One of the special offerings of John Mark Ministries to pastors, church leaders and their spouses – and many others – is a ‘This is Your Life’ retreat. In these two months as I write six individuals and one couple have booked a retreat-time. (They will come from our home-state Victoria, one from interstate, another from an Asian country).
Here are the most commonly-asked questions about our retreats:
Question: What’s the general idea of a retreat?
Answer: It’s a time to ‘stocktake’, review one’s life, without any other distractions. It is to one’s spiritual/emotional/relational life what a medical check-up is for one’s physical well-being.
Q: What do we do?
A: Talk (about six hours over two days): often we walk along the Dandenong Creek to the bird wetlands nearby, think, pray, reflect, write in your journal…
Q. Ah, um… what do we talk about?
A. Anything of importance to you – unfinished business from the past, difficulties in your life/ministry/relationships, your spiritual life – anything at all.
Q. If something’s too ‘personal’ or difficult do we have to talk about that?
A. No: you call the shots. Some matters might be too hard, so we don’t have to face them until you’re ready. But in principle there’s nothing we don’t talk about (and after 22,000 hours of doing this I’m only rarely coming across people’s experiences that are really novel)!
Q. Is there some sort of structure to our discussions?
A. Well, yes and no. Depends on several things – the ease with which you hold up your end of the conversation, the issues at stake. The ’18 Questions’ appended below provide a rough guide to our time together. We usually begin with the time-line; the story of one’s childhood often takes an early hour together, adolescence another hour… and so on.
Q. Is there a ‘confessional’ dimension to this?
A. Usually yes, but not necessarily. Under the headings ‘guilt’ or ‘shame’ you may wish to get rid of bad stuff accumulated over the years. Sometimes, if these issues are ‘real bad’ we might have a time of writing it out/burning it up and experiencing ‘absolution’ as God forgives us and cleanses us.
Q. So, let me get this straight: you, Rowland, ask lots of questions?
A. Well, yes, but it’s not an interrogation. I’m simply the prompter, you’re on the stage (and if you want to carry the analogy further, God is the audience).
Q. Does that mean only Christians do this?
A. No, I’ve had some ‘ex-Christians’ and ‘non-Christians’ come to a retreat.
Q. What’s your philosophy of counselling?
A. There are several ways to respond to this. Good counselling is pure friendship, the exercise of unconditional love and ‘grace’; it’s the chance to off-load stuff that is weighing us down, to clarify/objectify issues that have ‘gone round in circles’ in our head. I’ve identified about sixteen ‘counselling philosophies’ (Freudian, Gestalt etc.) and I’m somewhat eclectic, using insights from all of them. However, I’m fairly strongly ‘Glasserian’ (William Glasser’s book Reality Therapy is a guide to this way of thinking) – that is, I believe in our God-given ability to take charge of our life. What we do to life is more significant than what life does to us. I’m also strongly influenced by the women’s and men’s movements. For example, a lot of male problems go back to inadequate fathering or initiation into manhood. A lot of women’s problems go back to their non-affirmation by fathers etc. When I asked a forty-year old woman why she’d come on retreat she said ‘To rent a dad – the dad I never had!’
Q. What about the practical details and cost?
A. You stay with your friends or book into a local motel – like Quest, Wantirna/Knox – 03 9801 6044: ask for a $100/110 rate. A recent retreatant found that the 4 1/2 star Golden Pebble Hotel (500 Boronia Rd. Wantirna) was cheaper – $95 on the Wotif website. Suggested donation: a $200 deposit when you book the retreat, then, say, $800, at the time of the retreat, total $1,000: all tax deductible (and negotiable if that sum is difficult for you). Contact me by email to arrange payment – either by cheque: simply click on the ‘Contact Us’ button top right on your screen (or change the [at] to @ in rccroucher[at]optusnet.com.au) and I’ll email a postal address. Or if online: Direct Debit to Account name: John Mark Ministries (if an organization/church is paying) or Well-Being Australia (tax deductible if an Australian individual is making the donation) BSB: 063 191 then account 0090 1840 (JMM) 1012 2484 (WBA). Note: I do not draw a salary/stipend – all donations go to various ministries/missional projects we support, like Urban Seed, working among the poor in downtown Melbourne, or UNOH, a brilliant missional organization serving the poor in Springvale/Noble Park Victoria, and in Bangkok, Thailand. The best way to view remuneration is that it’s ‘an exchange of gifts’: money for (hopefully) 72 years of accumulated wisdom and love. Meals out are included. You may purchase any of my books at cost. The timing is over two days: the overnight sleep between sessions is important for us both to pray/reflect on what has been talked about. Usually, the retreat lasts from late afternoon (about 4.30 pm, then a couple of hours over dinner) one day, and resumes about 9.30 to about noon the following day. Bring your walking shoes!
