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Flow of the First Two-Day Retreat

Flow of the First Two-Day Retreat
Flow of the First Two-Day Retreat

Welcoming and Presentation of Journals (45-60 minutes)

When each participant arrives, tell them where they will sleep during the retreat and give them time to settle in. Give each a journal (if they have not been asked to bring their own). Invite them to create a name tag, and direct their attention to the retreat agenda you have posted. Tell participants the journal is theirs to use as they choose—write as the spirit moves, or make notes during the retreat activities. Journals are intended to "get the juices flowing" for Odyssey writing and to encourage participants to think about their completed project. Encourage them to at least write notes and thoughts in the journal each evening.

If your group arrives the night before the first full retreat day, you may want to do Activity 1, Getting Acquainted in the evening and begin with Activity 2, Establishing a Covenant, in the morning.

Activity 1: Getting Acquainted (45-60 minutes)

Objective: Participants will get to know a bit about each other and build possibilities for intimacy and trust.

Preparation: Choose one or two get-acquainted activities from the options described below. Gather supplies you will need to lead these activities.

Description: Lead the group in one or more of these activities.

1. The Name Game lets the entire group know just a bit about each person. Ask participants to gather around a table or sit in a circle. Invite them to think about their entire name—first, last, and however many middle names they have. Invite each person, in turn, to share all of their names and explain where those names came from. Use your own name as an example. Then suggest that people volunteer when they wish, or go around the circle, each sharing in turn. Example: "My name is Anne Odin Heller. I was named Anne, with an E, by my red-haired mother, after Anne of Green Gables. My middle name, Odin, is my birth name, and is Latvian in origin. When I was small, I liked to think it was because my father was king of the gods, but actually it means "moth" in Latvian, and "one" in Russian. My last name, Heller, is a chosen name. I chose it when I left my twenty-year marriage and became a single woman. I chose it from my mother's side of the family. It seems that my maternal grandparents had an ancestor in common, the Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Heller, who wrote an essay on the rainbow and a polemic against Christianity!"

2. This is a pencil encourages participants to learn all participants' names (especially in a smaller group) in a very short time. Invite everyone to sit in a circle or around a table. Hold up a pencil, saying: "This is a pencil. We'll be passing it from person to person. I'll be the first and the last person. I'll begin by giving my name, saying: 'My name is Anne, and this is a pencil.' I'll give the pencil to the next person in the circle, who will take it, give their name, and say: 'My name is Peter, and Anne says that this is a pencil.' And the next: 'My name is Dolores, and Peter says that Anne says that this is a pencil.' Each person, in turn, takes the pencil, adds their own name, repeating the names of the people who preceded them, and so on, until the pencil returns to the leader who finishes by repeating each name. Then, invite volunteers to try to say all the names in the group.

3. One thing I am proud of is a great way to learn about something that is important to each participant. Invite people to write on a slip of paper one thing they are very proud of that most people don't know about them. Don't forget to do one yourself! Ask participants to fold up the paper and put it in a container, such as a hat or a bowl. Put the container in the middle of the table and invite each person to draw out a slip of paper. Invite participants, in turn, to read the slip of paper aloud, and say who they think wrote it and owns the accomplishment. If the guess is correct, invite the writer to take a bow while the group applauds the accomplishment. If the guess is incorrect, ask others for suggestions. Once the writer owns their accomplishment, invite them to say more or answer others' questions about what they wrote.

4. Pair interviews offer two people who don't know each other a way to begin an acquaintance and provide introductions for the whole group. Invite participants to form pairs, suggesting that each person pair with someone they don't know well. Invite each person to briefly interview their partner and prepare to introduce them. Allow five minutes for each interview, a total of ten minutes; signal the pairs to switch roles at the five-minute mark. Ask for a volunteer pair to go first in introducing each other.

5. Drawing silhouettes takes longer, but is great fun! It is a great exercise to loosen up the group, and to laugh a lot. You'll need a lot of space for this activity—floors, outside porches, grassy lawns. You will also need wall space to display the finished silhouette drawings. Invite people to pair up with someone they don't know well. Give each pair two lengths of pre-cut paper and a selection of broad-tipped, washable marking pens. Invite pairs to find a spot that will accommodate the length of the tallest partner and give these instructions:

  • One person lies down on a sheet of paper. Their partner traces their silhouette, including hands and feet and head.
  • The second person lies down and has their silhouette drawn.
  • Each person writes, inside the feet of their own silhouette, where their feet have been; inside their hands, what their hands can do; inside the head, what they like most to think about; on the stomachs, what foods they like; by the heart, what they love; by the eyes, what they have seen.

