Q: I’ve been asked to plan our annual leadership retreat. Some board members want to set practical goals for the year and others want to spend the time in prayer and Bible study. What should I do?

A: Both! The annual retreat is a good chance for the governing board and principal staff (who will, I hope, attend the retreat) to step away from the press of daily business to reflect on the church’s mission and its most important goals. Ideally the retreat should be both inspiring and practical—informed by the Bible and other spiritual resources and directed toward the current work of the congregation.

A good discipline for annual retreats is to have several tasks that need to be completed each year:

1. Assessment of your congregation’s progress at achieving last year’s goals. Assuming that you have goals from a year ago, the retreat is a good time to ask yourselves what went well, what went not so well, and what could improve. This is not the time to put a harsh evaluative spotlight on the performance of the clergy leader, staff, or other individuals. The question is not, “Did you do a good or bad job?” but “How effectively did we pursue our goals, and to what degree did we achieve them?”

2. Articulation of a vision of ministry. The vision of ministry stands between the mission statement (which answers the question, “For what purpose does this congregation exist?”) and operational goals, which are more properly the work of the staff. The vision of ministry is a short list of priorities. It answers the question, “In what new and different ways do we mean to transform lives in the coming year?”
The emphasis on “new and different” is intentional. Churches rarely need to be encouraged to continue what has been traditional. To do something new takes leadership; to stop doing something may take strong leadership. It is important that the list be short, because few congregations can focus for a year on more than two or three priorities.

3. Selection of “open questions.” In the course of generating a vision of ministry, leaders may stumble over questions that are not ripe to be answered. Such questions need mulling over for a while. Your congregation may be aging, for example, and you may wonder how you can reach younger people. You may suspect that at some point you will have to decide whether to move to a new location, plant a church elsewhere, or open a branch location. You may feel a calling to a renewed worship life, but fear falling into conflict if you press the issue too soon.
By choosing two or three open questions, the leaders put the congregation on notice about what they intend to spend time pondering this year. The board and clergy may also schedule opportunities for wider involvement—by convening a town meeting or small group gatherings in homes, or by asking established groups to take a few minutes to discuss the open questions and report what emerged in their conversations. It is helpful to explain that no one should expect the open questions to be answered or resolved quickly. At the same time, by selecting them, the leaders signal seriousness about attending to important issues
that may have been unresolved for some time.

A retreat that accomplishes these three things—assessment of the year’s work relative to prior goals, articulation of a short-term vision of ministry, and choosing open questions to guide reflection in leadership and congregation—will have lent considerable focus to the church’s work in the year to come.