Q. Can I come back for other sessions if there’s more to talk about?
A. Yes, I’d love that. I will continue to pray for you, and it would be good to know how you’re going. You can email me to keep me updated…
Q. OK. I might do a retreat on my own first and see what happens. What/where are those 18 questions?
A. Here they are (below). All the best.
Select some/all of the following, and jot down notes for discussion in your journal:
1. Do a time-line of your life, noting ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ (however you define them). Graph the highest and lowest and put rough dates against these, noting your feelings then and now about these events/experiences. Why were/are they significant?
2. On separate pages, write the following headings and make some notes on your experiences in each: Anxiety/Fear, Sadness/Grief, Guilt (bad things I have done)/Shame (bad things I feel about me), Irritation/Anger.
3. What problems/challenges do each of the ‘seven deadly sins’ hold for you? (Sloth, Lust, Anger, Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Greed). What are your ‘addictions’?
4. We each have a ‘shadow’ side (Jung). What is yours? Where are your areas of incompleteness? For what non-altruistic reasons are you in ministry or doing good?
5. Of the three great temptations – money, sex, power – where are you weakest? Why? What are you tempted to do/be/think if you were sure you wouldn’t be found out in this life?
6. What dreams do you recall? What do they tell you about yourself?
7. What ‘spiritual gifts’ has God given you? What have you done with them?
8. If the relevant resources (money, people, authority etc.) were plentiful enough, what would you like most to do with your life?
9. What happens when you pray?
10. Write a paragraph about each of these: God, Jesus for me, faith, love, hope, the Bible, the Church, authority-figures, being a woman/man, being a parent, being a child, being a partner, counseling / being counseled, work, church, hobbies /interests…
11. What books and/or movies, great works of art etc. have most influenced you? What are your favourite Bible passages/texts? Why?
12. What do you like / what don’t you like about the way you were brought up?
13. Write some notes about friendships. What do you enjoy? Do you have sufficient friends? What do you do with them? Are there limits to what you can disclose to them?
14. Physical/emotional/mental health: where could you improve? How’s your diet, exercise, rest/sabbath/sleep and thinking habits? If there were some things you’d like to change about yourself what would they be?
15. How do you feel about the future?
16. If you died today, write down in one page what your eulogy might look like (be honest!).
17. Write in a page or so what you think you will hear at the Great Judgment!
18. List anything else of significance in your life that you’d like to think/pray/talk about…
Some notes and reflections on time with Rowland Croucher
I am 30 years old and grew up in a close knit community, in a family of 3 children. We faithfully attended church every Sunday and went to a Christian school as well. On the surface my family seemed happy – Dad worked hard to provide for us and we never lacked anything we needed, or even any of the things we really wanted. But I don’t ever remember hearing him say he loved me. My parents were reluctant to praise us in any way in case we became proud. Things around the dinner table were often quiet – no one ventured an opinion about anything because it would just be cut down and when there was humour it was in the form of sarcasm and put downs. Defensiveness was the key communication strategy and withdrawing into silence ran a close second.
I craved my parent’s affirmation and praise and sought it by good grades which never seemed good enough. I adored my teacher’s praise and cried when school ended each term and they left.
I struggled in relationships – although I had a good number of friends I was fearful of them moving on to other friendships, and experienced a lot of jealousy. If someone else entered a friendship I often backed away, withdrew and shut down, assuming that I wouldn’t be wanted any more.