Encourage participants to be playful and creative. When each has finished writing in the silhouette, invite partners to ask each other questions about what is unclear, or might have been left out, and so on. Invite people to sign their name at the bottom of their silhouette and post all the silhouettes. Take time for an art show. Invite participants to walk around, look carefully at each drawing, and ask one another follow-up questions. Spend a little time discussing the process with the whole group. How did it feel? Do they have questions for or about anyone else? What did they learn? Any surprises?

Activity 2: Creating a Covenant (30 minutes)

Objective: Participants build community and establish agreements for their time together.

Preparation: Consider guidelines you would like included in the covenant for the group and jot them down for reference. Post blank newsprint. Have markers nearby.

Description: Invite participants to create a covenant that lists agreements for how they will treat one another during the program. Say, "We all want to be positive and encouraging with one another as we begin this Odyssey-writing journey. What specific agreements would help ensure that we all experience this group as positive and supportive?" Invite participants to name specific behaviors, using "we" language, while you record them on newsprint. Where possible, turn negative suggestions into positive ones, with permission of the person who made the suggestion. For example, change "We will not have side conversations while other people are sharing" to "We will listen when others are sharing." After the group has brainstormed points they would like included in a covenant, add additional points you consider important. Possibilities include:

We will remember that each person's story is their own, and each person has a unique perspective on their own experiences.

  • We acknowledge that each of us will be taking personal risks in telling stories and talking about our journeys. We will be accepting, supportive, nonjudgmental, and kind to one another.
  • We will pay careful attention to the way comments and questions are phrased so as to be supportive and kind.
  • We will address disagreements and misunderstandings promptly and openly. We will honor the guidance of our facilitator in resolving any conflicts that might arise.

When the list seems complete, invite participants to ask or offer clarification of any points. When all are in agreement with all points on the list, ask each person to verbally assent to the covenant.

Activity 3: Building Trust (30-60 minutes)

Objective: Participants deepen community and build trust.

Preparation: Choose an activity from the options given and prepare to lead it. Two variations of the Making Choices activity require a recording of the Simon and Garfunkel song "El Condor Pasa" and a music player; for one variation, you will need to make a list of either/or choices to offer participants. For the Trust Walk activity, each pair will need a cloth for to cover one partner's eyes.

Description: Lead one of these activities:

1. Making Choices (variation 1). Invite participants to listen to the song "El Condor Pasa," paying careful attention to the words. Say, "All of us have made choices in our lives, some simple, some difficult." Invite everyone to move to the middle of the room. Invite those who would rather be a hammer to go to one end, and those who would rather be a nail to the other. Invite one or two people in each position to say why they chose as they did. Next, invite those who would rather be a forest to go to one end, and those who would rather be a street to the other. Again, invite one or two people at each position to explain their choice. Continue with about a dozen more choices (examples: omnivore or vegetarian, day person or night person, introvert or extravert). Gather the group together and invite participants to share something about a difficult choice they have had to make in life.

2. Making Choices (variation 2). Play "El Condor Pasa" and invite participants to form groups of three or four. Invite each person in the foursome to take five minutes to share an important choice they have made in their life; allow about 25 minutes for each quartet to complete their sharing. Invite the entire group to come together and share comments and insights about the process of recalling difficult choices and hearing one another's stories.

3. Making Choices (variation 3). Invite participants to sit in a circle. Ask each person in turn to share an experience in which the choice they made changed their life.

4. Trust Walk. Have participants pair up. Give a cloth or scarf to each pair and invite one partner to cover their eyes with the cloth and allow the other person to lead them by the hand on a ten-minute walk, taking care to ensure the safety of the person who is putting trust in them. Then, have partners trade roles. After the walks are finished, invite participants to form a circle and talk about what it was like to trust someone with your sense of control and well being.

Activity 4: Profound Listening (45 minutes)

Objective: Participants practice good listening, to enhance the retreat group experience and any interviews they may conduct while preparing to write an Odyssey.

