The Most Important Talk of the Retreat
As you get ready to speak on any upcoming retreat, I’d encourage you to keep in mind that your talk is the most important talk of the retreat – for at least one person who will be there (and possibly for many others).
If this thought makes you a bit nervous, that’s not a bad thing. As my father-in-law used to say to me, when I asked him for prayers for an upcoming talk, “If you weren’t nervous, I would be.” Being somewhat nervous is a good thing; it’s a sign of humility and an expression of our awareness that we desperately need God’s help, since without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
The Lord has you going on this retreat for a specific reason. You have something unique to offer that only you can bring, and at least one person desperately needs to hear what you have to say.
Though you may not know who that person is until you get to Heaven (and perhaps in Heaven we won’t even need to know such things), it just might be true.
This retreat may, in fact, be a divine appointment that God has set up for someone to hear you and your unique perspective on the Gospel message, which will speak to their heart in a life-changing way. The sobering reality is that this might be the first, last, and only retreat for someone who will be there. And I’m not being dramatic, either – on more than one occasion I have discovered that someone passed away shortly after attending a retreat at which I’d spoken. It’s staggering to know that you may the one who introduces someone to Jesus here on Earth shortly before they have the opportunity to meet Him face-to-face in Heaven.
Scripture says that we should “make the most of every opportunity” (Ephesians 5:16) – so here are four tips on how we can do this as we plan on giving the most important talk (for at least one person) on the upcoming retreat:
Dr. Peter Kreeft says:
I strongly suspect that if we saw all the difference even the tiniest of our prayers to God make, and all the people those little prayers were destined to affect, and all the consequences of those effects down through the centuries, we would be so paralyzed with awe at the power of prayer that we would be unable to get up off our knees for the rest of our lives.
It’s important to pray that the Lord will inspire every word that we say, that He will bring just the right people to the event, and that He will open wide the hearts of all who will be there. I’m a big fan of asking for prayers from my friends by not only asking them in person, but also by posting prayer requests on social media.
And, since those of us who proclaim the Gospel are on the front lines of a spiritual battle, I would recommend praying accordingly. Before every ministry event I’m a part of, I pray a very specific prayer seeking spiritual protection from all evil and invoking the powerful assistance of all of the angels and saints.
When we prepare, it shows that we really care, and prayerful preparation opens our hearts for the Holy Spirit to work through us.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people use the Bible out of context to justify a lack of preparation, especially these verses from the Gospel of Luke 12:11-12:
…do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say.
According to a footnote in the Bible endorsed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “…these sayings about the Holy Spirit are set in the context of fearlessness in the face of persecution.” Giving a talk on a retreat is not a moment of persecution – it is a moment of teaching and preaching. It causes my heart to tremble to know that the Scriptures also say in James 3:1:
Not many of you should become teachers…for you realize that we will be judged more strictly…
I say this as a call to excellence, and not as a guilt trip. If you aren’t willing to take time to adequately prepare for your talk, then don’t speak.
When my former pastor was ordained, face down on the marble at the Cathedral, he asked God to make him a good preacher. And he promised the Lord that he would never preach a homily that he hadn’t spent time preparing. One weekday Mass, as he went to read the Gospel, he realized that he had prepared a homily for the wrong Gospel passage.
After he finished proclaiming the Gospel, he looked out at the congregation and said, “I’m sorry, I prepared a homily for the wrong passage,” walked back over to his chair, and sat down. He didn’t wing it. Rather, he was humble enough to not preach. That’s the kind of integrity each of us needs when it comes to sharing the Gospel.
Another way that I prepare is by trying to get to know as much as I can about my audience, well in advance of the retreat. It helps to know what is going on in the lives of individual attendees – and the communities that they are a part of – so that I can speak to them in a way that relates to their personal experiences and helps them with their current problems. As Pope Paul VI said in Evangelization in the Modern World:
Evangelization loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addresses, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life.
Finally, an essential part of being prepared is having notes, which are a gift from God. I’m a big fan of first writing out my entire talk, printing it out, and underlining key phrases and points. Some of my friends prefer index cards that help them stay focused on their main points. Some people prefer bullet points or outlines.
Even if it’s a talk I’ve given many times, I like to keep my notes close; they have been a godsend on many occasions, especially when I’ve been distracted by something unanticipated – either in the room or in my mind. Leaning on notes is a way of leaning on the Holy Spirit, who wants to guide us throughout the entire preparation process.
They say that practice makes perfect, and they are wrong. None of us will be perfect, and none of us will ever give a perfect talk. But practice contributes to excellence, and I want to be the best that I can be when I speak about the Lord and represent His Church.
Part of how I practice is by reading my talk over and over again, many times, before I say it out loud. As I read through my notes, I am always updating them to ensure that I am conveying a message clearly and succinctly.
I also like to have trusted friends (who can be brutally honest with me) proofread what I’ve written, and they often pick up on mistakes that I missed – or encourage me to add or delete some things. It’s humbling to receive help, but I’ve always known the Lord to bless humility. And, trust me when I say it’s always easier to receive constructive criticism before giving a talk than afterwards.
Another part of practice is giving my talk out loud – either to myself, or to others, or both. I’ve discovered that what looks good on paper may not sound great out loud. Spoken word is often more casual in tone than the written word. Giving a talk out loud helps me to know how I will actually sound to the audience. Practicing a talk out loud also helps me to know how long it will actually last! Staying within my time limits is a way for me to honor the Lord, the integrity of the retreat, and my teammates. It is never good (and I know this from personal experience) for me to talk so long that one of my teammates doesn’t have time speak; this robs the attendees of my teammate’s unique perspective, which may be the most important talk of the retreat for at least one person there, right? Talking too long is also tragic if means we have to cut out a fun activity, or shorten a snack break, because it’s really fun to have fun and we need to have some fun.
Finally, practicing can help me to become aware of any shortcomings in my public speaking style that need tweaking, including saying “like” or “um” too frequently. Bottom line, practice helps me in my pursuit of excellence.
Pray Some More
We can never pray too much. After praying, preparing, and practicing, I like to ask the Lord to bless what I’ve prepared and also give me freedom in His Spirit to add or subtract anything that needs to be changed on the fly – since He alone knows the hearts of everyone who will be on the retreat.
I am convinced that we are most open to the Holy Spirit, and will be most powerfully used by God, when we pray, prepare, practice, and pray some more!
Lord, help all of us as we get ready to give the most important talk of the retreat.
Finally, Consider This
Several years ago, Jesus made it clear to me that whenever I am blessed with the opportunity to speak, I need to consider how the most broken person in the crowd will receive my message. If the most broken person there does not feel loved and encouraged by what I have to say – and how I say it – then it would be better for me to keep my mouth shut.