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Parish retreats: away for just a day

26 May 2023

Post-pandemic, are parish stays back on the agenda at diocesan retreat houses, asks Sarah Lothian. And how best to plan one?

Rydal Hall, Ambleside, Cumbria

Rydal Hall, Ambleside, Cumbria

PARISH quiet days and weekends away have been a focal point in church calendars for many years, enabling communities to gather together to worship and reflect.

But the pandemic hit the hospitality industry hard, and diocesan retreat centres have faced challenges that have been exacerbated by the recent financial crisis.

Most diocesan retreat houses have not seen parish-visitor numbers return to pre-pandemic levels. For many, this has prompted a reset, and some have relaunched themselves with a fresh focus.

After the pandemic, Whalley Abbey, the diocese of Blackburn’s retreat and conference house, in Lancashire, reopened under new leadership, with new staff and a new vision, which includes greater emphasis on retreats.

The assistant director, Andy Foot, says: “We offer both retreats and general bed-and-breakfast stays, but, of the retreats, probably two-thirds are church groups.” Day retreats, in particular, are currently strong, “because we are doing more to promote the importance and opportunity for them among churches”.

Whalley Abbey is financially supported by the diocese, which uses it for its leadership meetings, courses, ordination retreat, and away days.

At Rydal Hall, a five-minute walk from Ambleside, in the Lake District, there has been less demand for parish group bookings and residential stays.

“We have seen bookings for quiet days increase, though,” a spokesperson said, “and I think this whole trend can be explained by a lack of confidence due to the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.” The centre is owned by Carlisle diocese, and is used for all its retreats and ministerial training.

“We would love to see more people come for weekend parish stays,” the spokesperson said. “It doesn’t need to be the whole church. A life group or Bible-study group can come; we can give them a price that will be suitable for them.”

For residential stays for larger numbers, Rydal Hall has recently renovated its Bunk House: it sleeps 28 people, has an accessible dormitory, and has just been shortlisted for the Cumbria Tourism Awards.

Shepherds Dene, at Riding Mill, Northumberland, serves the dioceses of Durham and Newcastle as a retreat centre, and has also seen the number of parish weekends decline overall since the pandemic.

Philip Davies, a trustee, says that this could be “due to the increased financial pressures facing parishes, and the reduction in the number of attendees at church”.

The management is reviewing its programming to attract more people from parishes, and is also discussing support with Newcastle and Durham dioceses. They say that they are very supportive, “but facing financial pressures of our own”.

Parcevall Hall, in Skipton, North Yorkshire, is the retreat house for the diocese of Leeds. The warden, Jo Craven, also reports that fewer parish groups are booking, and the groups are smaller; however, “we have seen an increase in individual retreatants,” she says.

Parcevall Hall is self-supporting, she says. “Our diocese has used us for lay training, an annual clergy reading week, clergy quiet days and residential retreats, cathedral away days, and bishops’ retreats.”

At Foxhill House, with its woodlands, which serves the diocese of Chester, the director-designate, the Revd Lucy Brewster, says that, although bookings for parish weekends have not yet picked up to pre-pandemic levels, it has had enquiries from several parishes about booking for later this year, or early next year.

“We have noticed a greater demand for retreats and group quiet days with elements of ‘togetherness’, for want of a better word, and group engagement. Perhaps people are still getting over the prolonged time when they weren’t able to meet together?

“We have tailored our programme this year to give ample opportunity for people to encounter God in both stillness and silence, and in group activity and discussion, and this seems to have been the right choice for this time.”

Foxhill House, Frodsham, Cheshire

Foxhill is supported by Chester diocese. “We host a range of events — day and residential — for the diocese,” Ms Brewster says.

At Shallowford House, the Christian retreat and conference centre of the diocese of Lichfield, the manager, Claire Sowerbutts, says that individuals from churches are booking for the centre’s own events.

“There was an original flurry of activity, post-Covid, but now the rising costs of living have kicked in, and bookings have slowed. Less than five per cent of our business comes from parish stays,” she says.

In Chelmsford diocese, the Revd Graham Dowling is warden at Pleshey, believed to have been the first diocesan retreat house in the country, when it was bought by the Diocesan Mission Society in 1927.

Mr Dowling says: “We are wholly owned by Chelmsford diocesan board of finance. Our income is generated by retreat fees, with the diocese meeting any shortfall against expenditure.”

Church bookings at Pleshey are up slightly, “partly because more churches have realised the need for time away,” he says, “and also because we have instigated a policy of church visits on Sundays to promote the house. I would guess roughly 50 per cent of our income is from church groups — not all Anglican parishes.”

Like other wardens, Mr Dowling has seen an increase in parish groups’ asking the centre to arrange quiet days. “I guess [it is] either because of the cost-of-living crisis, or that people are time poor and struggle to take a few days out of their diaries.”

Mark Rance is general manager at Wydale Hall, the diocese of York’s retreat house, on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors.

About 60 per cent of stays at the retreat house are of parish groups. Wydale has no direct financial support from the diocese, but it is a core user of the retreat house for most residential clergy and lay training. It is also a venue for national stage-two vocational discernment panels.

Mr Rance considers that many churches have “‘set the ‘reset button’ since Covid, and need time away to allow new strategy to develop, or bed in; and an away weekend, or day, is ideal for this”.

