Retreat: Invitation to a Counter-Cultural Practice

 “I have lived too long where I am reachable.”–Rumi

It is a wonderful thing to be invited—especially when the invitation is particularly well-suited to our needs, our desires, our delights. A gifted communicator receives a significant invitation to speak on a topic that is important to them. An artist is commissioned to create banners for the Easter processional or design a memorial that will forever commemorate a historic event. A pastor gets called to serve a church that they feel drawn to. Your family gets invited to another family’s home for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Someone invites another person to marry them.

When it’s the right invitation, we feel honored, we feel warmed, we feel drawn. Everything in us leaps to say yes!

Tired of being told what to do

One of the reasons I love a good invitation is that I get tired of being told what to do. As the very responsible oldest daughter of a pastor and someone who entered vocational ministry at a young age, my life has been shaped by a strong sense of what I had to do, what I needed to do, and what I ought to do, according to a lot of other people’s expectations. And there is nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. 

But these days I find a good invitation to be much more compelling than responsibility. To be invited into something that is right for me and to be able to choose freely, well, that is an entirely different experience! 

With a true invitation, there is no coercion, no forcing, no guilting, no manipulation—just a winsome opportunity, an openhearted welcome and the freedom to say yes or no.  An invitation means that I really do have a choice, and I just love that! The other thing that is simply wonderful about a good invitation is that it means I am wanted. 

To be wanted

For some of us the desire to be wanted is closer to the surface than it is for others, but no matter how buried it might be, the desire to know we are appreciated, accepted, and desired is a fairly universal human longing. Our awareness of this longing and our experiences with how this desire was met (or not) go way back and may shape us even now.

We all have early memories of knowing something special was going on—a bunch of girls having a sleepover, a birthday party for one of the cool kids, a group of guys playing baseball or street hockey—and experiencing the sting of realizing we were not invited. We might remember the grade school excitement of being invited to someone’s house after school and looking forward to it all day or the sting of not being invited when others have been.

As we grew into adolescence, we may have felt the security of being included in a group of good friends or the emptiness of being on the outside. We might have waited breathlessly for an invitation to an upcoming dance, or we may have been the one doing the asking and waiting breathlessly for that person’s response. Perhaps we yearned to be part of the cast for a major production, to be on the football team, or even invited to be a special helper to a teacher we liked. Whatever our experiences have been, we know instinctively that to be invited means we are wanted and, in the very best scenario, wanted by someone we find interesting, intriguing, or just plain cool.

And that is exactly what makes the invitation to retreat so compelling. It is a winsome call from this intriguing person we call God—the One who loves us, the One who is inexplicably drawn to us, the One who knows so intimately what we need in order to be well. It is an invitation straight from the heart of Jesus to us—his enthusiastic disciples who routinely wear ourselves out with good things and with lesser things, and we don’t even know we’re doing it half the time! Taking on too much at work without prioritizing, thinking I can be the savior of all who are convinced they need time with me, making commitments I cannot possibly keep without running myself into the ground, reacting and responding to every need as though it were mine to fix, trying to be perfect and never disappoint—all of these compulsive behaviors ensure I will never come away and rest awhile.

Reclaiming retreat as a spiritual practice

Imagine the disciples’ surprise when, in the midst of their excitement about “all they had done and taught” in Jesus’ name, he invited them to retreat. Literally! His words, “Come away to a deserted place . . . and rest a while,” (Mark 6:30-31) shut down the conversation the disciples wanted to have and redirected it to the conversation Jesus wanted to have—about retreat! I can see them ceasing their breathless chatter, cocking their heads a bit in disbelief and thinking, “Well, that’s different!” 

What a wonder it is, as Jesus’ disciples, to be invited by him to conversation and communion, self-care and replenishment.  But the problem with trying to talk about retreat these days is that the word itself has been severely compromised, both in the secular culture and in the religious subculture. In business circles, a retreat is often a long meeting from which you cannot go home. It usually involves extended days spent off-site in which the event organizers not only have control over your daytime working hours but also your evening and early morning hours. Typically, we work harder on “retreat” than in our normal working days, and of course we come home exhausted.

The same is true in church culture. A retreat might involve an extended time away for the elders or pastoral staff to do strategic planning or problem solving. Usually time is built in for fellowship and community building, which means that the days are long and the evenings even longer!  Yes, we are getting away, but we are not resting.

We also might be accustomed to youth retreats and men’s, women’s, or couple’s retreats that include multiple teaching sessions with many other carefully orchestrated programming elements—loud music, icebreakers, games, elective workshops, activities, skits, and entertainment. Participants typically share rooms, which means they stay up later than usual and don’t rest as well because of the snoring person in the other bed!

While such events are wonderful opportunities for building community and creating space for focused teaching and interaction with others, they can also be stimulating to the extent that no one leaves rested or in touch with their own souls—at least not in the way Jesus encouraged his disciples to “come away with me and rest a while.”

A counter-cultural yearning

The yearning for retreat: Can you feel it? That yearning is your invitation. It is the Spirit of God stirring up your deepest longings and questions in order to draw you deeper into the intimacy with the God you were created for. Will you trust it? Are you brave enough to let it carry you into the More? 