Preparation: Plan a "hot" or controversial conversation topic you will introduce, perhaps one concerning politics, sexuality, or religion. Write these instructions for paired conversations on newsprint and post:

  • Person A talks for five minutes and Person B listens, focusing on hearing what A is really saying.
  • When A is finished, B tells A what B heard, not expressing an opinion about the topic, but simply reporting back
  • A gives B feedback about the report back ("Yes, that's right, that's what I said." Or, "No, that's not quite it; what I was trying to say was... ")
  • B reports back again on what A said and A gives feedback about the report.
  • A and B reverse roles.

Write three sentence completions on a piece of newsprint and set aside:

  • I was surprised that...
  • I learned that...
  • It was difficult for me to...

Description: Introduce the activity with these or similar words:

Listening is an art that can be learned. You probably know a person, or people who are good listeners. Here are some common practices of good listeners: They focus their full attention on you. They lean into a conversation. They respond verbally or non-verbally to what you say. They focus on what you say, not what they plan to say next. They affirm what you say, and answer your questions directly.

These are skills that can be learned and practiced. Being a good listener will help enhance interviews you might have with friends and relatives as you prepare to write your Odyssey. Here's an exercise to help you practice being a good listener.

Invite participants to pair up with someone they have not worked with before and don't know well. Introduce the conversation topic. Say that partners will take turns expressing their opinions on the topic, following the process you have posted. Tell groups they will have 20 minutes to practice good listening in pairs. Remind them that their goal is to hear another person's viewpoint, not to change another person's opinion. Watch the time; after 10 minutes, suggest partners switch roles if they have not done so. After the pairs are finished, invite the large group to reconvene. Post the sentence completions and invite participants to complete them in their journals. Allow five or ten minutes for writing, and then invite reflections or comments. Ask: What did you learn about listening, either as the speaker or as the listener? In what ways will good listening skills enhance the Odyssey experience for you personally and for the group? Ask for suggestions about how to listen more deeply; how to avoid critical or analytic questions and responses; how to affirm and encourage the person who is speaking. Conclude with these or similar words:

Profound listeners leave you feeling that what you are saying is important to them. To listen profoundly as a person is telling you their life is to give a compliment of the highest order. Profound listening to friends and relatives who will bear witness to your own life as you interview them encourages them to share more deeply.

Activity 5: Saying a Radical "YES" (30 minutes)

Objective: Participants practice finding ways to say "yes" and affirm others.

Description: Introduce the activity using this story from the experience of the author of this resource:

At my seminary, Starr King School for the Ministry at the University of California's Graduate Theological Union, we had a collective commitment to saying YES. It was based on the notion that every person grew and prospered and trusted others more when encouraged by "radical" YES-saying. This meant we were always trying to think of ways to affirm and support one another, even, or especially, when we disagreed or were concerned that what the other was doing was wrong. It was sometimes difficult to be nonjudgmental. It was often difficult not to jump in with a contrasting or opposing opinion.


Let's practice radical YES-saying in our group this weekend. What would it mean if we were to do that? How would we do that? Let's take some time to heighten our sensitivity and become more willing and skillful yes-sayers!

Lead participants in a conversation. Ask: What are the possible effects of yes-saying? What good, or ill, could it do? What happens when, instead of saying yes to a person, you are critical, or say no? Allow about 15 minutes for discussion. Then invite the group to brainstorm ways to say yes. Go wild!

Activity 6: Values Clarification — Individual Reflection and Journaling (60 minutes at least; if possible, the remainder of the afternoon)

Objective: Participants discover and name values that have shaped their life experiences.

Preparation: Write the processes (prizing, choosing, and acting) and sub-processes from the book Values Clarification on newsprint and post.

Description: Introduce the activity by describing the seven sub-processes involved in valuing, as described by Sidney B. Simon in his 1995 book, Values Clarification:

PRIZING one's beliefs and behaviors

1. Prizing and cherishing: Is this a value I truly prize and cherish? In what ways do I do that?

2. Publicly affirming, when appropriate: Am I willing to publicly affirm this value? How have I done that?

CHOOSING one's beliefs and behaviors

3. Choosing from alternatives: Did I choose it freely from among alternatives? What were they?

4. Choosing after consideration of consequences: What were the consequences of choosing this value? Name one.

5. Choosing freely: Did I choose it freely, or "inherit" it from my parents? A peer group?

ACTING on one's beliefs

6. Acting: How have I acted on my belief? Give an example.

7. Acting with a pattern, consistency, and repetition: Am I consistent in acting on this belief? In what ways?

Invite participants to use this approach to identify personal values and beliefs, both long-standing and emerging, and reflect on how they live those values. Ask participants to list in their journals five to ten of the values and beliefs that are important in their lives. Invite them to assess their list using Simon's processes and sub-processes, which you have posted, asking themselves questions about each value on their list and writing or making notes in their journal as they wish. Allow a half hour for this part of the activity. Then invite participants to consider how their values might inform their approach to understanding and writing their Odyssey. Invite participants into a time of quiet reflection. Slowly ask these questions:

