Catholic speaker Jansen Bagwell (blue shirt) and student Justin Vaughn, hang up a tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe April 5 while worship musician Ashley Dean rehearses her her set list before the evening’s activities begin. Photograph by Jessica Marsala

Providing a spiritual retreat is no mean feat

Originally Appeared in : 9909-4/25/19

Planning an intercollegiate retreat requires a willingness to be flexible and accommodating—both to the needs of students as well as to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.


“I talk with our priests. I talk with our campus ministers. I talk with our students because I know that I can’t hear what God wants all in full. That’s not how the Body of Christ works. The Body of Christ works: You hear in part, I hear in part,” says Abbie Byron-Goslin, the director of campus ministry for the Diocese of Savannah. Byron-Goslin acknowledged that prayerfully doing so also resists the potential to view any retreat as just like the nine others her office plans each year. “So that when I communicate and talk with all of y’all I hear what part you’re hearing, and then I pray about bringing all the parts together, and that’s really what these retreats are is it’s all of these different pieces coming together in this beautiful masterpiece that God creates and orchestrates…” 

Campus ministry Director Abbie Byron-Goslin and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) student Rocio Ortiz, a member of one of the student leadership teams on the most recent retreat, create a space for worship outside of Camp Grace’s dining hall April 5 before students arrive for the retreat. Photographs by Jessica L. Marsala.


Over six to 12 months—the average time required to prep— Byron-Goslin says that she reaches out to the eight active campus ministries in the diocese to learn about the current struggles of students and their ministers. The results of her inquiry help determine the theme of the next retreat.


For “Thy Kingdom Come,” the April 5-7 retreat held at Camp Grace in Roberta (see April 14 Southern Cross), the overarching need was a retreat based on forgiveness, but in past years, retreats have focused on evangelization, discipleship, or overcoming fear.


When it came time to request a speaker as well as a worship leader for the April retreat, Byron-Goslin said that a student referred her to Jansen Bagwell. After hearing the former Protestant pastor-turned Catholic speak—she doesn’t like to “book anyone blind” because she needs to accommodate both the traditional and charismatic campus ministries in the diocese—she knew that’s who she wanted to lead the students in the healing of their spiritual and emotional wounds.


Bagwell, who is based in Tennessee, spoke of how he prepares for his speaking engagements, “It’s a lifetime, and it’s a lifestyle. I find that I’m not going to the Bible going ‘what do they need to hear?’ It’s more of drawing from the experiences that the Lord helped me through when I was their age, and looking at how I’d walk through things, walk out of things, how the Lord helped me, blessed me.”


He continued, “So it really is going back to understanding who they are, what they’re going through in today’s culture, and how relevant the Gospel is for them, how important Mass is, how important reconciliation is for them today, and so really for me, it’s been a lifetime preparing.”


Atlanta-based musician Ashley Dean of the worship duo Onward and Upward, who led praise and worship on the most recent retreat, described her preparations as having a “posture of openness” to the Holy Spirit, especially when an event doesn’t progress as expected.


“Similarly it’s about where I’m at in my life and in my prayer life, and I really want my ministry to flow out of the overflow of my prayer. And I think that’s just the best I can do and the best I can give anybody is more of the Lord and how the Lord is working through me,” Dean said of how she prepares. “And for music, it’s I think even more so: It needs to be out of wherever I’m at and because I’m not specifically going in and creating a specific message.”


Kim Nott helps a college student sign in April 5 upon her arrival to Camp Grace for the spring intercollegiate retreat.

Though the intercollegiate retreats in the Diocese of Savannah have distinctive themes, their components stay consistent from one retreat to the next.


Each retreat offers opportunities for fellowship, formation and faith development, and outreach or service, based on the ways the disciples spend their time in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”


Student leadership teams provide a relatively new way for students to serve on retreats and also help accommodate retreat growth by supplementing the resources of existing staff.

Georgia Southern University student Faro Palazzolo served as head of the hospitality team—other teams include logistics and intercessory prayer—April 5-7 so that he could “give back in some capacity” to the retreats which he described as transformative.


Palazzolo, a senior at the school’s Statesboro campus and a member of the campus’s Catholic Eagles, said, “I can’t remember any of the past retreats that I’ve been on where there weren’t three or four people that made very clear to me ‘if you need something, let me know. If you forgot something; if there’s something that you need to feel at home, to feel comfortable, let us know, we’ll fix it...”

Among the supplies needed to celebrate the sacraments which the campus ministry staff transported to intercollegiate retreats.


When all preparations are complete, the success of an intercollegiate retreat is measured not in strict adherence to carefully planned schedules or the avoidance of any curve balls, though much time and energy is spent making sure staff and student teams are able to “ride the waves,” both good and bad, that may come, trusting that God is in control.


Instead, it is primarily a measure of a retreat’s fruitfulness—for example, whether students feel loved and return to campus more at peace, in a deeper relationship with Christ and/or with a greater sense of his plan and purpose in their lives. However, feedback is also collected as part of a formal evaluation process.


“You can put all of this work into planning, but none of it will do any good if you’re not open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit because God knows the ultimate plan, and our job is to trust in that. He knows best how these kids need to be loved,” Byron-Goslin said, remembering the many unexpected blessings that have occurred on retreats. “He knows best how they need to be ministered to so just really trying to be attentive to what God wants at every moment.”

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