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Retreat online to save money and involve more people

SUMMARY: Work and family activities already fill your congregants’ schedules. Committing to another must-do activity is not likely to top the average person’s list.

Yet, many church members want to grow closer to God, find inner peace or get involved in church planning. Online retreats offer an opportunity for people to accomplish these without committing a weekend or rearranging their schedules.

Retreats typically enable participants to step back from their daily grind to focus on a topic without distraction. Whether to fulfill work or spiritual needs, that time away to think offers great benefits. Consider hosting online retreats, enabling people who may be too busy or too shy to participate in a traditional retreat to get involved.

An online retreat is similar to an in-person retreat: pick a focus, plan a program and attract attendees. When planning for online, though, consider how to present the materials, knowing a retreat leader will not be present. Write the program text in a conversational tone. Use a readable font and italicize excerpts from other resources, such as quotes from the Bible. Include breathing space in the text. Do not cram words, making them difficult to read.

As you design the Web pages, remember to add images. If you want the retreat participant to reflect on a particular thought or passage, insert a photo representing that theme. Sitting at your computer and reflecting on a picture of serene, blue water is not the same as being there, but it can take you mentally to a different place.

Make the retreat user-friendly. Explain up front on your website how the retreat works, how much time it can take, how to do it and whom to contact with questions. Give potential participants enough information to determine if they want to go further.

Divide the retreat into manageable bites. Plan for participants to spend no more than 30 minutes a day retreating. Do not expect them to sit for four hours, even though some may opt for completing the retreat all at once. Creighton University’s Collaborative Ministry Office offers a 34-week online "retreat for everyday life." Participants can start Week One whenever they want. Each week starts with an explanation of the theme and poses questions for participants to ask themselves and reflect upon. Links connect them to readings and prayers. The site also includes an e-mail link for participants to share their thoughts. Retreat leaders review the e-mails and post them on a community site for all to see.

Create a group on Facebook or a Twitter hashtag for the retreat. Let everyone interact and share in real time.

Enable participants to contact presenters, if possible. Include leaders’ e-mail, Twitter, Facebook or other online contact information. Consider setting dates and times when the leader would be available for instant interaction online.

Add a “let others know” link or button on your retreat site. Spread the word. By including the link, you include a reminder that participants can take God’s message to the community.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, Minn., offer online retreats, from “busy person” and “memoir writing” to “finding God” and “women of prayer and justice.” Creighton University’s Collaborative Ministry Office 34-Week Retreat: