TEAM BUILDING – The retreat within – Companies contemplate spirituality in corporate outings

Posted on Jun 1, 2012 :: Industries
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

You’re planning to take your team on a corporate retreat. Paintball doesn’t appeal to you. Rope courses aren’t your thing. Flip charts and Post-its are boring. You’re looking for a more meaningful experience. Are there alternatives?

Sure. Some area organizations have turned to local spiritual retreat centers and other kinds of experiences like meditation classes to help their team make individual connections and to recharge from a hectic daily pace.

Perfect, right? Depends. While companies affiliated with religious organizations will have no problem setting up outings at spiritual retreat centers, secular businesses must approach the idea more carefully. Some area leaders have simply struck out on their own and brought back to their workplaces the ideas and mindset that a spiritual retreat can provide.

“I think when people learn new things together, it creates very strong bonds,” says Dan Neufelder, CEO and president of Affinity Health System. “I’ve been to retreats before where we’ve had people climb over 14-foot walls. I’ve been at the retreat where you fall backwards and have people catch you and all that kind of stuff, and I’ve never felt that the kind of bonds that are built are as strong as when you’re learning about something new, or maybe learning more about yourself and others.”

Affinity – which is a Catholic-affiliated health system – holds annual retreats at Monte Alverno in Appleton for various departments in its organization. Neufelder and his leadership team completed their third annual retreat in April. This year’s topic explored the leadership style of St. Clare of Assisi; last year’s topic covered the idea of “humility,” which was about how to stay grounded and authentic, Neufelder says.

“For me, it’s a chance for people to really reflect,” Neufelder says. “We make people turn in their cell phones and pagers. We put them at the front desk. We assure people that if the hospital’s burning down, they’ll know about it, but we try to get people to turn off for a day.”

It’s hard to get people to do that. Some retreat centers offer weekend-long silent retreats, which in today’s constantly connected world can seem completely impossible.

But sometimes that can be the very thing people need. Bill Raaths, chairman of the board at Great Northern Corporation in Appleton, has been attending silent retreats at Jesuit Retreat Center in Oshkosh on his own for about 16 years. The weekend usually starts on Thursday night and runs through Sunday morning.

“When I first talk to people about it, they say, ‘A silent retreat? How can you possibly not talk for two and a half days?’” says Raaths. “But that really is an important part of it. You don’t feel the need to make small talk or get into general conversations. You leave that behind and immerse yourself in other thoughts and other readings. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a very essential part, the silence component.”

Common experiences at spiritual retreat centers include a time to become “recharged” and a time to reflect and remember the things that are important, leaders say. That includes how you treat other people, who you are and what your values are – all excellent goals for business leaders to have.

Who can retreat

But there are pitfalls to encouraging employees to attend spiritual retreats, depending on the type of company that’s asking. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against employees based on religious beliefs, says Lucy Arendt, associate dean and director of the Austin E. Cofrin School of Business UW-Green Bay. Most employers that plan to hold a retreat at a spiritual center (beyond merely using the physical space) must offer an alternative option for an employee who objects.

But even that’s tricky, she says, because of the way workplace culture works.

“Are they going to be thinking, ‘The boss said I don’t have to go, but the way politics are around here, I feel like I almost have to go?’ So now you’ve put a person in an awkward position,” Arendt says. “Certainly, from the perspective of management, that’s not sensitive to the ebb and flow of how things work, how politics work. Better advice would be not to compel or ask for participation in spiritual retreats unless they’re absolutely certain everyone on the team is a practicing Episcopalian, for example. Otherwise, when you’re compelling any sort of spiritual anything, that opens an organization up to a potential lawsuit – even if people say they’re willing at the time.”

It’s different for workplaces that clarify their religious affiliation or culture up front. Affinity is a Catholic organization and therefore can plan Catholic retreats. For other companies and their leaders, providing an example without necessarily organizing a group retreat can still make a difference in the workplace and inspire people to seek similar experiences on their own.

But “spirituality” is one of those nebulous words that can mean different things to different people. Some companies are incorporating mind-and-spirit aspects into wellness programs, such as attending meditation sessions offered by the new Fox Valley Meditation Center.

The Bridge-Between Retreat Center in Denmark also offers a different kind of experience – an organic farm with chickens, cats and friendly llamas. The center, which is open to all faiths, offers optional prayer and spiritual direction, homemade meals and a chance to reconnect with nature. The Farmhouse (which is heated by geothermal energy) includes a chapel and library of books on “nature, theology, spirituality, cooking and environmental issues plus a few good novels as well,” according to the Bridge-Between website. Visitors can spend the night in a refurbished silo.

Joe Rugowski, president of Digital Design Services in Green Bay, learned about the center from a colleague who kept telling him about this place he called “The Commune.” Finally Rugowski visited the Denmark center.

“I was just positively enamored with the peacefulness of the place, and the reflection time,” Rugowski says. “I got to hang out with Dominick, one of the llamas they have there … It’s just like going back in time. There’s this energy – and when you leave the place, there’s a lightness in your step.”

Rugowski continued to return and eventually built the center’s website and created a DVD for the center.

Mixing spirituality and business

Leaders insist that spirituality and business are compatible and complementary. The triple-bottom-line idea of “People, Planet, Profits” has drawn more focus to paying attention to people, Arendt says, and an increased interest in spirituality may be a part of that notion.

Raaths says the same kinds of values that should apply to the business world – treating everyone the same, for instance, whether they’re the janitor or one of your top customers – is consistent with the messaging that comes from a retreat session.

“It really is how you interface with other human beings, how you reach into your own set of values and personal intensions,” Raaths says. “Especially us CEO types – we tend to feel that we’re able to do everything on our own, whether it’s working harder, working smarter. (On retreat) you get a little humility and know there’s a bigger thing out there than what you as an individual are able to understand or change or manipulate.”

“It all comes back to a sense of purpose,” Neufelder says. “I really believe where people and organizations come together is when individuals feel that they have talent, skills and abilities that they’re able to apply to a role that their organization is asking them to do, that their work is important, and it has meaning and purpose. … When those things come together, people just get inspired.”

A closer look

The Bridge-Between Retreat Center (Denmark)

Fox Valley Meditation Center (Appleton)

Jesuit Retreat Center (Oshkosh)

Monte Alverno (Appleton)

St. Norbert Abbey (DePere)