I had had an “experience” with God in my teenage years and began praying and reading the Bible regularly, as well as any books I could get my hands on about living the Christian life. I was a ‘model’ Christian girl, attending youth and prayer groups, and spending a year at Bible College. That’s where I got to really know my future husband, whose love was the first ‘building up’ kind of love I had ever known. After working in a number of different jobs, he was asked by a church to come and work with them and, as we wanted to serve God together, I soon joined him in this role. I looked forward to working with the pastor who was gifted in many areas, but from the beginning we struggled. I longed to know I was doing ‘ok’ with my up-front responsibilities. I would go home from worship and feel condemned for hours afterwards, ‘knowing’ that what I had done was ‘stupid’ and ‘hopeless’. I wanted my pastor to tell me it wasn’t and to still the inner fears I battled with more and more. For a number of reasons he didn’t. I knew I had to make a choice to continue – that I could not be dependant on his approval. I tried to not do what I had done so many times before, in shutting off and withdrawing. But we continued to clash and things just got worse, despite several hours of counselling with him and efforts to forgive. In the end we did what we had to do up front on Sunday’s – and kept up appearances just as my family had done so well all those years ago.
When I heard Rowland Croucher speak about the importance of fathers something triggered inside of me and I knew I could speak with him. It was a fairly big step to take – we live on one income, so spending money on a counsellor was a huge thing for us! We booked our weekend in faith! I had a deep desire to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and be made whole … for my years of bleeding to stop … if I could just touch his cloak …
These are some of the things we talked about on the weekend:
I shared some things about my Dad, and cried. Obviously there’s a softness somewhere in his heart for me but he is unable to show it, for whatever reason – the most probable being that he didn’t receive it himself. This is unfortunately the norm for fathers and their daughters, but is completely the opposite of how it should be. A father is the only person in a girl’s world who can give her affirmation but without the sexual price tag. It’s difficult for husbands to affirm for the same reason, and also that the wife thinks he has to say nice things� its his job! It’s even hard to believe a counsellor, because he is being paid to affirm. I wrote in my story that I wanted to shake Dad out of his confidence struggle, but people have shaken me and it hasn’t worked, so obviously something much different/deeper than shaking is needed!
A father’s job is to soften his daughter and prepare her to delight in her sexuality and receive her husband one day. If my father spent what time he did with me retreating and backing away, then I will have problems coping with sex, which is basically invasive. How can I relate sexually, invite and respond warmly to the male authority figure in my life (my husband) when my previous highest male authority (my father) was completely unemotional towards me? Pain in sex is quite normal in this situation. In what should be a wonderful experience the body doesn’t naturally receive and invite. There is a psychological shutting down. The only women who don’t have a problem with sex are those who’ve been fathered properly, which is not very many women at all!
Was my pastor unsure how to handle my fragility? I feel part of my expectation with him was reasonably healthy, partly unhealthy and that not much of it at all was met! It is possible to have a therapeutic relationship with my next pastor to be honest with him and tell him my struggles – with confidence, self-esteem and need affirmation. I struggle to trust authority and need to work on this.
If I tend to smother people in my search for an exclusive friend, then people may not know how to handle the frailness they see and back away. People are unlikely not to like me unless I’m projecting something they can’t handle.
My problem is not giftedness, it’s confidence. What people see when I’m leading up front and what I feel inside don’t match up. A lot of what I do up-front is an exhausting act. I can act quite well but it gets tiring because I’m not being myself. My opinion of myself is measured by what others say about me – a fairly unreliable yardstick!
One of the first jobs Adam was given to do was naming the animals. Similarly, one of the first steps in healing/redemption is to name the problem. What animals are in my inner zoo? (A tiger who lashes out, a kitten who wants to be stroked?) When I name my problem I will be on the way! When I had my “God experience” I moved forward in my faith, but much of what I’ve learned since then is just a shell around the thick wall of my heart. I don’t know how to receive God’s love and I don’t know how to relate with a healthy love to those around me. Currently I am on the wrong side of grace – I need to stand on the right side and begin the process of transformation. Among other things I need to break the ties with my Dad which were transferred to my husband sexually, and transferred to God in an inability to receive his love.
These were some of Rowland’s suggestions for me:
Little children cannot have ideas about ideas. What they see is truth for them. When a little girl (me) saw her Daddy back away and not affirm her, she could only interpret that as meaning he did not love her and she was not loveable. That is a child’s reality.
I want to be healed from my fear of others and their opinions of me, my jealousy, self hatred and hatred of others.
