The air is crisp, the leaves are changing colors and daylight savings is around the corner. That can only mean one thing: the fall retreat is upon us, friends. The best weekend all fall. I may be biased because I come away feeling more deeply embedded in the community each year but I have high hopes the Lord will provide this year, my fifth year attending, as he has in years past.

My first fall retreat with Grace was four years ago. I was less than a week new to the church and didn’t know many people. The friends I made that weekend remain some of my closest and each year I’ve gotten to experience the retreat differently: leaving early on Saturday night, leading a small group, rooming with strangers, making pit stops on the way there or on the way back, carpooling with strangers, being part of the organizing team, being a volunteer. However you come, come prepared. Here are some ideas on how you can make the most of your retreat whether it’s your first time or twelfth. Fall retreat is one of my favorite weekends of the year, has been the source of deep friendships and some of the teaching of each year has stuck with me.

Pray — This is the most important thing you can do for the weekend: pray for your heart, pray for the speaker, pray for community, pray for the hearts of everyone else who will attend, pray for the worship, pray for nature to inspire, pray for safe travel, pray for new friendships. Pray. Even if you ’re not going, you can contribute to the retreat by praying for it.

Pack properly — My first year as I was new to DC and hadn’t moved completely into the city, I didn’t have the appropriate clothes for the weather. This seems rather obvious, but be sure to check the weather and pack what you’ll need to stay warm both during the day and at night when it gets cooler. You’ll also want to pack some athletic wear if you plan to participate in some of the afternoon activities or the morning run. The year I attended and was on a special diet, I packed alternative snacks and meals and stashed them in the fridge they have in the room before the dining hall.

Make a pit stop — People often picnic or visit local attractions on their way to or from the retreat. I’ve twice gone to wineries and twice gone to people’s homes who hosted pre-retreat activities. Make the ride up and back fun too, the fun doesn’t have to begin when you arrive at Capon Springs (though fun will definitely be waiting for you there when you arrive). Consider packing a picnic and sitting outside with friends, or plan to visit the Apple House for apple cider donuts. Get creative and see what other places of interest might be along the way.

Be attentive to others — The practice of keeping an eye out for someone being left out that you could engage really benefits everyone. Fall retreat is a wonderful time to catch up with friends but there are also many people there hoping to make new ones. Be on the lookout for those who could use an extra warm welcome or who are standing or sitting on the periphery who you can draw deeper into the community. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to feel welcome.

Make a new friend (including a kid, a married person, or a single person) — The retreat is the optimal time to get to know someone better who you don’t normally get to see. Even if you aren’t helping out with childcare, engaging with the kids helps them feel like a part of the community too. Are all your friends married? Take time over the weekend to meet a new single person. Are all your friends single? Get to know a married couple better over one of the meals. Opportunities to meet new people are built into the weekend so, whatever you do, don’t just retreat into your trusted friend groups the whole time.

Be fully present — Unless your job absolutely requires it, take the weekend to unplug. Leave the distractions of work and DC in DC. One year I went glued to my phone, and not only was reception bad anyway, but I missed out on meaningful opportunities to engage roommates, small group members, and others. Whatever you can push pause on for two days, push pause on it.

Rest — Take time to rest over the weekend if you need it. While there are activities to help people make new connections or just to go out and have fun, don’t let FOMO (fear of missing out) keep you from the rest you need. The weekend should be restful, don’t let it fly by without giving yourself time to be rejuvenated. Also, check out the spa, a hidden gem of Capon Springs.

Follow up — One thing my friends and I did last year was plan a retreat reunion dinner party where we each invited three people we met at the retreat and wanted to get to know better to a dinner in early December to keep connections going. We sent out an evite to 12 people and had them over before the holiday party season got underway. Not only did we try to cultivate those new relationships, but we were also introducing those people to new people as well. It was a really great time of extending the experience and being intentional about building on the retreat relationship building momentum.

Pray — Once we all return home and life attempts to crowd out our reflective thoughts, deep times connecting with friends, and the refreshment, keep praying. Pray for the seeds of new friendship to grow. Pray for the teaching to take root and bear fruit. Pray for our community to be changed. Pray for our thoughts to aspire to the eternal.

Recruit — Did you have a great time at the retreat? Take some time at your Community Group (CG) the following week to talk about the highlights with those who weren’t able to go. Consider writing about your experience at the retreat for the church’s website or to share as a God at Work during a worship service. We want to hear how God moved in your heart during the weekend so share away! Not only does this bring him glory, but it encourages others to attend, to be challenged and encouraged, and to have their communities broadened as well.

Hope to see you at the retreat!