Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Letters Home That Don't Get Lost!

My first-grade daughter came home with this note the other day and I loved it.  Loved it for so many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that it was inviting me to a celebration, in honour of ME!, but truly because I thought it was just so darn clever. 

Apologies for the terrible phone photography, but it gives you an idea of what the letter looked like anyway!
It's a note from the child to the parent (and by the way, my daughter knew exactly what it said so whether her teacher read it through with the class in great detail or perhaps even solicited their opinions on writing it first I don't know, but in any case, she knew what it was all about) and she signed it herself.  What a great way to keep the kids accountable and involved in upcoming class events and communications.   We've received notes like this for field trips, her Valentines party and her Christmas party so I would think, with a little creative wording, you could write a note like this for almost any upcoming event.   In addition, she couldn't wait to get it out of her backpack that night and read it through to me (hey, that's gotta count for some after school reading doesn't it!?)

Thanks Mrs. Nelson!  You're always coming up with great ideas!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

What Really Goes on at a Good Marriage Retreat? Part III

At the risk of stumbling into some blush-worthy areas...I'm attempting this section of the series, from a practical planning perspective.

Topics, themes, itinerary, that sort of thing.

All the rest you can leave up to your imagination!

I'm not going to lie and might as well put it out there is important, after all God created it to be enjoyed by husband and wife, so what better place to exercise that freedom than a retreat such as this? is the simple distraction-free silence, cool morning jogs with or without your spouse, fresh air hikes with like-minded friends, meals that don't require cutting up meat into tiny bite sized pieces, nor a sink full of dishes to clean, good-natured laughs when it comes to how opposite you and your spouse really are, private discussions that may or may not turn into a less than perfect debate (yup, disputes will happen but as long as they are focused and maintained in private...this is a healthy thing!), and let's not forget sleeping in!  Ahhhh...sleep. 

When you want it. 

For as long as you want it.  Or how about just waking up without a sippy cup slamming your forehead, or a "Mooooom, I'm hungry!", or a tackle from the top wire on your unsuspecting slumbering midsection!?

Time for the aforementioned things are very important so if the take-away from this post is nothing is this:  DON'T OVERSCHEDULE!

But before I delve too much into scheduling, it might help to understand what we're scheduling around.  Specifically, what kinds of topics do we cover and what are the best ones to maintain interest for an entire weekend?

Our pastor typically chooses a marriage-themed bible study series to base the weekend on.  There is no end to good studies out there, the trick is just finding one that suits your group and can be covered in the weekend.  Watching a DVD, as opposed to having an actual speaker, is an excellent way to keep the study consistent and sort of put everyone in the same "watching and learning" boat.  With a DVD, it's not like one or two couples are the leaders or facilitators thereby putting a bit of a hierarchy on the group.  There may be couples that rise to the occasion, offering up their own experience and hard-earned lessons, but it's better for group dynamics that that develops as a result, rather than being the driving force behind the study.  Here are some examples of studies that we've covered in our past retreats.  I highly recommend each of them as my husband and I both came away with memorable lessons from each!

Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage - Mark Gungor  (Probably the Hubs' favorite!)
Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage, Full Seminar on DVD   -     By: Mark Gungor

A Time Starved Marriage - Les & Leslie Parrott

 His Needs, Her Needs by Dr. Willard F. Harley

All good.  All from different perspectives.  And like I said before, all useful.

The schedule of events usually looks something like this:

2pm on - check in, settle in.
Sometime between 7-9pm whenever the whole group has arrived and settled, we may do an icebreaker (see previous post) to get everyone acquainted and watch our first video of the series.  Usually these are 30-60 minutes long.  After the first watch, our pastor will lead some discussion.  Most seminars come with individual workbooks that can also be handed out and often include an abundance of useful questions for a facilitator and individuals.  Once group chat has lulled, we are encouraged to go back to our rooms or somewhere private and discuss the material that's fresh in our minds.  Again, most workbooks have more personal questions for couples to discuss together and although sometimes it seems awkward to disperse just when the "party's getting started", it really is good practice to encourage some personal reflection of topics that are not always suitable or comfortable for large group settings.  This need only be thirty minutes long, and after couples can regroup (or not) and relax.  Often at this point, some late-night snacks will come out, groups of couples will form to play board games, cards, visit etc.  

