Steps for Beginning a Retreat

The opening sequence of events at a retreat is very important for building the foundation of the event. During this time your goal is to accomplish a number of objectives (see below). This will lead the group naturally into the first talk introducing the retreat theme.

Objectives: By the end of the opening sequence participants should be able to

  • List the rules of the retreat and the behavior expected of them.
  • Recall each other's names and a little bit about each participant.
  • Belong to a small group, which will be for discussion throughout the retreat.


Begin the retreat in prayer with the participants. The shape of this prayer depends on the resources available such as time, clergy, location, and so on. Ideally this will take place in the Church with clergy who will bless the proceedings. The minimum should be no less than singing "O Heavenly King" (or similar, depending on the season).


This is a series of activities to help participants overcome the fears and anxieties they are experiencing at the beginning of the retreat and to bring them closer together. These are typically games, songs, and other potentially uncomfortable situations for the shy and self-conscious adolescent or adult. The idea of the "ice-breaker" is to engage that discomfort and shyness and use its energy to get beyond it, to break through it. These warm-ups should take one half-hour. One idea is the following Name Game.
See 20-Something Ice Breakers and 20-Something More Ice Breakers available on The Hub for Youth and Young Adult Ministries available online at [url=][/url] in the Activities section.


This is the time to establish the rules of the retreat clearly and concisely so as to avoid any problems down the road. Each situation will dictate its own specifics, such as what areas are off-limits, what times for lights out, what is expected for behavior and dress and so on. In addition, for a successful retreat, there are a few basic principles to follow:

  • Honesty: This retreat involves a lot of talking with each other, especially about each other's life and personal choices. While participants are not expected to share every detail of their lives, nor should they feel compelled to, what they do share should be honest and truthful.
  • Respect: In order for honesty to work, other participants must show courtesy and respect by allowing each participant to speak freely, without fear of criticism or judgment. Participants must agree to be able to disagree. Also, what is shared in the retreat is not for public consumption but is to be respected as private. It is not to be discussed outside the discussion group setting without the consent of the relevant participants.
  • The Golden Rule: Lastly, as with all of Christian life, our actions are to be governed by Christ's teaching to "Do to others what you would have them do to you." Participants should treat each other with the same care and kindness that they want for themselves.

Another way to make it clear is to complete a “Ten Commandments for the Retreat.” If your group has some retreat veterans, you may consider this option: Instead of just laying the rules out in a dictatorial fashion, ask the group to start coming up with them. You may get rules you never considered! These “Commandments may include the following (in no particular order):

1. When lights out/ bedtime will be
2. What are the physical boundaries of the space and what is off-limits
3. Who is in charge and who can answer questions
4. What is Church etiquette and liturgical requirements
5. What items or behaviors are prohibited
6. Where to keep their things/ where to change
7. Where to go to the bathroom
8. Where food is allowed and when
9. What jobs/ chores each person will have at clean-up (best to define early)
10. The need for honesty, respect, and the golden rule

The Rules Talk is also a time to officially recognize the retreat coordinator and staff and answer any questions about food, first aid, phones, scheduling, transportation, etc.

The participants now work on creating a unifying symbol for the retreat based on the theme. The “Unifying Symbol” is a visual metaphor that you can revisit throughout the retreat that also symbolically represents each participant in the context of the theme.

A standard example of a unifying symbol project is “the Puzzle.”
This activity can be done with up to 20-25 participants as one group. Any more than that, and you may want to make two puzzles and divide them into two different groups. You can also make it a friendly competition to see who can complete the puzzle first. Please “read” the group carefully before you decide this.

Materials Needed

  • A large white sheet of butcher paper cut into puzzle pieces (at least 10”xlO” size) one for each participant.
  • A large white sheet of butcher paper the same size as the puzzle board. This will be used later to put the cut pieces down, and to act as a border, and frame for the puzzle.

Begin the session with a prayer.

Hint: Draw a facsimile of the puzzle, and number the backs of the pieces to match numbers you give them on the master. Then you can help the participants if they run into a problem putting the puzzle together.

Each participant gets a piece of the puzzle. Somewhere on the piece they will write their name in large, bright letters. Each participant will color or draw symbols on the puzzle piece to represent hobbies, interests, favorite subjects at school, favorite food, home state, how many people in their family, etc. Give directions for the children to make them bright and colorful.

When participants are finished, have them brainstorm in groups, ways to put the puzzle together. After a few minutes, start writing down suggestions on a sheet of butcher paper. Remember, in brainstorming, every answer is a good one!
After a short discussion on which method to try, allow participants to organize themselves, and give it a try. (They usually suggest things like, start with the corners, put all the straight edged pieces on the outside etc.) Have them place the puzzle pieces on the piece of butcher paper already cut to the right size. When the task of putting the puzzle together is complete, get back into one group to discuss how it went.

The teacher will explain and encourage discussion for the following ideas:

a. We are all as different as each puzzle piece.
b. We have different lives, hobbies, interests, families, etc.
c. We look as different as each puzzle piece.
d. The puzzle pieces, though different, all fit together to form one perfect picture. We will also ‘fit together when we come to appreciate our differences, and the things that make us the same.
e. The importance of each piece of the puzzle. If we remove or change one piece the whole picture changes.
f. Our common Orthodox Christianity will be the strongest, most common sharing we have.

Once the discussion is over, have the participants brainstorm a name for their group. A banner or sign can be made to hang over the puzzle when it is glued together and hung on the wall for the week. If you use masking tape to temporarily hang each puzzle piece, you can easily remove them and hand them back to the children before the end of the week.

There are several possibilities, including 1) The lamp stand; 2) The Light of the World; and 3) The City on a Hill. Depending on your time and access to materials, choose one.

Small group discussions can be the core of the retreat. Before moving into any of the talks, it is necessary to select groups and be clear about what is expected of them. For more information on how to form and implement small group discussions check out the article “Running Retreats with Small Group Discussions” online in The Hub for Youth and Young Adult Ministry Resources at under the Leader Information section.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries