Planning a men's retreat can seem like a daunting task, especially if it's your first time. I've found, however, that if you work with other men, and try not to be too ambitious, you can create something quite meaningful. When planning the beginning of your retreat, remember that it's an important time because it sets the tone.
Sometimes participants are asked not to use their real names, but to address each other simply as "Brother." Later, on the first evening together, we might gather in small groups for naming ceremonies, wherein each man chooses a new name for the weekend from among suggestions made in a ritual fashion by the others in his group. Having button-making supplies available to create a display badge of the new name can be helpful and creative (although it needs to be well supervised).
Throughout the weekend, a nice balance between small- and full-group activities is essential. It can be helpful to have a few meetings of the same small group throughout the weekend so that men can build some closer relationships. In large groups, storytelling, singing, and chanting can be very profound if safety is established and guys can let go and get into it. Campfires are fun, but have something planned (like a good storyteller with a meaningful story who can lead a discussion) or you run the risk of extroverts dominating in ways that are unproductive.
Other activities you might consider for the retreat include action-oriented ones such as hiking and playing team sports. Following these, you might want to discuss the issue of competition among men. Quieter workshops might include journaling, dream-work, or discussions related to being a father, husband, partner, or son. Retreats are also good times to reflect on the men's programming at your church, or to plan a men-oriented worship service at your congregation.
I always prefer to have a cook who is not participating in the program so all of the participants can concentrate on the workshops and activities. Then again, cooking together can also be good programming as long as it doesn't take the whole time or adversely affect the group unity by continually pulling some guys away. I prefer to find a retreat center or camp with nice indoor space as well as a good outdoor environment.
If you have guys younger than 30, it's important to be very intentional about making sure they feel included. It's common for older, more experienced participants to steer the programs or discussions toward mid-life issues; just remember that younger men have different struggles, and they're probably looking to older men for guidance and wisdom. Share your wisdom!
Father/son attendees can be very powerful, unless they start to dominate with their fierce, unexamined issues and turn the retreat into a therapy group. Young sons can be both very welcome and a distraction, depending on many factors, so they are really a wild card.
Leave some time at the end of the retreat to evaluate the whole thing and set in motion a planning team for the next one. Don't be discouraged if only a few come to the first one; some guys need to hear good reports before they'll take the step of committing a whole weekend. So if you've had a good experience, sing it from the mountaintop when you get back to your congregation.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of REACH: Religious Education Action Clearing House.