‘Resurrection is the silence at the heart of Christian literature… The New Testament is a literature with a blank at its centre, whereof it cannot speak; this blank is also its obsessive focus’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: A Christian History).
With this reflection, Michael Barnes led the pastoral cohort of the Sydney Central Coast into our annual Ministry Retreat. Some significant silence was kept, to the benefit of all those ‘Ministers of words’. Silence is always named as a highly valued part of the retreat time, in which even prayer becomes quiet and still, and listening to God takes the place of advising God on our personal preferences for the running of the universe.
Réculer pour mieux sauter: we take a step back, the better to leap forward. The short and temporary silence of a retreat is meant to drown out the competing voices of diaries, meetings, needs and demands, so that a reflective distance can be manifested from which to ‘leap forward’ into decisive, useful, missional action. Mark 1:35-39 catches this movement in a nutshell.
Conversation was there, too: in small groups, pairs, and in reflection in the larger-than-usual plenary sessions. As the group became more familiar, the willingness to be open and even vulnerable before colleagues grew, and some profound thoughts and experiences were shared. Slightly less profound conversation at supper over a glass of wine and some cheese or choccy, true, but surely ministry can’t be that serious all the time.
The inclusion for the first time of Uniting chaplains broadened our outlook and hopefully provides another way of bridging that gap between what ‘they’ do and ‘we’ do. Common concerns always emerge, and the strength of chaplains’ pastoral expertise is a resource the rest of us might well learn from. We doubled our contingent of New England Northwest ministers. Unfortunately the school chaplains could not participate due to their own scheduled school retreat times, a challenge for future scheduling.
The success of our Retreat as a new Presbytery raises other challenges. It was great to be ‘all together in one place,’ but in fact we maxxed out the Kincumber accommodation, and that with at least a dozen apologies and non-attenders. If two more came, we would be out of room. If every minister and chaplain registered, we would need to book a hotel in Terrigal. The venue at St Joseph’s is so suitable and excellent that no-one would want to change that, but similarly no-one was keen to run two smaller retreats and risk missing some of their mates. Your thoughts on this would be welcome. In fact, please send any feedback on the retreat to me so we can consider your ideas for next time.
This post-retreat blog, of necessity, is focussed on our ministry personnel. However, for Church Council members and lay leaders, a few suggestions: Ask your minister about their retreat. Invite them to speak about it briefly in worship and reflect on the difference between retreating and running away. Think about the value of a spiritual retreat for church people – not just a family camp or houseparty, but a time of reflection, spiritual nourishment, conversation and silence. Think about a Zone retreat for all church leaders. How do you take time out for a better discipleship and ministry, whatever your ministry is?