Why a Retreat Center Is Not a Resort

I was at a furniture store the other day on behalf of the Conference & Retreat Center and fielded more questions from the salesperson about what a retreat center is than I asked about the furniture I was shopping for. Despite my attempts to offer clarity, his questions about rehab and then inquiries about a spa and gym signaled he was picturing something more like a resort or wellness center than a place for retreats. Our conversation left me wondering how often retreat centers get misunderstood and furthermore how I would articulate what happens in places like ours that differs from seemingly similar spaces. 

Retreat centers and resorts may offer some overlapping services, but they contrast significantly. For the sake of simplicity, I think many of their differences are rooted in varying understandings of what we mean when we talk about selfcare. Selfcare: what a buzzword! It conjures up images of pedicures, fruity cocktails, sunbathing by the pool, and social media posts accompanied by #TreatYourself. The “treat yourself” attitude almost always follows an event either to serve as a reward or balm. It says to buy the new pair of shoes after a job promotion and binge The Bachelor after a breakup.

While any number of examples of selfcare may offer some degree of relief or happiness, the level of selfcare that happens on retreat is something different, deeper, and more difficult to obtain. It’s an investment in our long-term healing and growth. It’s an act of resistance against the lure of instant gratification. It’s a surrendering to our inner goodness. Maybe it’s more accurate to call this kind of selfcare self-love.

Selflove, for Christians, isn’t only a mandate, it’s an assumption. The greatest commandment Jesus offered his disciples implies love of self as the foundation for love of God and others. “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Inward love and outward love are intertwined. Loving myself sets the bar for how I love others; I can only care for another as much as I care for myself. 

One of my undergrad professors, Jackie Smallbones, would say, “If you’re struggling to love God more, struggle more to be loved by God.” I think her outlook applies universally. If I’m wanting to put more love into the world, how might I receive love from others, from God, and more poignantly, from myself?

A retreat offers the tender time and sacred space for the hard work of struggling our way into selflove. Retreats allow our bodies to release their tension, our minds to slow down, our strength to renew, and our hearts to center. They teach us that selflove is both an action and a mindset. Retreats reveal that selflove isn’t selfish, because it’s directly related to our capacity to love our neighbors.

Perhaps the next time we feel like we want a reward or balm, we replace “Treat Yourself” with “Retreat Yourself.” While admittedly a little silly, “retreating yourself” reminds us of the truer acts of selflove at the core of our longing. It might spark us to take a break from an over-consumption of the latest news stories. It may move us to breathe a few times before reacting to the person at work who gets under our skin. One day we might choose to nap instead of exercise (or to exercise instead of nap!). We may even be inspired to schedule a day or overnight retreat. The way we retreat ourselves will be different for each person because we’re loving ourselves how we truly need to be loved, not how another voice says we ought to be. 

There is more to say about what retreating is and isn’t, so stay tuned for upcoming blogs that offer guidance, clarity, and tools for your own journey. We hope you will find ways to retreat and therefore to love yourself wherever you are.

Jeremy Bork is the Director of Programming and Communications at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. 


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