9am - breakfast
10:30-11:30am - 2nd session. View, discuss, reflect
11:30-5pm - couple free time.  Where we go, this may include appetizers or a lunch at the local tourist town, hikes, walks, naps, shopping, horseback riding, pedicures, board games, visiting etc. etc.
5-7pm - dinner time.  We always have this catered or go out to a restaurant.
7-8pm - 3rd session. View, discuss, reflect
8pm on - couple free time

9am - breakfast
10:30-11:30am - final session. View, discuss, reflect.  Collect feedback about weekend either in the form of informal conversation (easy to do with a small group) or perhaps a written survey that can remain anonymous (for bigger groups).
11:30 on - clean/pack up, depart.

The bigger the group, the more specific the times will be.  With a small group and depending on who is cooking your meals, you will likely have a lot more flexibility with times and activities.  This really seems to be the ideal time allotment though and we haven't strayed far from it over the last five years.  Any shorter and you don't get into the nitty gritty (Saturday night discussions have always been very rich) but any longer and you'll lose people who have work and childcare commitments.

And there you have it!  Pretty much the 5W's and then some, of a solid successful marriage retreat!  Now go forth and plan in peace, print with purpose and protect your marriages!

Side note:
I happen to be editing this post on the heels of our last retreat only days ago.  It never ceases to amaze me just how enjoyable this retreat is.  Even though the Hubs and I try to get away once a month for a date night and we've even had several overnight mini-vacays to ourselves this past year, nothing quite compares with a third party challenging you to improve yourselves and a concentrated amount of time surrounded by like-minded people to work through it.  I always come away feeling a little guilty because I got to take part in such an event with my husband and so many other couples I know, didn't.  Not only do I feel refreshed and relaxed, but I also feel back on the same page as the Hubs, which I know I tend to wander from occasionally! Best of all we always return missing the kiddos like crazy which is always a good thing!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Planning a Marriage Retreat part II - Practical Printables!

Now for the "how".

How to put a successful marriage retreat together involves a bit of planning and a bit of prayer in equal parts.

If marriage maintenance is something you place as a priority in your church, let's not forget about praying for the married couples within your congregation.  Pray for their growth and maturity and willingness to learn more about each other and the institution they've committed to.  This is ongoing and can be as informal as printing up a little reminder from time to time in your church communications to something much more organized like having prayer couple partners - people matched up committed to praying for each other, asking each other how things are going, gathering specific prayer requests and being available to help one another plan date nights, act as babysitters for said date nights etc.

In any case, if you've prayerfully determined that a marriage retreat is something you'd like to offer, and you've managed to find a great location, here are some ideas that will help it come together.

One month before the retreat

Hand out a flyer or brochure giving couples all the information they need about the weekend. Be sure to include:

  • Location with driving directions and/or map
  • Check-in times/dates, Check-out times/dates
  • Topic or theme and short biography of the book/video/speaker
  • Contact information of organizing people and/or pastor
  • Itinerary
  • Packing list
  • Cost
Since our retreat is set up to be a proactive, enriching weekend, not necessarily a troubleshooting and repair retreat, I always write a little blurb about the getaway being a non-threatening chance to get away with your spouse that DOES NOT involve being put on the spot, confessing mistakes or group therapy.  I also try to encourage, how shall I say this politely?, the more "mature" couples in our congregation to take part too.  Often, people assume that since they've been married 10+ years, they can't  be taught anything new so attendance may be low for the "mid-lifers".  I believe marriage is a constant evolution and even if they do have it down to a fine art, they then become valuable fountains of wisdom for the younger ones.