People like me become whole when they
Make a confession of their shadow side and their sin. This is being honest, it’s saying “This is who I am”
Realise that the child’s reality is real and not odd in any way. How a child sees the world is true for the child. They cannot interpret a father’s coldness towards them as anything but coldness. The automatic assumption is that “there’s something wrong with me”. Young children, especially girls, usually blame themselves for their parent’s weaknesses, which are almost never their fault.
Now I am grown up, but this little girl is still running my life. Paul says that we are to put away childish things. This includes the reaction of the little girl who sees things as her problem when other’s don’t like her. I don’t need to be in bondage to this. The grown woman in me needs to take control of the child. The child in me can be an OK thing – it is sweet and winsome, but is counterproductive when fearful and too close to the surface. How do I grow up?
I can make a covenant with men whose feedback I rely on to give be honest with me about the things I do. This will probably be my husband and my pastor. My husband loves me as I am, and my pastor is, in a sense, a spiritual father for me. I will serve my church better if he relates to me as a kind of Dad. I need to learn to trust what these two men tell me.
I can start a book divided into half on each page. On the left hand side (messy and childish writing) I can write down how I’m feeling about a situation with my childish left hand writing. On the right hand side (with adult writing)I can write what I think God’s response to the situation would be, and what the response of an objective adult might be.
I can learn to walk by faith. Each day I can decide, just for that day, to accept God’s reality about me, even when I can’t understand it, and act as if that reality is true, even if I don’t believe it. I can go out, acting as if I’m a lovable person and choose not to be put off by any paranoia. Tomorrow I can choose to do it again.
I need to watch what is going through my head. Inner messages are OK (everyone has them), but I need to watch the content! My mind is like a jug of poison that needs to be replaced by pure, fresh water. Each day I need to think some good things about who I am and what God has done for me in the past, is doing right now and will do in the future.
I need to meet Jesus and feel accepted and loved. I need to learn about grace. I need to know that I am acceptable to Him in spite of all the junk. He doesn’t love me more, nor less than any other of his precious human creations. To do these things I need the discipline of a daily quiet time. Some ideas for this are
To light a candle before I begin
To pray and ask God to meet me in the words of the Lord’s prayer or some other simple prayer such as “My all powerful, all loving friend. I come to you and ask you to displace the poison in my life. I trust you and ask for your Spirit to guide me now”.
To read the Bible. It can be read for information or transformation and is the pure truth of God which needs to be poured into my life.
To pray before I sleep.
On returning home this verse was in my daily bible readings:
Therefore prepare your minds for action; be self controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. – 1st Peter 1:13
This is for me! My mind is a big issue in my struggles, I do not understand grace and I long for Jesus to be revealed in my heart and life! And I move forward in hope!
I am a 46 year old male who has recently returned from a weekend retreat with Rowland. I live in Sydney and the thought of travelling all the way to Melbourne to talk to someone about what I thought were a few issues I had been trying to deal with seemed a bit over the top. In fact the idea of arranging to talk to a counsellor at all was something I never saw myself doing until about 18 months ago when I experienced the biggest failure in my work place that left me with acute anxiety and depression like I have never known before. And believe me when I tell you I know all about depression having suffered from it for as long as I can remember at various stages of life, and never doing anything about it until recently.
I have been a Christian for about 20 years. I attended Bible College for a year, went to or ran home groups for much of that time, had what I thought was a pretty good devotional life that included prayer and Bible study and I have a good circle of friends that we socialise with regularly.
I kept thinking that “she’ll be right mate, I can work this out”. Isn’t that the typical male response to dealing with problems? The truth of the matter is, I wasn’t working things out and not only that, things were getting worse.
When I say “things”, I mean my emotional and spiritual well being.
With this overwhelming sense of failure came attitudes of worthlessness, despair, and probably the scariest of all was the realisation that I was becoming very bitter. It was so real to me that I could almost taste it. My darling wife of almost 25 years and some great friends continually encouraged (without pushing) me to seek help. Prior to that I had been searching the web for articles on anxiety and depression when I came across John Mark Ministries. Immediately the name struck a chord with me given the nature of my own previously mentioned failure, yet it wasn’t until 12 months later that I finally booked a retreat for March 2010.