Some churches may have had changes in leadership, and others are only now getting back to normal after the pandemic, he says. “More Christian organisations seem to be investing time and funds into team-building now.

“Perhaps the enforced time away from each other in Covid, and the fact that more people now have hybrid working situations — therefore, with less time all together in one space anyway — means that organisations need to be away together more often.”



How to run a retreat

Canon Anne Samuels, retreat leader and retired chaplain at Foxhill HouseA PARISH weekend, or quiet day, provides an opportunity for a church to join together as a community, away from an often frantic pace of life.

Forward planning is essential, the warden of the Chelmsford Diocesan House of Retreat at Pleshey, the Revd Graham Dowling, says. “The tip is: know what you want to achieve. Is it a fellowship weekend, or is there particular teaching you want to do? Or is your focus on well-being, silence, or some sort of meditative weekend? You can have a mixture of meditation and teaching; the key thing is to incorporate the time and space to have an experience with the living God.”

Canon Anne Samuels is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and retired chaplain at Foxhill House, the Chester diocesan retreat house. “Don’t try to pack too much in,” she says. “What you’re trying to offer is space for people to have their own time with God. And if you take up too much of that, then they don’t benefit a great deal.

“It’s important that whatever input is given is short and sweet, and focused; you then give people the opportunity to go away and build on that themselves. And, sometimes, that’s not necessarily prayer. It might be sitting, drawing, or doodling, or walking out in the woods, because, sometimes, those are the times when people do gain insights, which they don’t normally give themselves space to receive.”

The executive director of the Retreat Association, Alison MacTier, points to a wide-ranging collection of retreat resources on the organisation’s website, including information sheets on “Planning a quiet day” and “Organising a group retreat”.

“The approach to planning either a retreat or a quiet day is quite similar,” she says. “Both will include input from the facilitator, prayer, and worship, with gaps between for retreatants to reflect on the material provided. An overnight retreat will most likely provide more content, and more time for reflection.”

Ms MacTier suggests that a day programme could look like this: 9.30 a.m. arrival and coffee; 10 a.m. introduction to people and plans for the day; 10.15 a.m. short talk, which may include opening worship leading into silence; 10.45 a.m. a quiet period; 12 noon second talk or guided meditation; 1 p.m. lunch; 2 p.m. third talk leading into silence; 3.30 p.m. closing worship with the opportunity for sharing; 4 p.m. tea.

How many should attend? Ms MacTier suggests that anywhere between five and 25 is fine; 35 is usually a maximum, “to ensure everyone has sufficient space but also intimacy, a sense of belonging, and a comfortable place within the group”.

A diocesan retreat centre is a natural choice for a parish break, and some are starting to get busier as confidence returns after the pandemic. Pleshey is already booked up for eight months of 2024, Mr Dowling says.

Both Mr Dowling and Ms MacTier suggest a visit to the centre beforehand, if possible, to be aware of what can be achieved in terms of facilities. Is there a chapel area or quiet room available for quiet contemplation? What areas are there to walk in? Is there a space for art materials or an art room? Is there a library?

Another important question is: who will organise, and who will lead, Ms MacTier says. “Ideally, two people are important for the day. One is the organiser, to see to all the practical arrangements of booking, welcoming, preparing the meeting room, car parking, toilets, diets, access, bookstall, etc. The organisation may well be done by a team of people at a retreat centre.

“The other is the leader, preferably someone with experience of leading quiet days, who plans the day in advance, including the programme, resources, prayers, and input which will give content and shape to the day.”

It can also be helpful to have a designated “backstop” person — not the leader — and perhaps a centre staff member who can deal with any glitches, Canon Samuels says.

“Issues can arise where there’s been a failure to communicate adequately with the retreat house over expectations: for example, the use of a particular room,” Mr Dowling says. “So, make sure you’re crystal clear in communicating with the retreat house, and also to your own members.”

Refreshments are important, Ms MacTier says. “It’s good to have tea and coffee ready on arrival; an hour for lunch — this may be provided by the organiser, or participants may be invited to bring their own; and tea and cake at the close is a good opportunity for people to chat informally before departures.”

And don’t forget people’s dietary requirements, Mr Dowling says. “We can be flexible. One group told us: ‘They’re all going to be teenagers: can you just do pizza and chips?’ And that’s what we did.”

Traditionally, silence and reflection have often formed an important part of many parish weekends and away days, but do participants struggle with the idea?

“People can be terribly anxious about the idea of putting their phones aside,” Canon Samuels says. “At Foxhill, on individually guided retreats (IGRs), we encourage people to turn off their notifications, so that they’re not going to see messages coming in all the time. We give out our switchboard number so people can be contacted if there’s an emergency.

“And going into silence can frighten people, because they worry about what’s going to pop up in their heads. They think that all kinds of negativity might come to the surface, and they wouldn’t be able to deal with it, which is very rarely what happens.

“If people are particularly stressed, or going through a great trauma, like bereavement, for example, then probably it isn’t a good idea to take too much time in silence.

“But, for most people, most of the time, it’s tremendously helpful, therapeutic, and challenging at the same time, to actually just allow yourself not to be constantly looking at something, or listening to something, or talking to somebody. It’s something that would be beneficial to include in any parish weekend or quiet day.”


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