Don't forget to post a sign-up sheet in the church somewhere where people can put their names and contact info down so you have a running total of interested attendees.

As promised, here is the link for this year's information brochure.  Feel free to tweak and modify for your own purposes!  Click here for the free EDITABLE & PRINTABLE version of my brochure.

The Weekend of the Retreat

If you opened the brochure you will have noticed a very general timeline of events.

Since it begins on a Friday and people have different work commitments, we try to make this portion very casual.  The one thing that we stick to is the first video segment series set to begin once everyone arrives.  Sometimes this is as early as 7pm, sometimes as late as 9:30pm.  You'll also remember, that Friday night food is each couple's own responsibility.  This makes it easy to keep the check-in time flexible as long as one of the organizers can be there at a set time to get the paperwork with the property owners out of the way.
It is helpful for guests to have a slightly more detailed version of this itinerary once they arrive. Things like catered meals that have set times and approximate times for video watching and informal discussion need to be listed, as well as packing/clean-up/check-out time.  However, be intentional about leaving gaps in the planning and therefore printing of this itinerary.  This may be the only "unscheduled" weekend many of these couples will have in their year and the freedom to wake when they want, eat when they want and sleep when they want goes a long way in feeling pampered.  

No matter how well everyone knows each other it's kind of nice to start the retreat off with a mixer.   People usually aren't comfortable sharing about themselves right off the start so I would highly recommend encouraging some mingling to start and once everyone feels a little safer, conversation will inevitably flow. There are lots of group ice-breaker ideas out there ( The National Healthy Marriage Resource website has dozens here but I've only chosen two below) and I've included a few that I have created and modified to work in the marriage retreat setting.

Toilet Paper Tell
I could see this being modified by first having a very sober leader launch into a serious announcement saying, "The lodge we are staying in has run out of toilet paper.  This roll is all we have left," he could explain, "So take what you think you'll need for tonight and hopefully we can get more by morning!" 

Then, when people have torn off their appropriate squares (which of course has nothing to do with how much they will actually "need") instead of talking about themselves, (one tidbit of info per square) they have to say some positive attributes about their spouse.

Getting Acquainted Card Game (need to click on the pdf link on the right to see full instructions)
Basically, you use a set of playing cards to try to get four of a kind.  When someone has acquired four of a kind, they must share four things about themselves.  I would adapt this, as above, to sharing four great things about their spouse.

Scavenger Hunt (need to click on the pdf link on the right to see full instructions)
Possibly done before guests even take their bags to their rooms as many of the required items may be found in their purses/suitcases/toiletry bags. Work in couples, 2 couples per team.  May also be comical if it is limited to just the men who must do the searching as (not to be too stereotypical but...) sometimes women have a tendency to pack for the men.  A rule could be added that the women on the team are not allowed to talk or search themselves but only nod or shake their heads.

Marriage Quote Match (click here to download the editable word doc from my google docs page)
Positive quotes about marriage are printed on this sheet but divided up into halves.  The quotes are cut apart into strips and all put into a bowl.  Each person then takes one strip, reads it and once everyone has their paper, the group mingles and shares their halves of the quotes attempting to put the halves together to make a full sensible quote.  It's a good idea to keep a master copy of this document to check at the end to see that the quotes are indeed matched up correctly.  There are 16 quotes on this document so enough for 32 people. 

Give Something Away!
Our thoughtful and generous Pastor and his wife, have always ensured that there are a number of marriage-friendly resources on display to give away throughout the weekend.  Titles have ranged from Sheet Music - Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy by Dr. Kevin Leman to Great Parents, Lousy Lovers by Dr. Gary Smalley and Ten Cunningham to your basics like The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.  An introduction to these resources - particularly the books on sex - seem to break down some taboos right off the bat, get some nervous giggles out and by giving one away right away, seems to put people at ease.  After all, who doesn't love free stuff?   Everyone can put their name in a hat, or perhaps their set of keys, and the lucky winner whose name or keys is pulled either gets a pre-determined book, or gets first choice. 

