How to plan a personal prayer retreat
UPDATE 2 YEARS LATER: I want to do this again so much! These were truly wonderful times. I often think someday I’ll get around to it, but forget that it doesn’t have to be a big trip, or even a full day event like this. I could easily do this during an afternoon that I have the house to myself, if I just make the effort. I need to write this in the calendar again soon and make it happen.
I’ve been on a journey with God in prayer for years, as I’m sure all of us have. And because I’m trying to learn more, I’ve taken three personal prayer retreats. Each was different and all were a tiny bit scary. I had no idea how it would go or if I was able to pray for an extended period of time. My first retreat was at home when the guys went on an overnight camping trip, the second was at a tiny home near the Oregon coast, and the third was a day of prayer at our church from 9am till noon.
I want to show you a little of what the first two looked like and hopefully inspire you to try one. It was a rich time conversing with God and I hope to keep up an annual or semi-annual tradition of doing it!
Why plan a personal prayer retreat?
I’m always amazed at stories of the prayer giants like Jonathan Edwards, who famously said “I have so much to do today, I must spend the first three hours in prayer,” and George Muller, who never asked anyone but God for money to fund the thousands of orphans he cared for.
And since I’m no where even close to a prayer life like that, I knew I could keep trying different things to stretch myself. When a guys backpacking weekend arrived for my husband and sons, I decided instead of watching Netflix, puttering around the house, and eating out, instead I would experiment with my first at-home prayer retreat. At that time we were walking through some difficult situations and I wanted to take that weekend of solitude and turn it into a personal prayer retreat. But for it to be a success I knew there were some things I had to do to prepare…
Prayer Retreat at Home
Reduce visual distractions
I knew I needed any visual distractions to be taken care of before the weekend started. So before everyone left, I did the laundry, put fresh sheets on the bed, vacuumed and cleaned up clutter and piles I needed to deal with. Basically I went through the house and finished anything I knew would nag at my mind as I was trying to pray. I didn’t declutter the entire house or do any deep cleaning, I just took care of things that I might find myself doing without realizing it.
Reduce head distractions
I also had head distractions that I knew I had to deal with so I could be focused only on the task at hand. I had to pay bills and deal with nagging things or write myself notes of things that I had to do after this retreat so I wouldn’t forget. I took care of the most urgent needs, and wrote notes on the stuff that could wait. I also made a plan to put my phone far, far away from me (it stayed in the room farthest from where I was spending most of my time) and I shut down and turned off the computer and my ipad. NO DISTRACTIONS ALLOWED!
I didn’t want to spend any time figuring out what I wanted to eat or be tempted to go out and grab something which would waste time and money, so I planned out exactly what I’d be eating. I wanted the meals to be simple and plain to add an element of “fasting” from yummy, more complicated meals and to be grateful for simple nourishment. My breakfasts were an omelet and a piece of toast. Lunches were a salad, and dinners were crockpot bean soup over rice. All were quick, nourishing, and simple. I wanted to eat just enough and leave room for hunger to use that as a reminder of what my focus was that weekend–prayer.
My main goal was to pray at the top of every hour for at least 15 minutes. This seemed like a do-able amount of time in prayer. Then I planned the other 45 minutes to be all focused around prayer. So my only goal for this first retreat was to see if I could make it through 15 minutes of prayer for 12 hours of the day. That was it.
Plan the time
The next part was planning how I would use my time. I set a timer for 15 minutes at the top of each hour because I had my phone tucked away in my room. You could use a stove timer, a microwave timer, or a simple wind up timer. Just keep your phone away from your prayer area!
- Prayer Time At the top of every hour, I planned to pray for 15 minutes through just one section of my prayer binder. There are nine sections so I knew it would take nine sessions to work through that. Then, after I finished praying through my binder, I would pray through scriptures I have marked for prayers in my Bible. After that, I would pray through the Psalms of the Day and end the day there.
- Non-Prayer Time For the other 45 minutes each hour that I wasn’t praying, I wanted to keep the prayer theme going… so I planned out options for those times. I even made a list of things I could work on: read my Bible, add scripture to my prayer binder and freshen it up (without going overboard with full on crafting!) I could also read books focused on God or preayer: The Attributes of God by A.W. Pink and High King of Heaven. I didn’t plan this time as carefully as the prayer time, because I wanted to leave room for whatever seemed to fit: a walk, a nap, more prayer, etc. The major rules here were no phone, no internet, no email, no screens at all! This time was only for things that would keep me focused on prayer.
