Moving Forward: …Retreat…?

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.                                                                                                                            – Luke 6:12

There’s a way of looking at this time in our liturgical calendar as being antithetical to the idea of Moving Forward. Surely Lent is a time of pause, a time to look inward, a time to take stock and clean house, isn’t it? There are lots of images and metaphors that have been applied to Lent (some of them might even be useful!) but few of them offer a sense of forward progress. At best, they advocate “treading water,” because, let’s face it, that’s about the best we can do while we’re waiting for our Savior to throw us the cross-shaped life-preserver.  

I’ll admit, I am drawn to this predisposition. Even though Lent can be one of the busiest times in the church year from the perspective of ministry activity, there’s something attractive about the spiritual cocoon we withdraw into, and many of us in leadership take the opportunity to invite our congregations (or at least, the key people therein) to join us in our reclusion by organizing – what else but – a retreat!

Now those of a more sensitive nature will immediately recoil from the use of the language of warfare to describe spiritual practices. I understand that, but will ask that we set that particular debate aside for this present article, not to avoid the discussion, but to avoid being derailed in addressing a more fundamental flaw in our spirituality.

The very word “retreat” connotes the opposite of moving forward. The Latin root “trahere” means to “draw” or “trace”. So, to retreat means to retrace one’s steps – and that’s not possible while moving forward (unless you’re walking in circles, which is another issue altogether). I stumbled on this realization as I was, interestingly, trying to organize a retreat for my congregational leadership! As a pastor new to the congregation, I was investigating opportunities for them to retrace steps they’d taken before I was even their pastor, and with all due respect to them and my predecessors, I don’t see that as moving us forward.

Some of you may argue that this is mere semantics. What matters is what you do when you get there. To which I reply, get where? Even by using the term “retreat,” one is already suggesting – albeit subliminally – that to even attend the event, you’re traveling in reverse. To then move participants forward during the event, you are first of all faced with the rather daunting task of radical (as opposed to subtle) redirection. If only there was some way of building that healthy redirection into the invitation itself, so they’ll be moving forward when they arrive!

I think part of me in the past might have said, “I’m uncomfortable calling it a ‘Spiritual Retreat’ so I’m going to avoid it altogether.”  Yet I know that we as a congregation would benefit greatly from our leaders taking time and drawing aside to seek clarity of vision for the way ahead. Rather than “retracing,” I would like us to “further our development – to move forward.”  And, lo and behold, I have discovered a word that we can use that might help us do just that.

So, (and once again, at the risk of upsetting those of a sensitive nature) I have decided to borrow language from the same source as the offending term, and I will be inviting my congregational leadership to join me this Lent on a “Spiritual Advance!”