Sheet MusicGreat Parent Lousy LoversThe 5 Love Languages

Back to giving away free stuff, a nice little welcome gift left on guests' beds goes a long way to making guests feel special.  For these ideas I turned to The Dating Divas, who have no shortage of creative and economical ideas to keep the marriage fires burning.

Click on the pics to go directly to the printables!
Suite Retreat Kit Printable pack

Do Not Disturb printable
Do Not Disturb door hangers. Scroll down through this link to find printable!

With a pack of "Extra" Chewing Gum, I'd put the following quote on instead: "The difference between an ordinary marriage and an extraordinary marriage is in giving just a little 'extra' every day, as often as possible, for as long as we both shall live." Fawn Weaver
Stay tuned for more details on the "what".  What are the best themes for a weekend?  What are some great topic series? What is a fool-proof way to moderate a group session for maximum results?  What really goes on at a great marriage retreat!?


Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Definitive Guide to Planning a Solid Marriage Retreat Part I

Our church's annual marriage retreat is approaching and I have the privilege of helping to organize it!  It's something I am passionate about since I truly firmly believe that marriage does not come easy nor can it be left to blossom on it's own.  Like a well-manicured garden, spring does not come and the garden instantly looks beautiful. Aside from sunshine and good soil, it needs constant care and attention, weeding, watering, fertilizing, deadheading etc.  Every day.  Every season.  Every year. 

Certainly it needs more than just one weekend away as this retreat is, but as I've found in attending and helping out over the past five years, even one weekend is hard for most people to commit to.
Yet, it's a start, a really good start.

In any case, this organizing has kept me busy and so instead of just letting the blog slip again to the wayside because of it, I thought I'd write about it.  After all, a quick Pinterest search actually came up fairly empty.  Not blank empty, but just empty of realistic, practical information, that wasn't too touchy-feely, geared toward a fairly small group as we have.   As it turns out this post is actually a series of posts dedicated to planning a solid, successful marriage retreat.  I'm sure there are many improvements to be made and it won't work for all groups due to differing numbers and economics, but I've kept the information fairly general so it should apply to most or be easily adapted for others.

First off, I'm no marriage expert, having only been in mine for ten years, and holding neither a psychology nor a counseling degree.  But this isn't about therapy, this is about preparing a successful retreat from start to finish, so to that organizing end, I AM an expert!  (Mother of three, teacher, volunteer, and if you knew who I am married to, you'd value my credentials immediately!  Here's your one piece of marriage advice in this article - opposites attract. Yeah, so I'm the organizer and he's the....the opposite of all things organizational, so that should qualify me for some respect!)

And the first item up for bid, errr...major point to consider is...

Location Location Location
One of the most important aspects of the retreat and pretty much the first thing you need to secure, is a good location so you can plan for travel and give your attendees a cost estimate.  Now, as much as I'd like to find myself with my spouse "working on our marriage", on a white sandy beach in Hawaii, that whole plane-ticket- triple-zero-price-tag-thing, would likely do more damage to our marriage than the retreat could hope to repair, so here are the important points to consider about location, sans white sand, if you live in the 95% of the world without white sand.

