a date more often, but this is something could last as long as they’re in my home (my hope).

Now, I know that this plan may not be as helpful for people with lots more kids, especially if their birth “days” all line up in the same week. We’re expecting our third child this summer, due on Abby’s birthday, so I’ll get a chance to see how it goes.

The point really is this: Have a plan. It may not need to be this one. Perhaps you can think of something better. But have a plan.

Your kids — and your long term relationship with them — are worth it.

Do You Know What it Really Means to Abide in Christ?

abideAbiding in Christ is not optional for effective Christian leadership. If you want to do true spiritual good, you must walk in dependence. Francis Schaeffer said that the central problem of our age is:

the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit.

If you are in ministry leadership, you have no doubt exhorted those you lead to abide in Christ. But do you know what it really means to abide in Christ? The answer may surprise you.

The biblical text where Jesus focuses on abiding in him is John 15. Here we learn three things about abiding in Christ. Each of them unfolds a deeper layer that eventually helps us get to the bottom of what it is to abide in Christ.

1. Abiding in Christ is Essential for Fruitfulness.

Jesus says:

4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. (John 15:4-9, ESV)

If you abide in Christ, you: (a) will bear much fruit, (b) can do something, (c) have confidence of answered prayer, (d) can glorify God. In other words, abiding in Christ is essential for fruitfulness.

2. Abiding in Christ is Obeying His Commandments.

Jesus then digs a layer deeper, helping us see what it is to abide in him:

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:10-11, ESV)

So…abiding is obeying. We withdraw from abiding in Christ when we choose disobedience. When we obey, by faith, we draw near to Christ and abide in him. Additionally, according to verse 11, this is a path of real joy.

3. Abiding in Christ is Obeying His Commandment to Love.

Here we get to the root of the issue. What is it to really — at the deepest level — abide in Christ?

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:12-17, ESV)

Do you follow the logic?

Abiding in Christ = Obeying His Commandments
His Commandment = Love One Another
Abiding in Christ = Love One Another

We often think of abiding in Christ as prayer or having a quiet time. Surely this is a good thing, part of obeying his commandments. But the root of abiding in Christ is loving one another with sacrificial love.


A few concluding thoughts for ministry leaders:

  1. You stay closest to Christ when you really love others.
  2. You can have a terrific quiet time but if you are using people to prop up your fragile ego or misplaced identity, rather than loving them, you are not really abiding in Christ.
  3. We must see people as the precious bride of Christ and love them as he does.
  4. Real fruitfulness happens in a ministry of love.

What other ways would you apply this lesson about abiding?

“It Doesn’t Have to be Your Favorite”

not favoriteThis phrase, coined by my wife, has become a new mantra in our home.

You’ll hear it as we dish up dinner onto colored plastic plates…

You’ll hear it as we discuss our plans for the day…

You’ll hear it as we select the radio station in the van…

You’ll hear it as we pick a movie to watch…

“It doesn’t have to be your favorite.”

What a great reminder.

In a world where I can have so many things exactly as I want them (think of your favorite frozen yogurt shop), I’m trying to keep in mind that everything doesn’t have to be my favorite.

Family life is filled with the mundane. There’s much more house cleaning and diaper changing than spectacular sex.

Work is often repetitive and tedious. There are more unmemorable emails to write than high-pressure deals to close.

Church is usually pretty ordinary. It’s more often the same band, same preacher, same people, and same order of service rather than a surprise visit from your favorite podcast preacher.

This is okay, because it doesn’t have to be your favorite.

Let’s keep our heads down, thank God for what we have, and remember that God owes us nothing. Much of what he gives is far beyond what we deserve and often more than we need — even if it isn’t always our favorite.

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

SummerVacationI love vacation. Some people never quite use all of their vacation time — I’m not one of them.

It’s not that I don’t love my job. I do. But it’s a demanding job that makes time away particularly sweet.

This summer I was away for three weeks. The first week was for the annual Acts29 Network Pastor’s Retreat (which is more like a conference). The second two weeks were in Colorado visiting friends and family.

Along the way I learned a number of things, some important and some not-so-much. Here goes.

1. Physical environment impacts you in powerful ways.

One of my favorite things to do in Colorado was sit outside and read. I was in the shade, surrounded by tall trees with leaves that rustled in the wind. It was so peaceful.

I could have done the same activity in a different place and it wouldn’t have been as refreshing.

God has wired us in such a way that our hearts and bodies connect with our physical surroundings. We aren’t virtual people. We’re real people who are moved in powerful ways by our surroundings.

2. Sleep is really important.

As somebody who has almost always slept well, I’ve tended to take it for granted. But then about two months ago I started sleeping poorly, often waking up at 3am unable to fall back asleep. I don’t take it for granted anymore.

I was blessed to sleep on vacation until 8-9am most days. I feel a lot better as a result.

It’s reminded me of John Piper’s “Brief Theology of Sleep”, where he reminds us that sleep is a reminder that we’re not God.

3. People are different.

This is kind of a no-brainer, but what made me think about this was a 25-mile bike ride we took from Frisco, CO to Keystone, CO and back around Dillon Reservoir. The scenery was beautiful, but the bike ride was terrible.

My wife and best friend Matthew both love to cycle. For the life of me, I can’t imagine what is enjoyable about it.

Good reminder that people are different. What refreshes me doesn’t always refresh everyone else, and vice-versa.

4. It’s nice to go to church with no responsibility for the service.

I attended three churches while I was gone: Colorado Community Church, Mission Hills Church, and Park Church.

I had a great experience at all three churches. In particular, I heard three solid sermons that encouraged and blessed me.

It’s wonderful to have a time when you can just come to church, participate in the service and enjoy it without thinking about preaching a sermon, order of service, technical issues, etc.

At Mission Hills they offered for people to come forward for prayer in response to the sermon. It was a joy to go forward, receive prayer, and be encouraged.

5. Constant online connection is overrated and unnecessary.

I worked quite hard to unplug during vacation. No email. No blog reading. No Facebook or Twitter.

To enforce this, I uninstalled Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and Feedly from my phone. I also tucked the native iPhone Mail app into a folder that made it tougher to get to.

For the first few days, anytime I had a down moment waiting in line or something, I found myself reaching into my pocket for my phone. But it’s more out of habit than necessity. It took a while, but not having these things led to a greater sense of freedom and enjoyment.

I’ve been back now for a week and a half and haven’t reinstalled them. I’m using all these things again, but don’t need them on my phone. When I’m on a computer, I can check that stuff. Otherwise, it’s not that crucial.

Sure, there were 414 emails to sift through and 684 articles in my blog reader upon my return. But almost none of those were as urgent as I often trick myself into thinking when I feel the need to check every 10 seconds.