60 Church Retreat Planning Ideas, Themes and Tips
A church retreat can provide a much-needed change of scenery, creating a space where new relationships are built and new ideas can be contemplated without the distractions of daily life. Here are 60 ideas you can use to plan your next church retreat and ensure all those plans lead up to a meaningful time that really makes an impact.
Pre-Retreat Planning Tips
- Plan with a Purpose – About six months to a year ahead of time, begin to pray and ask for guidance on what God wants to be the outcome of this retreat. Ask others close to your ministry what some of the needs are in your adults or students. Once you have a focused objective, you can choose your agenda and location with this in mind.
- Recruit People to Help Plan – People who plan together, retreat together. Get your key players to lead your main areas of need: content, venue and food. Then add other leaders for optional offerings like worship times, organized free time and small group time. These folks can then recruit more volunteers to help execute (see below). Delegation is a beautiful thing! Genius Tip: Create an online sign up to organize a retreat planning committee.
- Ask Volunteers to Execute Your Plan – Encourage your planning volunteers to have three to five people who will help execute their designated task for your retreat (or even consider hiring some professionals, like meal preparation or musicians). This will lift the burden off one person.
- Pick a Venue – Calling early (up to a year in advance) is a good idea. Have your space needs in mind: large group versus break-out/small group. For students, think about spaces to play and socialize.
- Plan Lodging – The best retreats usually have the meeting venue in close proximity to the lodging (ideally on site), so research options and price ranges to find what best fits your needs. Some sites may offer different room prices for participants, which is a nice option for those on a budget.
- Book a Facilitator or Speaker – Great teaching is essential to a retreat, so bring in speakers you are familiar with and who can connect with the theme for your weekend. If you will be using someone within your congregation, make sure it is a fresh voice that they are not used to hearing every week.
- Schedule Some Fun – Start gathering small gifts or prize items for drawings, grab bags or giveaways during your retreat. Who doesn't like free stuff? Genius Tip: Create an online sign up to ask for donations.
- Check the Church/Community Calendar – Be sure to double check your church and school district calendars so you don’t, for example, plan a youth retreat the same weekend as everyone’s prom.
- Publicize – It’s very unlikely your church will hear that it over-communicated something going on. Don’t underestimate the importance of getting the word out via your online newsletter, web site, social media, mailings, foyer tables and paper bulletin. And be enthusiastic when you sign people up — sell the event!
- Consider Registration – Deadlines are always a hassle, with many people waiting until the last minute to register for events. Always communicate with an attitude of grace, but try to get firm numbers one to two weeks in advance of your retreat, especially because of meal-planning and room assignments. Decide if you have wiggle room for latecomers. Genius Tip: Use an online sign up to register participants and collect payments.
- Create a Schedule – For kids, it’s important to schedule pretty much every minute up until you want them to fall into bed exhausted. For teens, you can let them have more free time to enjoy fellowship or “hanging out.” And for adults, scheduling in time for quiet reflection or for group activities to build community are always a good use of your retreat time.
- Plan for Food – As you secure your venue, you will want to find out the cost of eating food made onsite versus bringing in some meals (breakfast is an easy one to provide) — or a combination of both. Consider providing water and snacks during breaks.
- Share a Packing List – This may seem like a no-brainer if you are hosting a retreat for adults, but there may be details participants are unaware of, such as bringing their own bedding, towels, swimsuits, etc. For youth, send a copy to the student AND the parent (and send it more than once).
- Remember to Budget – Think about adding $5 to registration to help cover unexpected expenses and raise scholarship funds for those who might struggle with the cost. Consider using bus transportation versus 15-passenger vans for youth and arrange carpools for adults to help save on cost.
- Communicate Policies – It is good to get in writing what is expected about behavior — both during travel and at the retreat — including care for the facility and consequences for not following these policies.
- Integrate Technology – Give yourself three to six months in advance to rent or borrow equipment and start training people early to set up microphones/cables, run the sound board, set up computer presentations and problem solve. Consider what equipment you will need for programming that includes slide shows, video announcements or skits.
- Bring Musical Equipment – Be sure to check with the venue ahead of time if you want amplified music and to see what equipment they can provide for your retreat programming.
- Get Decorating and Entertaining – These are the “icing on the cake” to retreats but can increase the fun and excitement level quite a bit, especially if you decorate around your theme in a creative way. Include some fun skits that are either totally random (like a beach ball ballet routine) or have a subtle spiritual message. Get folks who love to do this — it will be easy for them!