  • How do your values thread through your story? Which are most important?
  • How and when did you begin to hold your values?
  • How have they influenced your life and behavior?
  • Have the values you affirm and uphold changed the course of your life in any way? How?
  • Do your primary values center around your family? Friends? Your spiritual life? Politics? Your work?
  • How have your values impacted your work or vocation—which is it, work or a vocation? Do your values shape how you respond to that question?

Invite participants to list in their journals three values they might measure their life by. Say:

Spend some time, perhaps the remainder of the afternoon, considering the impact of these values on your odyssey, or life story. Journal about the times you have "walked your walk" and acted on your values. Are they a central part of who you are and what your story has been about? If not, why not? As you write, do you find other values emerging that surprise you? What are they? If there are central points, stories, or crossroads in your life that introduced you to the values you live by, write about them.

Invite participants to find comfortable space for reflection. Tell them that they may choose after some time of silent reflection and writing to find another person with whom to share their thoughts and practice profound listening, although this is optional.

Activity 7: This I Believe (two hours at least; if possible, the entire morning)

Objective: Participants reflect on their beliefs and heartfelt commitments and write a credo statement.

Description: Introduce the activity, saying:

Writing a credo, what you believe or what you set your heart to, can be an enlightening experience. Robert Fulgham, the Unitarian minister who wrote Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, tells us that his book had its origins in seminary, in a semester-long credo writing class.

Suggest this process for writing a credo:

  • Take your journal with you to a quiet and comfortable place. Write down what you believe, in a stream of consciousness, without thinking too hard about it. It might be a list, or it might be free form, a flow of consciousness, with no order at all. If you are stuck, refer to your list of values.
  • Put your writing aside for a while and enjoy some reflective time.
  • Look at your writing again and begin to organize your thoughts. Your credo is beginning to emerge.
  • Write a draft without trying to edit and put it aside again.
  • Return to your draft and edit what you have written for content and form.
  • Put it aside again before editing your credo a final time. Polish it, and work on the poetry of the language as well as the content.
  • Share your credo with a peer, taking turns reading to each other and practicing profound listening.
  • Discuss your experience of the process. Ask your partner "Does this sound like me? Or does it surprise you, and if so, how?"
  • After our first weekend retreat is over, put your credo aside for a few days. Then look it over again, and make corrections if you need to. Choose someone who is important in your life and share your credo with them. Ask them the same questions you asked your partner: "Does this sound like me? Or does it surprise you, and if so, how?" Consider also sharing it with a peer partner from the group.
  • Edit it one last time!


You may choose to use your credo as a preface to your Odyssey, or as a handout in your presentation. Or, you may choose not to include it, but simply use it as a frame of reference for your writing.

Activity 8: Drawing Your Life (60 minutes)

Objective: Participants consider events and turning points in their lives and make a visual representation in order to understand where they have come from, where they are now, and where they are going.

Preparation: Decide whether you will offer instructions only for the time line, only for the tree, or both of these options. You will need a roll of paper to give participants six-foot sheets for time lines, and/or sheets from a newsprint pad for trees. Set out a good selection of drawing supplies such as crayons, markers, pastels, and color pencils.

Description: Invite participants to draw their lives to understand where they have come from, where they are now, and where they are going. Explain that they may draw either a personal time line or a tree that explores the roots and branches of their lives. Invite them to choose paper and drawing materials and find a quiet spot with good light.

Offer these specific instructions in your own words:

For time lines: Select several different colors to use. Place the sheet of paper on the floor, or a table. Draw a horizontal line across the middle of the paper. On the far left of your time line, write the year of your birth. At the far right, write the current year. Divide the paper into life decades from birth to the present (i.e. Birth to 10 years, 10 years to 20 years, and so on). Write the decades across the top. Within each decade, note:

  • The major events of your life, for example schools, geographic moves, marriage, accomplishments.
  • The most important people in your life during the decade
  • The cities and states and countries you have lived in
  • Events in the news, in politics, in the world that affected you
  • Experiences you had that affected you
  • Role models, mentors, and people you admired.