To fully reclaim retreat as a practice that will open us to God, we will need to explore some of the concrete invitations contained within the more general one. We will need to consider the meaning of a military retreat (aka “strategic withdrawal”) for our own lives—putting distance between ourselves and the battle line, wherever that line is drawn in our lives right now. We will hear God’s invitation to rest and learn what we must relinquish in order to do that. We will experience rhythms that replenish us—body, mind, and soul. We will practice recognizing and responding to the presence of God through discernment, and recalibrate based on what God is saying to our souls.

Eventually, we will feel ourselves drawn to reengage our lives in the company of others from a more rested place and establish regular patterns of returning and resting in God.


My guess is that the invitation to retreat feels as different and counter-cultural to most of us as it felt to the disciples, but it was— and is!—the right invitation, offered by One who knows his children so well. The beauty of it is that we are not pushed, coerced, manipulated, or told we have to. Rather, we are invited to enter into something so good for us—body, mind, and soul—that once we recognize it as the winsome opportunity it really is, everything in us will leap to say yes. We may even wonder why it took us so long!

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. Adapted from Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God (InterVarsity Press).

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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[…] invites you to come to Him in your weariness. (Matthew […]

So much in this blogpost resonates with me. The presumption of people who think they know what I should do, how I should serve. The bait-and-switch of retreat’s call becoming something quite different in reality, something full of frenetic activity. Being wanted for what I can accomplish rather than for simply longing to be with me. Jesus’s invitation to “come away with me” is the call of a lover. Serving, doing, leading and accomplishing will all come in their due time, but in this moment the One who loves me is calling me to linger with Him. God have mercy on me that your call won’t fall on deafened and distracted ears. Call me away with you. I want to come!

Dear Ruth,
Once again, thank you. You remind me of what Jesus told Martha upon her complaint of her sister’s private ‘retreat’ at Jesus’ feet to learn of/from Him. While Martha was busy trying to serve, Jesus waited patiently ‘to serve’ – and found a willing soul in Mary. He said, ‘One thing is needful’ – thank you for reminding us of this simple, profound and necessary posture – to wait in ‘retreat ‘ for replenishment and renewal.

I can almost ditto the words above about you being a timely mentor to me. I have devoured this new book….and taking with me some key places in it and questions for my own journal reflection on personal retreat in just another week. This invitation to regular retreat has stayed with me since my own TC8 experience. I long for it. I am deeply grateful for the continued invitation. Thank you so much for continuing to speak into my life. God has brought us together “for such a time as this”. May I return rested and recalibrated for the ministry God has me in. Amen.

For me the word ‘retreat” carries connotations of moving backwards, leaving the field in face of a stronger foe, with the follow on implication of failure, not being good enough. How refreshing to hear ‘retreat’ as an invitation to come be with our Father who longs to heal, equip, empower, and transform, me into One able to stand firm, and move forward in the power of the Spirit. Just as many who are first will be last, so I think sometimes the only way forward is to go back. I’m learning to see retreat as surrender – I am, as Lewis notes, a rebel who must lay down his arms. In retreat I lay down weapons I don’t need for battles I’m not prepared to fight.

Really like the way you extended the metaphor from the first chapter about retreat as strategic withdrawal in the military sense of the word. Retreat as a place to lay down our weapons–that is, our normal ways of fighting and keeping ourselves feeling safe in the world–yes! That is what we do! Blessed surrender…. don’t we all get tired of fighting sometimes?

My women’s organization is planning a retreat next year. Your message is very timely. I pray that we, the organizers, will not fall into the same “routine” of over programming this leadership retreat. I covet your prayers for this. (I am a pastor’s wife from the Philippines, heading up our churches organization of the women’s commission.)

Church work is noisy. I just signed up for a 4 day retreat. I was excited. Then it was cancelled this morning. I am dealing with my disappointment, but looking with some anticipation for another chance to disengage. Thank you for your ministry of soul renovation.

I am so sorry about this I barely know what to say! When you need a retreat, nothing else will do. I am praying RIGHT NOW that God will give you the necessary gift of retreat soon. Don’t give up… press on in
pursuing what you know your soul needs.

Ruth, I just returned from a two week contemplative adventure in Italy. My husband and I both read your book on our trip, slowly absorbing the wisdom and the inspiration. Once again, Ruth, you have been a timely mentor in my life. God used your book to wake up some things in me that I didn’t even realize it had gone to sleep. Now that we’re back into our life, we are remembering the things that you taught us and remain very grateful. This is a very significant book for our times and I am letting everyone I know about it!

You’re the best, Kit! Thanks so much!

Your words are timely. I just finished a 36 hour retreat. I was afraid to go, nervous for what God might say or desire from me. Instead I came away relaxed and refreshed and feeling loved. Your call to regular retreat, then, is just what I needed to hear while this good memory is still fresh. I am encouraged to look ahead and mark out when and where the next one can be.


Thank you! I have found myself thinking the words of the grinch who stole Christmas at times…”All the noise, noise, noise!”

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