- Evaluate the Weekend – If you want some feedback, hand out golf pencils and a quick half page evaluation for participants to fill out and hand back while they are still gathered.
- Give Thanks – Remember to have thank you notes on hand to be signed by your leadership team for those who have gone above and beyond to help execute your weekend. Consider giving your lead volunteers a small gift for their time and input. Genius Tip: Try these low-cost volunteer appreciation gift ideas.
Women's Retreat Themes
- Planted by God – Everything about a plant reflects aspects of our spiritual life, from strong roots and healthy growth to pruning and producing fruit. With this garden-themed retreat, there is a lot of potential for creativity, activities and enjoying nature as you study God's guidance for growth in the Bible. Verses to use: John 15:1-17; Matthew 13:3-8.
- Contemplative Life – A great temptation is to make plans for ourselves rather than contemplating the truth and plans of God. Build in sessions of intentional silence for meditation and scripture study to get back to what is guiding participants in this season of life. This would be a great retreat for the spring when your group can scatter outside for time alone. Include a few fun skits on contemplating crazy things like social media obsession to break up the seriousness. Verses to use: Psalm 1:2; 2 Corinthians 3:4-5.
- Better Not Bitter – What causes bitterness and what does it look like? This retreat can also have fun elements like group “break into dance” sessions, and ways to seek more joy and contentment in life by pursuing passions and learning about your special spiritual gifts. Verses to use: Ruth 1:20; Hebrews 12:14-15; Ephesians 4:31-32.
- A Heart of Remembrance – God tells us over and over to remember what he has done for us, but we rarely take time to reflect and remember what God is doing or has done in our lives already. This retreat is a great idea for sharing life stories, testimonies of God’s faithfulness and learning to use our spiritual rearview mirror to look back — and our spiritual windshield to look forward to all God is going to do in the future. Verse to use: Deuteronomy 4:9.
- Hear Me – Women do lots of listening in this world, but do they feel listened to, especially by God? This retreat can include times of contemplative prayer and studying Biblical examples of being heard by God. Give each woman a journal to record prayers and write down how God heard them and answered. Consider having a licensed professional counselor available for the weekend for times of listening and encouragement. Verses to use: Psalm 55:2 and 1 John 5:14.
Register participants for a women’s retreat with a sign up! SAMPLE
Men's Retreat Themes
- Double Identity – Getting to the heart of integrity means examining whether you are leading a double life or holding double standards. You can incorporate some fun James Bond-type missions where there is intentional identity-switching involved, but the goal is to align all aspects of life (work, home, play) with the same standards of Godly conduct. Verses to use: Proverbs 11:3; Proverbs 4:25-27.
- Reflecting Christ – King David was called a “man after God's own heart,” yet he was far from perfect. Men today need to be reminded to run from temptation for the sake of their families, confess sin to be set free and rely on God in an intimate way — all lessons that can be learned from the life of David in a retreat setting. Verses to use: 1 Samuel 13:14; 2 Samuel 12:1-7.
- Allied with God – Many men are fans of superheroes, and it’s fun to look at those characters and their sidekicks to see how important it is to be allied with the King of Kings. Verse to use: Romans 8:31 reminds us that, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
- Chose You This Day – Joshua 24:15 is more than just a nice plaque for the family room, it is a statement challenging modern-day men to lead their families with integrity, grace and servant-leadership. Even single men, who are a family of one, can be inspired to shape their lives as being a servant of God rather than the world. Verse to use: Joshua 24:15.
- Chords of Courage – If you are wanting to foster accountability groups among your men, kick off that endeavor with a retreat where men can do some bonding and find those with whom they can go deeper into an accountability relationship. Break men into pairs or groups of three and give them some problems to work on or some puzzles to solve. Verses to use: Ecclesiastes 4:8-12, Proverbs 27:17, James 5:16, Hebrews 10:24-25.
Couple’s Retreat Themes
- Team Family – Raising a family is best done as a team effort (with God as your coach!), and the strongest couples do well to develop a playbook for parenting. Attendees will prayerfully seek to understand parenting beliefs that will build their family into a strong team and learn about other views that could threaten their unity. Activities such as phone app scavenger hunts (for parents who need to be updated on technology) and diaper-changing relays can help make for a fun retreat. Verse to use: Ecclesiastes 4:12.