A good location for a marriage retreat needs to be:

  • Far enough away that couples can't race home to take the kids to soccer practice.  No, you can't run away from your problems, but a little space can give perspective and a much needed  break.
  • Close enough that the gas money isn't a consideration and couples can race home should the baby swallow a quarter at Grandma's house.
  • Beautiful enough that couples can forget the heaps of laundry, stacks of dishes, and piles of bills littering their house.  Nobody needs the Ritz, after all, the getaway (time alone) should be good enough, but there needs to be a balance between feeling a bit pampered and not paying through the nose for it.  Everyone's idea of pampering is different (heck I went to the dentist the other day and after reclining for 10 minutes in their padded ergonomically correct chairs - uninterrupted - with the fish tank bubbling at my side - with my eyes shut - aside from the drill buzzing in the next chair (I pretended it was a skin buffer) I almost tricked myself into thinking I was at the spa!)  So perhaps my idea of beautiful isn't a great standard, but you get my point - there needs to be some degree of serenity, cleanliness, peace and quiet. 
  • Private!  Self-explanatory.  Couples need their own space to do their thing.  At minimum, they need a private bedroom.  A private bathroom is almost as important and certainly adds to the feeling of pampering if it can be offered as well.  Private areas in and around the property are important too, for discussion, heated or cool!  (Make no mistake, a good disagreement - fight even! - will often crop up!  Worry not!  It isn't a bad thing to have at a marriage least it can almost always be resolved without life interrupting!)  Privacy for the group is also essential to creating a safe, comfortable, distraction-free atmosphere where conversation can flow. Which leads me to...
  • Group friendly.  There needs to be a central meeting place where videos can be watched, books read together, discussion ensued, board games played, munchies eaten, and music played.  These are not definitive actions for a retreat but a large open area, preferably with couches, is necessary for them to occur if desired.
So all that is well and good but does a place like this actually exist?  I think it can just about everywhere if you're creative and willing to make some calls.  A summer camp could do the trick or even a floor of a college dorm residence (although usually the beds are singles which isn't exactly conducive to a great night's sleep...yeah, sleep, that's it, wink wink)  While a hotel is okay, it can be a bit too isolating for a good retreat to happen, plus there are usually other people milling about so distractions are plentiful.  A small, clean, well maintained motel that the group could take over, would be also an option. That being said, the location is what you make of it and if it can offer these five things above, it will certainly work.

As for an example, we've been extremely lucky with our location as most years we've been able to convene at a private guest house in a picturesque little village near the mountains.  The Mountain View Inn and Retreat Center has eight bedrooms in the main house, and for times when there has been more couples attending, it also has a more rustic cabin a few feet away that sleeps another three couples.  This is has been sufficient for our fairly small group but the quantity of couples will dictate your final destination. In case you're a local reader in Southern Alberta and are actually hunting out a place, I've included a few pictures from thier website just to let you know how perfect this location is.
Group area in the middle of the house.  Also has TV and WiFi to watch videos or stream video.

One of the bedrooms.  Even though it has two queen beds, we don't share rooms to save money.  Privacy is essential on this trip!

We usually go in the spring so we're not paying high-season rates so the grass isn't always this green. But, the grounds do allow for some lovely strolls and lots of little private areas to talk or play football or sit around a campfire. 

Food Glorious Food

Not much to say on this topic other than I highly recommend you include catered meals in your total cost.  Food buying, planning, prepping and the subsequent cleaning of it all, can be a monotonous chore that can cause some stress in our daily lives.  Eliminating that stress goes a long way to providing that feeling of being pampered and lets folks focus on the reason they're there.  

At our retreat, which runs from a Friday afternoon/evening until Sunday noon, we offer two breakfasts, and a catered dinner as part of the retreat fee.  The Inn also provides a full kitchen that can be used for everything else.  Some couples bring their own Friday night supper and we've also organized everyone to bring appies to share that evening.  Same goes for Saturday lunch and snacks in between.  Others eat out at at the nearby touristy town for a little bit of added luxury. 

Wine, beer or other spirits are something you may or may not want/need to address but we find it best to encourage couples to consume any "potent potables" within the confines of their own room.

You now know my "where" and and a few extra tips. Stay tuned for the "how" to put this altogether (with PRINTABLES!),  "what" a marriage retreat should cover (itinerary) and lots more suggestions in the next few blog posts!

How to Put it Altogether with Practical Printables!