retreat attendees gathering on the lawn

A Recipe for Successful Retreats

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Designing and planning a retreat is much like cooking a good meal. The recipe matters, but so do the natural instincts of the chef, the folks who contribute to the food, the way in which you add the ingredients, and the setting where it is cooked up and served.

When I’m designing a retreat, I believe there are three ingredients that must be included:

  • Rest
  • Reflection
  • Renewal

These ingredients are not always added in equal parts, but by paying attention to the needs of your staff and the goals of the retreat, you can create a combination that pleases almost everyone’s palate.

Once you know the ingredients you want to add, then you have to think about how you add them, where you prep and serve, and what tools you’ll use to make your meal. If you’ll indulge me a bit in my metaphorical imaginings…here are my thoughts on a recipe for successful retreats.

Retreat Ingredients


The definition of “retreat” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (in the sense that we are using it) is: “a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction under a director.” In its most literal sense retreat means “an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable.”

So, in essence, if we tell someone that we are hosting a retreat we should keep in mind that we are supposed to provide a safe place to withdraw from difficult challenges and spend time reflecting (through prayer, meditation, study, or instruction). This does not mean that retreats cannot sometimes tackle challenges in the professional workplace as part of their agenda. It does mean that retreats should provide a supportive place to do so, and time and space for rest.

“Rest” as an ingredient in a retreat does not necessarily mean setting up a massage and a nap (but hey, let’s not rule that out). Rest really means including time and space to pull away from what is difficult or challenging in our day-to-day work. This might mean ensuring that a retreat location is restful by hosting it in a natural or beautiful place; but it also means that the agenda includes time for rest through mindfulness, free time, recreation, or communal meals.

When you are planning a retreat, think about what you are able to offer to your team based on the resources you have (financial, physical, human, or otherwise) and strategically add those elements to your retreat when they make the most sense.

Some restful retreat ideas:

  • Schedule a flexible morning gathering time so that folks who like to chat can arrive early and network and others can take their time and arrive later if they don’t enjoy the pressure of networking;
  • Open your retreat with a short breathing exercise to mark the transition from a busy workplace to a place and time of retreat and renewal;
  • Eliminate the words “working lunch” from your vocabulary and instead provide an extended, flexible lunch break that allows attendees to use that time in whatever way they need – alone or in community;
  • Include a menu of restful activities at some point during the day or multi-day gathering, in whatever way the location allows – walks in the woods, group board games, yoga, or meditation sessions are all great examples of restful interludes;
  • Arrange the room with varied physical spaces that welcome small group conversation, large group gatherings, or individual quiet time; invite folks to use the space in whatever way works for them when free time is available; better yet, have multiple spaces or access to the great outdoors!
Your agenda should have room for rest, reflection, and renewal.


Once you have made sure that your retreat agenda has space carved out for rest, now is the time to add a few measures of reflection. A retreat provides space and time to slow down and look back on how things are going in your organization or team. You don’t often make time for this kind of reflection when deep in the day-to-day trenches. Adding a well-selected reflection activity to your recipe can bring out just enough critical thinking to add to the flavor of your day.

Again, choosing the right ingredient for your recipe matters here. If your group is trying to recover from a difficult time and needs to emphasize rest above all else, then for goodness sake do not throw in some hot pepper flakes. Choose a reflection activity that is appropriately gentle and mild but still achieves a goal.

If your group is blending well and used to working together in settings like this, a little kick of heat might be just what you need. Read the room, and think about how you want your final dish to turn out. Don’t burn anyone, but don’t make it too bland either.

Reflection ideas of varying heat:

  • Mild: try reflection activities that help folks reflect on what is going well for the organization or program; reflective conversations that help recognize and honor team strengths; or opportunities for colleagues to learn more about each other.

  • Medium: try reflection activities that dig deeper into how the team is functioning; conversations about challenging projects and what you’ve learned so far; reflection on what you have achieved since the last time you met or since you last set goals. You could also tackle important topics by applying a certain lens to your work – discussions and exercises about equity gaps, inequality in the way your programs function, or societal changes you want to influence through your work could all fall into the medium category if your staff is equipped to handle them.  

  • Hot: if the group is ready to go and wants something more challenging you could do an “after action review” of a program or event that you hosted – picking it apart for lessons learned; challenge the team to reflect on missed opportunities and how you’ll be sure to catch them the next time; or take on a group challenge that pushes each person to use their strengths. You could also identify something that isn’t working in your organization and set about trying to figure out why. These are all more risky activities that are appropriate for well-formed and well-functioning groups.