- Sacrificial Love – Couples often start marriage WANTING to love unconditionally, but somewhere that desire gets off track as outside expectations start to overshadow serving each other. This retreat is especially effective if you can pair “mentor couples” with younger couples to help them examine whether they have realistic expectations of marriage, or hold beliefs that will be a hindrance to loving their spouse in a Christ-like way. Verse to use: John 15:13.
- Conflict Under the Microscope – Couples have the chance to examine what desires are at war within themselves that then cause conflict in their marriage. Role-playing and even making a professional conflict coach available are great ways to help couples deeply examine their ability to fight fair. Verse to use: James 4:1.
- Upcycling in Marriage – Taking pain and turning it into wisdom is a powerful tool in marriage, but it doesn't come easily. Couples will go away with strategies for communicating during suffering as well as knowing when to seek outside help. Sprinkle in light moments with a “wailing into dancing” dance party and “clothed with gladness” fashion show. Verses to use: Psalm 30:11; John 16:33.
- Welcoming the Holy Spirit – If couples examine the fruit of the spirit, they realize this is the guidebook for a “dream marriage.” Examining each attribute along with some fruit-related decor can lead to really refreshing each marriage with an infusion of the Holy Spirit. Verses to use: Galatians 5:22-23.
Organize registration for a couple's retreat with a sign up! SAMPLE
Elementary School Youth Retreat Themes
- Global Prayer Explosion – To get kids thinking outside of their own experience, consider a retreat that introduces a few focus countries. Spend time learning about those cultures and praying for missionaries and the movement of God's spirit in those places. Activities can include making tape outlines of those countries on a gym floor and praying for different cities or having a few meals that introduce an item from a focus country. Verses to use: 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 2 Chronicles 7:14.
- Heart Cultivation – Using the parable of the soil and other verses, your retreat can focus on cultivating the heart with God's word to produce good, strong roots and the fruit of the spirit. This theme provides lots of potential gardening and growing activities, opportunities to get outside and games that are farm-related like wheelbarrow and feed sack races. Verses to use: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.
- Under Construction – Orange construction cones and caution signs can help bring home the theme that there is a way God wants us to go — and that we are smart to figure out God's road signs to holy living. Even children, when given time to think, can sort out wisdom from folly. Verses to use: Isaiah 30:21; Proverbs 12:15; Proverbs 14:16.
- Recipe for Righteousness – With a handful of no-bake recipes and some fun activities like flour sack races and messy food games, you have the makings of a fun retreat for kids that incorporates cooking with looking at the Bible for the ingredients to a life set apart for God. Verses to use: Proverbs 21:2; 1 Timothy 6:11.
- Anchored to The Rock – If your retreat site has access to water, consider using nautical decor for a theme that contrasts being anchored to Jesus versus anchored to things that won’t hold steady (like a talent, sports or even friendships). Discovering that God is always a trustworthy anchor in times of trouble is a foundational truth for a child's faith. Verse to use: Hebrews 6:16-19.
Middle School Youth Retreat Themes
- Olympics – Years when the Olympics are held are instant theme-makers. Talk about what happens to our bodies when we run, what is endurance (and what is spiritual endurance?) and incorporate some silly relays and races to drive home your theme. Verses to use: Acts 20:23-24.
- Relationship Toolbox – Friendships can shift unexpectedly in middle school. At this retreat, participants are encouraged to identify that the real enemy is Satan and that he tries to discourage us through unhealthy relationships or our own selfish actions. Give tools for setting boundaries in friendship, as well as for how to love and forgive when friends hurt us. Verse to use: Romans 12:14-21.
- Ocean of God's Love – Have a swash-buckling weekend of pirate fun as you jump in the deep waters of God's amazing love and discover what His forgiveness means for us: freedom from condemnation, freedom from fear and confidence in Christ. Verses to use: Romans 8:1; Matthew 10:28; Deuteronomy 31:6.
- Feet to the Street – If your middle school group could use an injection of “get out there!” then consider a retreat that incorporates serving people in real ways. You can even start your retreat with a real Jesus feet-washing experience by having students wash each other's feet as their first act of service. This is a great one-day retreat that can incorporate other ministries in your city that serve the needy. Verses to use: John 13:12-17; Hebrews 6:10.
