Why Retreats Work

I spent the past two weekends at our annual Sno Camp retreats with over 1100 high school students and leaders. I count it a huge privilege to be a part of the team that provides this experience to students. Year after year we see the spirit move powerfully in the lives of students. I used to be surprised by it, but then I came across a theory that captures exactly why retreats are so powerful.
In The Chaos Imperative, Ori Brafman suggests that injecting a bit of chaos into organizations can actually help them be more effective. It’s a great read for anyone involved in leadership. Brafman suggests that "a little bit of chaos, encouraged, but confined within borders can be highly beneficial to an organization’s overall health." This contained chaos happens with three ingredients: white space, unusual suspects, and organized serendipity. In companies, these 3 things together lead to innovation. At retreats, these 3 things lead to life change.

A couple of shots from the Sno Camp retreats and one of "The Chaos Imperative" by Ori Brafman. A seriously great read.

A couple of shots from the Sno Camp retreats and one of "The Chaos Imperative" by Ori Brafman. A seriously great read.

White space is simply a time or place outside of our established structure and routine.
A few years back at our fall retreat I asked some of our senior students what their favourite part of the weekend had been. I was hoping to hear something about the great band or speaker or, at least, the crazy game stuff that we did and I had spent a ton of money on. Nope. They all answered the same - free time. What did most of them do with it? Nap. Between school, homework, sports, jobs, and responsibilities at home, many senior students have very little unscheduled time in a typical day. They’re lives are so jam packed with stuff is it any wonder they have a hard time feeling connected to or hearing from God? Retreats provide the white space that allows that to happen.

Unusual suspects are outsiders who aren’t part of your organization.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with students while they told me how something the speaker at the retreat said impacted them. On the outside I’m smiling and saying ‘that’s so great to hear!’ on the inside I’m thinking ‘I have LITERALLY said that exact same thing to you a hundred times.’ There’s just something about hearing it from a different voice that opens up new possibilities. After I read The Chaos Imperative I stopped speaking at our group’s fall retreat each year and began bringing speakers in. My students need to hear voices other than mine. That was a hard thing for me to admit to myself for a while. But, it’s been so worthwhile

Organized serendipity is essentially about creating space where unusual things can happen. 
For a large company that may mean creating spaces where top executives, custodians and secretaries can interact to solve problems. In a youth ministry it’s about creating experiences where our students can experience God’s presence. At retreats we use times in sessions to create environments of worship and response. I know the feeling in the room at Sno Camp is like nothing else my students will experience all year. We want to capitalize on that opportunity and help our students hear from God in those moments. We engage them in worship and expose them to God’s word and trust that through that the Holy Spirit will do His thing.

Does God speak more at Sno Camp than he does at home? Of course not. Is He more present at a camp on Saturday night than in a classroom on Tuesday morning. Nope.
But, the combination of white space, unusual suspects, and a bit organized serendipity put our students in a place where they are ready to listen and respond to God’s word. Those moments - when the light goes on, when forgiveness happens, when lives are changed - those moments are holy.