Craving a “Date” with Jesus
Pastoral ministry comes with some of the greatest joys and deepest sorrows. I remember a particularly draining season, filled with all kinds of discouragements. I was doubting my own effectiveness at discipling others, feeling the weight of bi-vocational ministry, and my soul felt sluggish. I was emotionally and physically empty. As it so happened, my daily quiet times were more consistent than they ever had been. However, I still felt empty, tired, and drained.
I remember putting the kids to bed one night, coming down the stairs, collapsing on the couch, and talking with my wife. I broke down and said, “I just feel like I need a date with Jesus.” In my heart, I felt the same way that I do when my wife and I are unable to go on a proper date for a while. The daily connection is critical but also I was craving something special. I wanted some unstructured, unhindered, unencumbered time to pursue Christ. My wife said, “Okay. Take tomorrow morning and go spend some time with Jesus!” My wife is pretty awesome. And I followed her advice.
The Beauty of Extended, Quality Time with Jesus
I woke up the next day and grabbed my Bible, a book, a journal, and a water bottle and drove down the road to the edge of Lake Auburn. I parked myself at a picnic table and spent three hours praying, reading, listening, and journaling. I didn’t know what to expect and had no idea if it would make me feel better or not. But it was amazing. I didn’t look at my phone. I didn’t look at the time. I just came to God and gave Him my full attention. And I felt healed. I felt renewed and ready to keep going.
Ever since that day, I have prioritized these “mini-retreats.” I take three to four hours of a day every three to four weeks to have unstructured, unhindered, intentional time with God. These mini-retreats have become so sweet to me that now I could not imagine going without them. I would put forward this simple idea as something to prioritize in your life and ministry.
Jesus Did “Mini-Retreats” with the Father
If there’s one human being that we would not expect to need those times, it would be Jesus. After all, He was God. But that’s exactly what we see happening. Jesus prioritized having times of silence and solitude in active pursuit of His Father. He was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matt. 4:1), “went out to a desolate place” often (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42), and “went up on the mountain by himself to pray… alone” (Matt. 14:23). Before His ultimate sacrifice, He spent time alone in a garden to pray and seek God (Matt. 26:36, Mark 14:32). The reason I’m calling these “mini-retreats” and not daily quiet times is because the gospel writers seem to express a uniqueness to those times when He would get away for extended periods of time for focused prayer and fellowship with God.
One might wonder why Jesus would need to have these extended times of communion with God. However, often what we see is that these “mini-retreats” had no other known goal than simply that Jesus wanted to be with and enjoy His Father. Jesus prioritized this relational intimacy. He expressed a unique relational “knowledge” of the Father (Matt. 11:25-27). He expressed closeness so intimate, it was as if He was always “in the Father’s bosom” (John 1:18). He and the Father are “one” (John 10:29-30). And this relational intimacy is prayed for us as well in Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17:20-26). In that relational priority, Jesus would set aside times where He would spend a few hours (or a whole night) in solitude to pursue the Father. This is not a sabbatical or an annual retreat. This isn’t a daily quiet time. This is kind of like when you go on a date with your spouse. It’s a more extended time (often planned ahead) where you spend intentional, unhindered time pursuing the one you love. This is not solitude for the sake of getting some peace and quiet. This is an intentional pursuit of relational intimacy with our Father.
Why Not Something Else?
Most pastors have categories for a daily quiet time and some kind of extended annual retreat. I believe these are also important and the “mini-retreat” is not meant to be a replacement for these things. However, consider marriage again. Imagine a marriage where the couple sees each other every day but they never get away to go on a date. They have an annual anniversary trip that they enjoy but never have those special times of relational pursuit outside of daily rhythms. Would we consider this ideal or healthy? Probably not. And I think we should say the same of our relationship with God. The daily rhythms are important and the long retreats are important. But the mini-retreat accomplishes something these two do not.
Here are some ways mini-retreats benefit me:
1) Give a regular space to search my own soul and look for blind spots.
2) Create an extended time to hear from God and respond to Him.
3) Help recenter my affections and renew my joy in God.
4) Help me fight feeling monotony in daily quiet times.
5) Help establish the priority God needs to have in my life.
6) Steady me when life and ministry feel chaotic.
7) Fuel me for a fruitful return to people.
In many ways, a mini-retreat is like fasting. We are made to be in fellowship with others like how we are made to eat and drink to sustain life. But when we get away and spend extended time alone with God, it centers us and reminds us of what is most important. We can assess ourselves, enjoy the Father’s presence, and get energized to return to the work to which He has called us.
1) Get it on the calendar (and guard it).
We schedule those things which are priorities for us. Find a time every month (or more often) where you set aside time to get alone for three to four hours. Guard that time. Don’t schedule something else then because you know it is open. It’s not open. You have a commitment. And it’s important. Emergencies may happen and some emergencies would necessitate canceling a date with my spouse to address. But it would have to be pretty urgent and important. I use the same criteria for my mini-retreats.
2) Plan what you will do (but not everything).
In the same way you may have to call in a reservation or pick out an outfit for a date with your spouse, be prepared for this time. Plan to have some time meditating on a passage of Scripture, praying for particular things, or reading a book that will grow your affections for Christ. But also plan to have unstructured time with God. I try to set aside time just to be silent and listen or to allow God’s Spirit to move me to pray for things I didn’t plan for.
3) Put away technology (and other distractions).
This is time for God. Social media and emails can wait for a few hours. I try to keep myself from even looking at the time. It won’t be as fruitful if you feel distracted or hurried. You want to create a space and time where you can feel free to be with God without the stresses of life pressing on you. We need to learn to be okay with silence and solitude.
4) Be patient and persistent.
New rhythms can feel uncomfortable. You may feel anxious or fidgety the first couple times. You may have high expectations that feel unmet. We cannot force God to give us a visceral experience of His presence. But we can place ourselves in His path and patiently wait upon Him. Be patient and persistent. It will bear fruit.
5) Keep your focus on enjoying Christ.
As soon as a mini-retreat feels like a box to check, it will feel like a burden and not a blessing. Remind yourself that you are doing this, not so that you can grow in intellect or feel good about yourself, but so that you may grow in love for Christ. A time like this will serve to make us more like Jesus, but only as our focus is fixed on Christ Himself, not our own Christlikeness. We need to want Christ! We don’t retreat to be with Him so that He will make us better pastors. We retreat to be with Him because we must have Him. Our affections are fixed on our Savior.
In the same way that going on a date with our spouse for the first time in a long while may feel a little awkward, starting a new rhythm of regular, prolonged pursuit of God in solitude may feel the same. But I implore you to consider adding it to your normal rhythms. Implementing a pattern of mini-retreats into my life has led to an explosion of spiritual (and emotional health). These “resets” of my priorities and affections have helped me endure and enjoy the labors of pastoral ministry. You may not think you need this, but as David Matthis rightly puts it in his book, Habits of Grace: “You may not know how badly you needed silence and solitude until you get to know them.”