- Your Born Identity – Examining your identity in Christ helps cultivate a great sense of self during the middle years. You can pick age appropriate clips from “The Bourne Identity” movies to infuse some excitement and see how identity confusion can happen even in our spiritual lives. Verses to use: 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 12:2.
Teen Youth Retreat Themes
- Energized to Serve – Bring a focus on health into the zone of faith and teach how God wants us to care for ourselves so we can better care for others. You can include silly “strength building” competitions but also incorporate faith-building exercises. Verses to use: 1 Timothy 4:8; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
- Relationship Do-Over – Taking time to talk about family, friends and foes can help students reframe teen relationships with faith and start thinking about the concepts of grace and forgiveness. This retreat can include role-playing exercises for productive communication, healthy boundary building tips and times of solitude to work through relationships that need healing and forgiveness. Verses to use: 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Colossians 1:19-22.
- Throne of Life – We can put many things as master of our life, but for God's presence and peace, he wants lordship of our life. Challenge teens, especially new believers, to solidify their faith in God and examine how he can guide and direct all areas of their lives. Verses to use: 2 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 8:6.
- Wise Guys – Teens can feel like they know it all, but what does true wisdom really look like? Examine worldly desires and Godly wisdom — plus incorporate some goofy quiz shows and the chance to show off pop culture “wisdom.” Verse to use: James 3:17.
- Inside Out – The Disney Pixar movie Inside Out is a good jumping off point for talking about how we navigate loss and sacrifice. Bring in a faith perspective to remind that God is on our side. How would Riley’s responses be different if she processed them through prayer? When we bring our feelings from the inside out, God can help us deal with them in a healthy way. Verses to use: Psalm 34:18; Psalm 73:26.
Have students RSVP for a youth beach retreat with a sign up! SAMPLE
Even More Tips for a Great Retreat
- Create a Retreat Playlist – Music can really set the tone, whether it is fun beats during meals, quiet music to help focus (and block out distracting noises) or upbeat inspirational tunes before a speaker begins. Consider making a playlist and ask about the sound system at your venue to see when music can be incorporated into your event.
- Plan Worship Times – Three songs for a worship set is usually a reliable number. Introducing a new song that is theme-related is a good idea only if you incorporate it into several worship sets so there is time for people to really learn it.
- Tap Into the Friend Factor – It may seem like a no-brainer, but encourage the buddy system when recruiting for retreats with an “everybody bring a friend” motto. Some people will sign up and be comfortable going alone, but most people, young and old, like knowing even one other person.
- Plan a Do-over – If you foresee that you will make retreats a yearly endeavor, consider recycling themes after three or four years. It’s a lot easier to infuse new content into a great theme then recreate everything all over again.
- Plan in Bathroom Breaks – It might be wonderful to spend one of your sessions down by the lake, but remember that keeping long meetings at a location far from restrooms (especially for older folks) is asking for lots of people to make lengthy exits! Be sure to build breaks into your schedule.
- Pack Your Cables - Getting to a venue and not having cables for microphones or cords for computers is a huge bummer. Make sure before you leave for your retreat site that all your cables are packed and labeled.
- Think About Bang for Your Buck – If you have a paid speaker, be sure that they talk for several sessions or offer smaller breakout time for questions so that participants feel like they are getting their money’s worth. Shoot for 45-minute sessions, but go longer if you are incorporating small group sessions or stretch breaks.
- Do a Walk Through – It’s a good idea to visit your venue and walk through areas where your participants will be staying, playing and praying to make sure it is conducive to your retreat goals.
- Plan for Homesickness – For your younger retreat attendees, this may be their first time away from home. Include enough activity to keep them going until they drop into bed, too preoccupied to think about home.
- Have an Exit Strategy – Don’t run your program right up to the minute you need to load the buses or everyone will leave the retreat stressed. Build in time for packing and cleaning the retreat venue and you will be welcomed back with open arms.
Church retreats are a great way for students, adults and couples in your congregation to intentionally pause life for a brief period and start to implement true change. By incorporating a great theme with lots of thoughtful planning and prayer, you can begin to create that opportunity for life change that God opens up in a special way at church retreats.
Julie David is married to a worship pastor and after 20 years in ministry together with three daughters, she is still developing the tender balance of thick skin and gracious heart. She currently leads a small group of high school girls.