Take the time line home with you and keep it on a wall, updating it and adding to it as you write your Odyssey. You may even choose to use this time line as a backdrop when you present your Odyssey.

For tree histories: Take a moment to think about different kinds of trees you have known and loved: pine, oak, aspen, sycamore, palm, willow, elm, and so on. Ask yourself, "If I were a tree, what kind would I want to be?" Draw a tree to represent yourself, including roots, branches, trunk, leaves, and so on. When you have finished, record the events of your life where they belong on the tree. What people or events or places are at the "roots" of your life and contributed to your growth? Which people, events, or places "branched you out?" Which people, events, or places belong to the trunk, the center of your being? What parts of you are in the leafy treetop, striving to grow? Take your life tree home and post it on your wall for a week or so, and add to it as you wish. You may even choose to use this tree as a backdrop when you present your Odyssey.

Activity 9: Planning for the Writing Interlude (at least 90 minutes)

Objective: Participants consider options for organizing the writing project and plan how they will use their time between retreats.

Preparation: Make copies of "Odyssey Writing: A Guide for Participants" (Chapter 3) for all participants. Review the guide so you will be prepared to answer questions. In consultation with participants, prepare recommendations for peer writing partners during the interlude; consider logistical factors (such as location and transportation) as well as personal compatibility factors.

Description: Distribute copies of "Odyssey Writing: A Guide for Participants." Review and explain its contents, answering questions. Explain that the Odyssey writing project they will undertake between retreats has two phases: the collection phase and the writing phase, and that the guide has suggestions and options for both. Tell them that they need not be limited to the suggestions in the guide, but should rather be inspired by them to prepare, write and present the Odyssey in their own unique style. Make recommendations for peer writing partners.

Invite participants to create a work plan for the writing interlude, figuring out whom they would like to contact and what mementos they would like to gather. Invite peer partners to meet with one another and review those plans, offering profound listening as well as the encouragement of radical YES-saying.

Activity 10: Constructing an Armature for Your Odyssey (30 minutes)

Objective: Participants explore ways they could structure their Odyssey.

Description: Introduce the activity with these or similar words:

If you have ever written a term paper, or thesis, or a speech, you've had some practice figuring out how to structure your work before you write. The dictionary tells us that an armature is a framework or structure for supporting sculptures, as in building clay. It can also be the framework for other things, as in the structure of a piece of writing. The virtue in developing or constructing an armature before you begin writing is that the armature will provide structure and direction to help guide your work.

Invite participants to share this imaginary scenario:

Imagine that you are sitting in front of a television set, watching the best episode ever seen of a favorite television program. It's exciting. It's terrific! But you are hungry. What you would really like is a toasted English muffin with butter and jam. Commercials! You have just the space of time of the commercial break to prepare your muffin and get back to your chair in time for the next segment of the episode.

Ask participants to take out their self-adhesive notes and a pen or pencil, and write every single step of getting that muffin ready—each step on its own self-adhesive note. Then, invite your whole group to shout, "THE MUFFIN IS READY!" Invite a volunteer to post all the steps, in the correct chronological sequence on a wall or other large space. Read them aloud.

Invite participants to examine their own notes and identify steps that were missed: Did you take the butter out of the fridge before you unwrapped it? Did you take the lid off the jam before you put jam on the knife? Did you slice the muffins before you toasted them? Did you open the bag before you took a muffin out to toast?)

Point out the message of this scenario: For a story to make sense, it needs to be explained in a logical order.

Activity 11: Planning and Holding a Closing Worship (45 minutes for planning/20 minutes for worship)

Objective: Participants work with the facilitator to plan and offer the closing worship.

Preparation: Make sure you have supplies on hand that participants may wish to use: a chalice and matches or an LED battery-operated chalice, music, hymnbooks.

Description: Work with participants to plan a brief closing worship. The worship should incorporate references to the events that took place and affirm and encourage participants in their coming writing process. Considerations include:

  • How long will the closing be? Fifteen or twenty minutes is usual.
  • What music will be used and in what form? Participants and facilitators might include their own songs.
  • Is the group a group that enjoys singing? If so, you may wish to include a hymn or song.
  • What objects and decorations will you use for the room? What focal point or centering table decorations will you use?
  • Will you present participants with a flower or a small gift of some kind?
  • How will you include participants? A unison reading? An invitation for each person to express in a very few words?
  • How will closing words encourage the participants to "go forth and write!"?

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