A retreat, in the strict sense, focuses on communion with God. Mennonites, along with countless other Christian groups, however, have tended to gather to look at a particular need, task, issue, or problem in the light of Scripture and with prayer and to call the event a retreat. Sometimes, for example, Mennonite retreats focus on the needs of ministers, or singles, or the elderly, or on the tasks of church planting, working with immigrants, or making a peace witness. Mennonites also lead and attend Marriage Encounter, Marriage Enrichment, and Progoff Journal Writing retreats as well as retreats for people experiencing grief, loss, the particular challenges of living with handicapped family members, or people wanting emotional healing.
The story of the development of the retreat movement among Mennonites is an inspiring one because so many people donated tools, money, time, expertise and energy to provide both places and program for retreats.
According to Jess Kauffman, "holding camps and retreats within the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches of North America was not an isolated movement with a defined beginning all its own. It was closely related to and influenced by other events both within the church and in society at large." (A vision and a legacy .) Pastors and teachers in urban areas, for example, started taking children from the cities out into the country for several weeks in the summer. Between 1910 and 1940 this led to organized camping which became an established institution within the church. Further, the "awakening" or "renaissance" among North American Mennonites between 1880 and 1910, World War I, the Russian Mennonite immigrations to western North America, the acceptance of the Sunday School movement, and, in later decades, World War II and the movements to and involvements in both higher education and the cities (urban church) called for thinking together about new ideas, plans, and programs. Conferences, Christian worker's institutes and youth fellowships emerged. A Christian Worker's Conference in Bluffton, Ohio, in January 1925, with a focus on "Our Young People" led to a nine-day retreat for youth, Aug. 9-16, 1925, on the Bluffton College campus. The campus was the scene of such retreats for five years.
Retreats came to be recognized as a spiritual force in the church and as an accepted means for nurture and for evangelism. Many of the early retreats were held in the interests of youth. S. F. Pannabecker commented that in the retreat setting youth were no longer represented by their elders, but rather came into their own as they reacted with church leaders. He saw this to be a significant contribution of the retreat movement. Four characteristics came to be prized in the early retreats: new thinking, actual religious experience, physical recreation, and social development. The closing commitment service of retreats "introduced a whole generation of church youth to serious decisions as to their relation to Christ and Christian vocation." Retreats in the last half of the 20th century in some sense did what the revival movement did in an earlier period.
There has been an ongoing expansion of the phenomenon of retreats in the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. The decades of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were decades of growth, building, and expansion. From the early days the vision perceived by leaders in the movement included buildings in beautiful natural settings. The minutes of the 1929 session of the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) speak to this: "It [a retreat] needs to be of sufficient duration and held under such favorable conditions and surroundings that it may lead to a real recreation of body, mind, and soul!" And so it was that Mennonite church camps and retreat centers multiplied across North America. Camp facilities and established retreat programs of the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren, General Conference Mennonite and Mennonite, as of 1982, numbered 90.
Since the mid-1940s church agencies and institutions began to have retreats. The women's organizations of the various Mennonite groups have annual retreats usually planned by district conference committees. The women gather for Bible study, small group work, and deep sharing, always asking, "What does God have for me and ask of me?" Retreats of this kind for both women and men have been well attended in the Southwest Conference (MC). The Ohio Conference (MC) planned one just for men.
Mission boards find retreats for newly appointed and returning missionaries to be beneficial. The Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services has a policy to fund worker retreats in each of the countries where the board sponsors missionaries These are annual or biennial, and their purpose is to bring inspiration and fellowship. Business is not to be on the agenda! Mennonite (MC) Board of Missions and Charities (MBM) started conducting missionary orientations with a retreat format in 1943. In 1958, 1964, and 1966 these were held jointly with the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (MC). At times these were held in conjunction with missionary and Bible conferences. In the 1970s these gatherings were renamed Annual Overseas Seminars. They continued to have elements of both input and renewal. In March 1985 the General Conference Mennonite Commission on Overseas Missions (COM), MBM, and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) joined together to sponsor the first reentry retreat for those overseas workers who had returned to North America within the year. In 1986 the children of these workers were also invited. Through worship, fellowship, psychodrama and group therapy, participants were helped to readjust to North American culture. COM and MBM also sponsor retreats for their workers when they are living overseas. Workers in Europe gather annually for a "Colloquium." Since the late 1970s mission board and MCC personnel in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh meet together each year for retreat. In Bolivia Mennonite Ministries retreat annually; COM and MBM workers in the Tokyo area do also. Since the early 1960s MCC has been having annual retreats for workers on or near overseas MCC locations. These agencies cooperate in sharing leaders for these events.
Over the years many able persons have also given of themselves in leading retreats for voluntary service (VS) workers in the United States. In 1973 when these in-service training seminars began they were held in retreat centers from Florida to California, some in the spring, some in the summer, and some in the fall. More recently there is one orientation retreat for all the workers while the project directors of the Mennonite Church (MC) VS units are given an additional time for a contemplative retreat.
Mennonite educational institutions frequently start the school year by having a retreat for staff members plus a wide variety of retreats for student groups. Individual congregations or groups within congregations retreat together as do interest and professional groups of many kinds across the church. Congregational and youth retreats are very common among most European Mennonite groups.
Throughout the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church (MC) congregations people with gifts to enable spiritual renewal are being affirmed and sought out to lead meetings and retreats. In 1986 the Mennonite Church (MC) printed a booklet entitled, "Resource Persons for Spiritual Renewal." Seventy people are listed as involved in this ministry; certainly others are as yet unnoted. The Spiritual Emphasis Committee (GCM) worked at a similar listing. These persons desire to lead participants to a closer fellowship and walk with God. The trend now is to continue retreats focused on particular needs and tasks and to have retreats with the central focus being spiritual growth. Those who lead retreats of this kind describe the interest among Mennonites as moderate or low, but growing.
Kauffman, Jess. Guideposts to Camp Programming, a manual prepared in 1958 for the Mennonite Commission for Education, copy in Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen.
Kauffman, Jess. A Vision and a Legacy: the Story of Mennonite Camping 1920-80. Newton, KS, 1984.
Men-O-Lan, 40th Anniversary of Retreats at Men-O-Lan, 1941-81. Eastern District Conference, GCM.
Casteel, John L. Renewal in Retreats. Association Press, New York, 1959.
Pannabecker, Samuel F. Faith in Ferment. Newton, KS, 1968: see ch. "Retreats and the retreat movement."
Minutes (GCM) (1929), vol. 2, pp. 188-89.
Northern District Conference reports in Minutes (GCM) (1931).
Western District Retreat Committee report in Western District Conference minutes, 48th session, Oct. 18-19, 1939.
Education Committee of the Middle District report in Minutes (GCM) (1939).
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 769-771. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Groff, Thelma Miller. "Retreats." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 20 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/R51ME.html.
APA style: Groff, Thelma Miller. (1989). Retreats. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/R51ME.html.