Implement the plan!
So when the time came, the guys packed up and pulled away and at the top of the very next hour I set to it! I had made sure to have the meals ready to go in the fridge (lettuce rinsed and chopped, bean soup in the crockpot and rice ready to eat) so the only thing to do was pray!
Side note: I closed all the blinds and locked the doors when I started my prayer time so if anyone came to the house (sales men who don’t understand “no soliciting” or cult members) I could pretend I wasn’t home. This also makes it much easier to pace, cry, pray out loud, stretch, etc.
Results: This worked really, really well for me! It was easy to pray for 15 minutes through each section of my prayer binder, and as the day moved on, I found myself praying longer that 15 minutes multiple times! I was so glad I planned and prepped the meals so even that small task didn’t take my focus off of God and meeting with Him.
My “off” times were also relaxing, restful, and wonderful. I had two full days to repeat this process and it was priceless. When I woke up the second morning I couldn’t wait to get into prayer. The Lord gave me insights into the struggles, convicted me of the log in my own eye, covered me with His grace, and met me right there.
Prayer Retreat away from Home
After the wild success of my first at-home prayer retreat, I wanted to test it on the road! I spent some time researching places to stay that were affordable, and I realized that we actually have quite a few options fairly close by! If you have a Christian camp or retreat center nearby they often have prayer rooms or spaces that are really inexpensive to rent. We have two local monasteries that offer quiet and inexpensive rooms to rent too. You can also search online for “pastor retreat,” and/or “personal prayer retreat,” with the name of your city, or look up a cheap airbnb options, state park cabins, or yurts.
Being away from home knowing that there was nothing I had to do but pray was wonderful. I had gone through all the same planning steps above, bringing simple meals, comfy clothes, and an extra change of shoes (so I could go on walks and not worry about my shoes getting wet/muddy).
I found a retreat cabin for rent with an ocean view (so amazing!) and planned my prayer time before I left. I arrived Friday evening, planned to have all day Saturday to pray, and clean up and head home Sunday. Arriving Friday allowed me the luxury of time to settle in, thank God, and rest so I would be ready to go bright and early. The place I was staying had a refrigerator/freezer, microwave, sink, and bathroom. I packed only items that would microwave well (I made breakfast bowls and dinner bowls and brought salad stuff, keeping it simple and easy).
My prayer plan for this trip looked like this:
7:00 up, dress, coffee
7:30 morning walk, breakfast
9:00 Bible reading/meditation/reading
Then I repeated this cycle at the start of each hour until lunch:
- Stillness, worship, thanksgiving (10 minutes)
- Prayer for family member (40 minutes)
- break/stretch/read a book (10 min)
At lunch I took an hour to eat/walk/enjoy my surroundings and then another hour to nap or read and rest. (Amazing!) Then I repeated the above schedule until 4pm when I then went for another walk, had dinner, and read. After dinner, I went back to the schedule from 6 to 8pm, then took time to read and reflect until I went to bed. I also planned my half a day on Sunday to get up early, go for a sunrise walk, and then spend time in reflection, silence, and prayer.
I really thought I’d have a hard time praying for 40 minutes, but was amazed at how easy it was with my prayer binder and my Bible. Praying scripture is a great start and I was continually amazed when time was already up!
Prayer Retreat Hack -or- How to Stay Awake
This is a common struggle for pretty much everyone. When I did my first prayer retreat, I used all of these techniques to keep me alert and focused.
- Get rest the day before AND the day before the day before. I’ve heard you are mostly affected by your sleep two days before the day, so try to get to bed at a good time two nights and the night before your retreat. Plan ahead and set reminders!
- Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t lay down unless you’re planning on taking a nap. If you get drowsy on the couch, change to sitting on the floor, or a hard chair, or a bench.
- Go for a prayer walk, even if it’s just pacing the room. If you can, take a walk outside, but if you can’t pacing in the house or the room helps.
- Pray out loud. It doesn’t have to be a loud voice or even a normal conversation voice… even whispering helps keep you focused.
- Take stretch breaks and drink plenty of water.
Kari, I have learned so much from you. I appreciate your honesty. I have not had the courage to try a prayer retreat, but the way you set up yours sounds very doable & powerful. Thank for the ideas you share & how open you are.
This post and others have helped me so much. Great to come back to from time-to-time. Thanks again for caring to share. I appreciate the time you take to post.