By Tim Massengale
Mark North picked up the telephone and dialed Vernon Baker’s number. The elderly pastor answered on the second ring.
“Greetings and salutations,” Mark said with a grin, leaning back in his office chair. “Have I caught you at a bad time?”
“No, I’m okay. Just sitting here going over my notes for tonight’s Bible study. What’s up?”
“Not too much – just wanted to ask you for a favor. We have our Annual Planning Retreat coming up in a couple of months – October 22nd. I wanted to know if you could attend and speak to my leaders on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. I want to include with the planning with some inspirational encouragement. I’ve done it myself the last two years, so I thought it would be good to have a special guest speaker this time.”
“Well, I don’t know how special I would be – but let me check my calendar.” Mark could hear papers shuffle. “October 22nd you said? Sure, as long as I don’t get back too late Saturday evening. An old man needs his rest in order to preach good you know.” He chuckled.
“Yah, right. You can preach circles around me tired or not. But we are having it at a lodge on Lake Sumter – that’s about ninety minutes north of here. After you speak on Saturday afternoon, you’re welcome to stay for dinner – we are barbecuing ribs and brats with all the fixings. You could be home by six o’clock I think.”
“You sold me – Let’s do it.”
“Great! We will start on Friday evening about 7:00 PM. We have a room for you at the lodge. Your ideas and suggestions would be great as we do our yearly planning.”
“So how’s the Annual Planning Retreat concept been working for you?” Elder Baker asked.
“Fantastic! I am so glad you introduced the idea to me. I have found that there are two keys to keeping my leaders excited: First, they need fresh ideas and creative solutions to problems. You can’t let your leaders and ministries fall into a rut. Every department needs to stay fresh and innovative in the task of reaching their annual goals.
“Then second, I must allow my leaders to participate in the development of those plans and solutions. When they are involved in the plan development, they become committed in seeing them succeed. The Annual Planning Retreat provides exactly that kind of atmosphere because we brainstorm new ideas, share needs, solve problems, and coordinate plans and activities. It also unifies my leaders into a team. I would say it’s been one of our most successful leadership activities yet.”
“That’s wonderful, Mark. Glad to know it’s working for you.”
“Thanks. But I have a few questions if you have a moment. When you have your planning retreat, how much time do you spend setting dates for various departmental activities?”
The old pastor let out a snort. “Very little. In fact, we try to avoid date setting all together at the retreat. Oh, the obvious dates we will set: Easter, Pentecost Sunday, Anniversary service, Christmas, Watch night, and so on. But for departmental activities, I tell my leaders to select the month they want the activity to be in and we’ll write that activity at the top of that month’s calendar page. Later, we set the exact date at the Monthly Planning Council. We always plan at least three months in advance.”
Mark nodded. “That makes sense. We seem to spend half our time arguing about the dates of various events and half of them are changed later anyway. We’ll avoid setting a lot of dates this year and see how that works out.
“One more question – one of my leaders is trying to get me to have the retreat after the first of the year instead of in the fall. He also wants to have it locally instead of going out of town. What’s your thoughts?”
“I personally would advise against it. Your Annual Planning Retreat should be special. In a sense, it’s a reward for your leaders for all their hard work. As you know, planning retreats can be expensive. The cost of renting the facility and providing food isn’t cheap. Now, when my church was small, we went to the YMCA camp. My saints divided up lists and brought their own food. So my only expense was the camp, and since I rented it in the off season, we got a great rate. But now we are larger and can afford nicer accommodations, the church will pay for most of it. But if possible, you want to go out of town, at least an hour away, and stay overnight. This makes it a very special event for your leaders and they look forward to it every year.
The old pastor continued. “I would also keep the planning retreat in the fall. Remember, you are planning the upcoming calendar year. If you wait until January you could possibly lose your first two months for activities, because it takes time to plan and organize events. I guess you could have it in January and plan March through February. But January is awfully cold and weather can cause problems. I guess I just love fall retreats when all the leaves are falling and before the holiday season starts. But it’s your decision. As long as you are planning a twelve month cycle you can have it any time you like.”
Mark nodded. “Okay, I’ll give it more thought. But I tend to agree with you. When you have it locally, someone always comes up with a reason why they must leave early. I need them all there for the entire retreat.
“Next question: I want to invite some of my church board members to go along. These are not department leaders but they are good men who have lots of wisdom. Your thoughts?”
“I don’t see a problem. It’s critical that all department leaders and their spouses attend. I also bring my secretary and assistant pastor. But I don’t see a problem with church board members as long as your total number doesn’t go over thirty or so. When you get more than thirty people in a room it becomes very difficult to reach a consensus on anything.”
“Yes,” Mark said, “I see what you mean. I think this will be our best planning retreat yet. Any final words of wisdom on my retreat?”
“Well, just make sure you plan your retreat agenda carefully. Know what you want to discuss about each department before you go. Give each department about an hour of time and focus your discussion upon improving each ministry, solving problems, planning successful activities, and coming up with creative ways to reach departmental goals. This is brain storming, so encourage everyone to contribute.
“Also, I would encourage you to utilize a variety of discussion methods. Don’t always use ‘open discussion’ where you present a topic or problem and people just toss out ideas. Occasionally try ‘round robin discussion’ where you go around the circle and each person shares their thoughts – this pulls the shy person into the session. And that brings up another point – always sit in a circle. Doing so encourages good eye contact and promotes group interaction.
“Also, at least once during the retreat I will break into ‘buzz groups’ – three or four small groups – and give them each a topic to plan and after 15 or 20 minutes we come back together and the leader of each group shares their ideas. Changing up discussion methods keeps the retreat from dragging.
“Finally, be sure each leader has a retreat binder. In this binder put the retreat agenda, the organizational flow chart, their updated job description, a sample and blank one-year plan, twelve copies of their monthly report, a loose-leaf one-page-per-month calendar, some lined paper for taking notes, and tab-dividers to go between each of these.”
“Hang on, Elder.” Mark’s voice sounded distant and hollow. “I have you on speaker phone so I can take notes. Let me finish before you go further … okay, got it. Anything else?”
The white haired pastor tapped the phone with his pen as he pondered. “No, that’s pretty much it. I want to commend you on how well you have done so far. Your church has almost doubled since you started implementing the principles of the three-legged stool: organization, evangelization, and assimilation. The Annual Planning Retreat is an important element of your organizational and management plan. I tell my leaders every year that their attendance at the planning retreat is vital because the retreat provides six important benefits to a revival church: (1) excitement and enthusiasm, (2) commitment to involvement, (3) new ideas and solutions to problems, (4) a unified team spirit, (5) coordination of activities, (6) and a reward for a job well done. I am at a loss how a church would achieve these six things so effectively any other way.”
“Well, there is one more benefit you forgot to mention,” Mark said with a hint of humor in his voice.
“The pastor’s vacation. It’s one of the first dates I make them set on their calendars. If I don’t get it on the calendar first, they get so much going that it becomes impossible for me to get away for some recovery time. After a year of activities and growth, I need my week in July and January more than ever. Surf and snow! Now that’s the will of God!”
The old man chuckled. His young protégée was catching on.