You Say You Don’t Have Time for Retreat? Think Again!

When there is no time to do it, that’s when you most need to unclutter the calendar and go apart to pray. When the gridlock in your schedule relentlessly forbids it is the time you most need retreat. That is when your heart beats against the prison walls of your enslavement and says, “Yes, Lord, I want to spend time with you.” –Emily Griffin

As I prepared to leave for a recent speaking engagement, I realized how tired I was, how I longed for my own experience of intimacy with God, and how much I needed the very things I would be guiding others into on that day. After twenty five years of life in ministry, I had learned to pay attention to such inner dynamics and knew better than to wait for a better time. I packed a simple bag, made overnight arrangements as I drove to the retreat I was leading, and left right from the speaking engagement to enter into twenty four hours of silent retreat.

That choice changed the tenor of the whole week and the whole month that followed. It brought me back from the brink of dangerous exhaustion. It enlivened me with a renewed sense of intimacy with God. And it gave me the opportunity to reconnect with God’s call on my life and to discern very specific ways of staying faithful to that call.

Rhythms of Engagement and Retreat

One of the most important rhythms of a leader’s life is a constant back and forth motion between times when we are engaged in the battle—giving our best energy to taking the next hill—and times of retreat when we are not “on” and we do not have to be any particular way for anyone. Times when we can be in God’s presence for our own souls’ sake.

A sobering truth about life in leadership is that we can be very busy and look very important, yet be out of touch with that place in the center of our being where we know who we are in God and what he has called us to do—that place where we are responsive to the voice of God above all others. When this happens, we are at the mercy of all manner of external and internal forces, tossed and turned by others’ expectations and our own inner compulsions. This inner emptiness then becomes the source of frenetic activity that is un-tethered from any kind of grounded-ness in God. This is a scary place for a leader to be.

Christian leaders in particular can have a hard time distinguishing between the work we do for God and time to be with God, resting in him and enjoying his presence. Over time, Scripture can be reduced to a textbook or a tool for ministry rather than an intimate personal communication from God to us. Prayer can become an exhausting round of different kinds of mental activity or a public display of our spiritual prowess. Life in Christ can be reduced to a life of Christian busyness.

Being with God With What Is

On retreat we are able to be with God with what is true about us in utter privacy. There we can attend to what is real in our own lives—celebrate the joys, grieve the losses, shed tears, sit with the questions, feel our anger, attend to our loneliness—and allow God to be with us in those places. These are not primarily times for problem-solving or fixing because not everything can be fixed or solved. These are times to be in God’s presence and to wait for him to accomplish what is most needed within us.

When we repress what is real in our lives and just keep soldiering on, we get weary from holding it in and eventually it leaks out in ways that are damaging to ourselves and to others. On the other hand, the experience of God’s unconditional love and presence during those solitary times when we are not doing anything for God is our greatest human need. Such love then becomes the bed-rock of our being, the foundation of our true identity and calling. Such rest is deeply restorative, enlivening our leadership and enabling us to bring fresh energy and keen insight to the responsibilities before us.

Setting aside time for spiritual retreat is “one of the most strengthening and reinforcing experiences of our lives. We need to yield. We have to bend. Once we embrace this discipline, we are carried along, often, by a storm of grace. Giving way to the power of this spiritual discipline becomes a step towards freedom, a movement into the wide-open spaces of the sons and daughters of God.”1

You say you can’t afford to go on retreat just now? I say, you can’t afford not to!

©Ruth Haley Barton. Adapted from “A Steady Rhythm: The Not-So-Secret Key to Effective Ministry and Leadership,” Leadership Journal, Winter, 2007. Not to be reproduced without permission.

1Emily Griffin, Wilderness Time (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 17.

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Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founding President and CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.


  1. Penelope Swithinbank on November 10, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Thank you, Ruth. A timely reminder.
    The problem, for me, is that I lead and run a retreat house! So going on retreat is rather too much like ‘home from home’ or what I enable others to do every day. So I have had to learn to BE in different ways, at different times. I fly to the USA three times a year – and 7 hours on a plane, where there is no phone, no email, nothing I have to do, is often a time to close my eyes and BE with the Lord, uninterrupted; maybe with worship music through my headphones. Learning to take time to ‘retreat’ and be renewed in creative outside-the-box ways can be a challenge – but is oh so worth it!

  2. Biz Gainey on October 15, 2015 at 8:24 am

    Thanks Ruth.

    Excellent, excellent post.

    Just sent it out to our leadership team to encourage them in this crucial area of renewal!