Reflection activities are all well and good, but on their own they can feel like dwelling on the past. Like salt without the pepper to complement it. Before you wrap up your retreat, be sure to add a dash of renewal to the agenda.

Renewal, in this sense, is about renewing ourselves (which can sometimes be accomplished through rest) but also renewing our commitment to our purpose, vision, or values. What is it that you want folks to leave this retreat thinking about or pledging to do?

Here’s where you need to think about how this retreat leads into the next meal you’ll share together, or the meal they’ll prepare on their own when they go back. How will they make sure they know what they are doing when they try it on their own? How will they remember what they learned here today and keep it with them?

Take-away activities and discussions are a great form of renewal. They help to summarize what was learned at the retreat, what goals were set, or what the next step in the plan will be.

Renewal Frameworks to add to the mix:

  • Summary lists and signs can be a great visual cue that notes are being taken and will be retained following the retreat;
  • Next steps brainstorms can be an essential way to close out a reflective discussion or planning moment at your retreat; before you move on to the next activity, ask “OK, what do we need to do next as a result of this conversation?”
  • Goal-setting activities and conversations can help participants to move from a “to-do list” (useful but less inspiring) to a visionary list of what they want to accomplish in any given topic;
  • Letters-to-Self can be a great way for folks to literally tell themselves what they got out of the retreat time and how they want to carry it forward;
  • Leadership promises are also important – they communicate that those who are “in charge” have heard what their participants are saying and are making a promise to follow-through. How, when, where, and in what format will you follow-up on this conversation?
Imagine how it feels attending a retreat at Knoll Farm in Waitsfield, Vermont.

Cooking InstructionsPlanning your Retreat

So you know what you want to add to your retreat, and that some balance of all three elements above will be necessary. But how do you pull it all together? Remember, directions are just as important to a recipe as the ingredients. The same is true when planning a retreat. Here are some tips for prepping, cooking, and serving your retreat.

Putting Retreat Ingredients Together

Much like cooking, you can’t just throw these retreat ingredients into the pot and hope it all works out. You need to add them in an order that makes sense, and in quantities that make sense. Deciding the proportion of rest, reflection, and renewal is all going to be dependent on the final outcomes you desire. Decide where to emphasize your time based on what you and the team need to get out of this retreat.

Likewise, you need to deliver these components thoughtfully, interfering as little as possible with the cooking process. Decide on the order and amount of each ingredient, but don’t mess too much with the ingredient once its in the pot. A good cook sets the food up for success, but allows the flavor of the food to shine through. Just as over-stirring pancakes leads to a flat flapjack, over-facilitating or (even worse) talking at your attendees for far too long can ruin a retreat.

And a flat retreat is really just a long, boring meeting.

Choosing a Location for your Retreat

Pulling off a good retreat is much like serving dinner with an open the kitchen. You’ll need to let the participants see you cook and enjoy the meal alongside you as you go. You may even want them to tie on an apron and get involved in the process.

But you also need space for everyone to spread out and enjoy the meal. You don’t want them to be crowded in the kitchen with you all day. They’ll need some space to mingle, enjoy their food, and savor the experience.

Choosing a retreat location means finding the right combination of “cooking space” and “eating space” (maybe even literally as well as figuratively). You may need tables and chairs, a presentation space, and a projection space for some portion of your meeting. But if this is truly meant to be a retreat, you’ll also need space for folks to spread out, talk in small groups, move their bodies, and have both communal and quiet time when no one person is in charge.  A board room, an auditorium, and stage – these rooms are not sufficient for retreat. A barn, an event space, a living room, or a multi-function meeting room – now you’re getting closer.

Planning a Retreat as a Team

Remember that running retreats, like running a restaurant, is a team effort. If you are considered the “chef” for this retreat – the one putting it together and/or leading it, I want you to imagine what it would look like if a restaurant tried to function with only one chef. Consider recruiting one or two sous chefs to help design the meal; a few servers to deliver certain portions of it; and maybe even a reviewer to let you know if you’re on the right track.

The diversity of voices, opinions, and ideas in a team-planned retreat results in an infinitely more delicious final product than if one person cooked it all by themselves.

(Want some outside help? Check out my meeting planning and facilitation services)

And yes, any good retreat also includes ACTUAL FOOD. Treat your team to healthy meals that will sustain their energy and feed their bodies as well as their souls.

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