It ticked all the boxes. It had everything that you’d want for a men’s weekend away. I take no credit for that. It’s a tried and tested formula. And it’s one I’ve copied from others.
Simon Radomski, one of our ministry apprentices at CCB, put it together and ran our All Age Church Men’s Weekend Away. We had a terrific time. I’ve struggled to think of what could have gone better. My talks, obviously, but I’ll always say that. I guess I could have taken a camera, we could have done without breaking down and one of the lads could have done with a pair of wellies. We could have done with two sensible cars rather than two minis to get eight men and all their stuff home. But apart from that it was an ideal time away! We won’t forget this weekend away for a while! And I’m all for the creation of memories.
Weekends like this are always a hassle. It’s often a struggle to recruit. It’s especially hard if you’re trying to get the Dads away. They’re pulled in so many directions and, quite rightly, they feel their families need them around at the weekend. And so there’s a certain amount of inertia to overcome. But it#s easier once you’ve got them up and running. After the guys have experienced the benefit of going on one, this reputation creates a bit of momentum.
But getting the Dads away is essential. Those parenting on the ‘front nine’ are usually struggling to maintain their spiritual lives. They need some encouragement and input. Their relational links with others in the congregation are often weaker than those of their wives. The wives are often free during the week; they see each other at school drop off, they attend Women’s Bible Study, they catch up over coffee, they chat on the phone and so on. The Dads are usally knee deep in work and commuting. But the wives get this. They see what’s happening to their husbands. And they want to help. And so the wives are usually more supportive than you might expect. Several of ours encourage their men to go away. Sure it means that they have to look after the kids for the weekend. But they want their husbands to benefit. But we’re mindful that on this weekend the women take the parenting hit. And so although we go away for two nights we make sure that we’re back for morning church so that Mum can get a break on the Sunday.
What’s the recipe for success? What makes for an ideal men’s weekend away? At least these seven factors.
1. Countryside venue. Part of the value for us is getting out of London. Don’t get me wrong, we love it here. We don’t do it out of necessity, we do it out of choice. But it’s good to get away once in a while and enjoy something different about God’s creation. Life feels less hectic in a rural setting. It forces us to slow down. For those of us who haven’t seen a field in a while, looking out of the window is a five-minute activity. We don’t get views like that in Balham!
2. Self catering. Not having to worry about the catering sounds attractive. It creates more time in the programme. But don’t underestimate what takes place over the washing up or when deciding how carrots should be sliced. And being responsible for your own cooking allows different people to exercise their gifts. Some of the guys take real pleasure in serving up a great meal. And I take real pleasure in consuming it. Lots of good food is an essential component of a good weekend away. And we had that. Our Saturday morning breakfast was particularly memorable, not least for the amount!
3. Multiple Nights away. The first night gathers everyone together and they unwind after a tough week at work and a Friday night car journey. It’s all about collapsing, having a meal together, sharing a beer and going to bed. By the time Saturday night comes along everyone’s in a different frame of mind. At the last CCB women’s weekend away they spent the Saturday night sharing each other’s testimonies. That’s terrific. We spent the evening listening to and talking about bands and their hits from the 80s. Probably not as spiritually beneficial but relationally really helpful. Discovering that someone had a song from Toto at their wedding gave me a whole new perspective! You want the guys to laugh together and there was a fair bit of that.
4. Shared activity. Men who don’t know each other well find it easier to bond by doing things together. You don’t usually see men going to a coffee shop just to talk unless they know each other really well. This was brought home to me on holiday a couple of years ago. Six Dads went out for a bike ride. We didn’t really know each other but it seemed like a good thing to do; we all had bikes and we had time on our hands. We’d chatted a bit whilst at the campsite but side by side on a bike, cycling through French countryside the conversation reached a depth that would otherwise not have been the case. One of the guys even asked how I became a Christian. And so, on our weekend away, we went for a walk on the Saturday afternoon. The first half of the circular walk went well as we made good progress along the beach. The decision to turn the trip into a round one backfired as we got waylaid in a muddy field. One of us decided that the only sensible way to proceed was to remove his trainers and go barefoot. It was a test of character and he emerged the better for it!
5. Pertinent spiritual input. The talks need to count. You can’t take guys away for ‘more of the same’. It can’t be three Sunday sermons crammed into a weekend. I think there’s got to be something different about them. In Acts 20 terms it’s got to be something helpful (Acts 20:20), which I take it to mean something tailored to their needs. And so with a bunch of guys in their 30s and 40s you’ve got to deal with their issues. And so I tend to go for thematic talks rather than expository ones. This time round I did talks on understanding the significance of motives in our Christian lives, fighting the battle against temptation and coping with the experience of stress. Material from CCEF, Tim Chester and Julian Hardyman proved invaluable in preparation. But in the past I’ve thought specifically about our role as husbands, as parents and as workers. It’s probably worth asking them what they’d like long enough in advance so that you can do some thinking. One good friend in ministry has done talks on politics and economics because that scratched where his central London men were itching.
6. Critical Mass. I have no idea how many this is, but it just sort of feels right when you have it! We had eight of us. And it worked really well. Fwer than that and we might have felt a bit on the light side. We could have accommodated a few more but the feel of the weekend would have been different. There were times when we had one big conversation and other times when a two or three conversations were taking place. The size of the venue affects things. We tend towards intimate venues rather than large venues.
7. Uncluttered schedule. One of the key components to the weekend is rest. As it happened, it was gone midnight when the vast majority headed off to their beds. But that wasn’t a scheduling decision. They’re grown ups and they can make their own decisions! On coming down to breakfast on the Saturday morning I was greeted by the sight of four men facing in different directions each engrossed in their newspaper. I’m guessing that doesn’t happen much at home. At least not without the kids trying to sit on your lap or asking endless questions about the pictures. But it’s important to have a relaxed environment to unwind. And so don’t try to do too much. I usually fill up the programme too much. But I think we got it about right this time. We had nothing more than supper on the Friday night. I gave two talks on the Saturday morning. We went for a coast walk in the afternoon and came back for tea. We had a shorter session before supper. And the evening was spent talking nonsense over a wonderful evening meal. A few of us peeled off for MOTD. The others vainly continued to try to liberate one of our party members from his love of Abba.
The effect of the weekend was tangible when we got back on the Sunday morning. There was a new camaraderie amongst those of us who went. Spiritually I think it was useful. Relationally it was brilliant. We bonded and you could tell. Shared experiences do that. And we’d had a great one.