    • Ruth Barton on October 31, 2015 at 6:28 pm


  3. Barbara Smith-Mustin on October 13, 2015 at 8:42 am

    I had pushed the truth and realization of my very much needed alone time with God. He was calling and reminding me and I was putting Him off for a more convenient time. Thanks for this reminder straight in my face. I do not know of a retreat place close to home. I would like to find one. I usually just make do around the house but I feel the need to get away. Thank you again.

  4. Leon on October 29, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    Dear Ruth,
    Thank you for the encouragement. I was debating whether I had time to take my annual Advent retreat this year, but after reading this blog, I’m convinced I need it more than ever. Thanks be to God!

    • Ruth Barton on October 30, 2013 at 9:01 am

      Truly there are so many real challenges of all different sorts and types; I am praying for all of us that God would show us the way to retreat time amid the unique challenges each of us face. The first step IS to acknowledge how much we long for retreat time and how much we need it along with our awareness of the obstacles; then we can ask God, “What are we going to do about that?” and let him guide us.

  5. Judith on October 27, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Thank you for this reminder. My situation is also challenging like Stephanie’s as I am a live in caregiver for my mom but I must find a way to do this. I’m reminded that this type of retreat isn’t just “vacation” but intentional time with God.

  6. Weekly Wrap-Up 10/25 | books, BBQ & bow ties on October 25, 2013 at 9:11 am

    […] From Transforming Center: You Say You Don’t Have Time For Retreat? Think Again! […]

  7. Stephanie on October 23, 2013 at 11:15 am

    As a mother of two children in preschool, working part time in ministry, I desperately long for this kind of regular rhythm of solitude and retreat. But my ministry requires me to leave my family for conferences – and this fall is especially full- which makes it hard for me to justify even more time away from home. I feel for my husband who holds down the fort while I’m gone while he has his own career. I know I’m a better mom and minister when I retreat regularly, but it feels so hard to justify to my family in this season of life.

  8. Gerry on October 22, 2013 at 8:31 am

    One day? I thought I needed a few days at least … and carving out that time from work, family and ministry has been … hmm, what excuse do I use. One day … I can do that. Thanks for the timely nudge.

    • Ruth Barton on October 30, 2013 at 8:58 am

      You’re welcome!

  9. Dea on October 22, 2013 at 8:10 am

    It’s not just Christian leaders who need this time. As lay people, it is even easier to let ourselves “off the hook.” We can find no real reason to justify taking a retreat, talk ourselves into believing the activity is only for those to Christian “work” as their daily calling. We take vacations to regroup for jobs outside the church. If lay people would “retreat,” would we not be in a better place to follow the lead of those God has given to us as shepherds and teachers.

    • Ruth Barton on October 30, 2013 at 8:57 am

      Yes, indeed we would! See comment above…

  10. Linda Alley on October 22, 2013 at 8:04 am

    I just returned from a weekend retreat called “Finding God at the Tip of Your Pen.” I can attest to the value of taking this time – whether one can afford it or not – to re-focus life and know deeper peace with God. In my case a strange little writing exercise became the carrier of God’s message to me, in my own handwriting! It’s the stuff of wonder….

  11. Charly Morgan on October 22, 2013 at 7:55 am

    Having taken 2 four day retreats per year for the past 24 years I can attest to the truth of this message….. no, I am not in ‘paid’ ministry…. but God put such a call on my life I have had to have these times…. how I yearn to get others …like a small group I lead on Sunday nights to realize the need….. for even an overnight once a year….. my prayer is that God will convince them!

    • Ruth Barton on October 30, 2013 at 8:57 am

      Whether we are in “paid” ministry or not, we all need times of retreat. In fact, both “paid” ministers AND those who work 9-5 jobs plus carrying significant leadership responsibilities in the church have their own unique challenges in finding ways to experience these set-aside times. I love hearing about your own practice and your longing to see others enter into this key discipline.

  12. Laura on October 22, 2013 at 6:51 am

    As I facilitate online leadership classes with LIFT, this is the most common challenge I hear from those in ministry – the challenge not to let “doing” for Jesus consume them and keep them from being with Him in personal soul nurturing times. Thanks for this Ruth!

  13. Steve on October 22, 2013 at 5:32 am

    So very true and so counter intuitive. Martin Luther, when once asked what his plans, for the following day were, answered: “Work, work, from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

    • Ruth Barton on October 30, 2013 at 8:52 am

      Love it!–esp. the reminder that solitude, silence and retreat are nothing new. The great ones of our faith have always done it!

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