Prior to leaving for the weekend I completed the questions that are posted on the web and found them to be extremely helpful in preparing my heart for the talks I would have with Rowland. The other thing I did prior to leaving was to make up my mind that I was going to be as truthful as I could possibly be to any of the questions that were posed to me: this made me more than a little bit nervous I can assure you. I needn’t have been, because what I experienced with Rowland as I poured out my heart on things that I thought I could never share with anyone else was a non judgemental and unconditional love without fear of reprisal. The thing is you can talk about as much as you want or as little as you want on any subject that is bothering you. And we covered a fair bit in the six hours. It’s entirely up to you: you’re never pressured to go anywhere you don’t want to go.
Without going into all the detail, we started off by going through a time line of my life and discussed relationships within the family. It didn’t take long for Rowland to work out that much of the difficulty I had experienced in life, including the ongoing battles with depression were directly attributable to the relationship I had with my father and the void that this had left in my heart. Something that had never really crossed my mind.
I had long since learned to forgive him for the emotional abuse that I felt I had suffered for all those years. He was a very angry man who broke my spirit at an early age through verbal abuse and constant outbursts of anger. Nothing was ever good enough and unless you agreed with him on every subject imaginable you were put down and shouted into submission. My first real recollection of this behaviour began when I was about 7 years of age and continued up until I left home at 18. I never knew when the next outburst was coming, so as a result I tried to stay as far away from him as possible. So, essentially I grew up without having one meaningful conversation with my father. Nor feeling as though I could approach him for guidance about any subject. In short I was very fearful of him and never experienced the type of loving father son relationship.
As a result of the weekend and our talks, Rowland has been able to steer me toward some really good material on manhood, fatherhood, and the process of mentoring that is essential in the development of healthy mature men. If anything is really bothering me I flick him an email and he usually gets back within a couple of days with the best one line responses ever (two if it’s really serious, ha ha).
Probably the best way to describe the change in my whole attitude since my weekend retreat comes from my beloved wife when talking to a friend over the phone I overheard her say, “I have got my husband back.”
(for John Mark Ministries retreatants).
1. LOVE FOR GOD – with all my heart, mind, soul, strength: how am I doing in these four areas? Does all this translate into a life of obedience to God?
2. INTIMACY WITH GOD: how are my devotional disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, spiritual reading)?
3. PRAYER: specifically – how are the components of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication? Contemplation / meditation?
4. LOVE FOR OTHERS: do I serve others each day without thought of reward? Am I an encourager and non-judgmental listener?
5. CHARACTER: (go through these slowly, one at a time): how’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control? Are my emotions ‘under control’, with past emotional stuff dealt with?
6. PRIMARY RELATIONSHIPS/COMMUNITY: how am I currently nurturing relationships with spouse, children, parents, grandchildren, God-children, friends?
7. CHURCH: Am I a regular contributing member of a worshipping/missional community? Are my skills/gifts available to others?
8. THE WORLD: what ministries of evangelism, compassion and social justice am I involved in regularly? Are one or two of these cross-cultural?
9. INTEGRITY: how’s the devil getting to me these days in terms of of money, sex, power? How’s my thought-life?
10. TIME/SELF-MANAGEMENT: are my days, weeks, months, years ‘balanced’?
11. WORDS: am I thinking more carefully before I speak these days?
12. WORK: do I believe my vocation is God-ordained? How does that translate into the excellence with which I pursue it? Is my life balanced between work and relationships?
13. NATURE: do I take regular excursions into the natural world to find and relate to God the creator/sustainer/redeemer there?
14. RECREATION: are my leisure-pursuits (particularly TV watching and sporting interests) for re-creation, or have they become time-consuming and idolatrous? Do I have a regular weekly and yearly sabbath/quiet days/reflective retreats?
15. HEALTH: Do I have a healthy diet, adequate exercise and sleep, regular physical check-ups?
16. THE MIND: Do I have a good balance in my reading? Spiritual discernment in terms of media/ the world/ ethics/ politics etc.? Do I regularly read theological/ devotional/ auto/biographical books? Is my thinking able to be free of human ideological / theological systems, and comfortable with ambiguity?
17. STUFF: Do I have a desire to sell or give away more possessions than I bring into my home? Do I (at least) tithe my money, skills and time?
18. ACCOUNTABILITY: do I have a life-coach or mentor to help with reality-checking and keeping to any covenants I’ve made? A spiritual director to assist in my relationship with God? A group of peers to talk with and pray for one another?