Family Fitness Retreats

The first of a new series about unique ministries conducted by members of CMDA, this article explains how one medical couple uses their home and property to strengthen marriages (medical and non-medical). They believe that their "program" and its principles are transferable, and hope that other mature couples with the time, energy, and resources will join them in addressing this crucial need among their colleagues in the church and beyond.

Since 1996, Robb Brandt, M.D. and his wife, Ruth, have invited four guest couples at a time to their home in Beaver Falls, Pa., for weekends of encouragement, discipling, refocusing and fun. Thus far, they've hosted approximately a hundred guests, including a number of medical and dental couples--and they're planning for more.

"The concept of Family Fitness Retreat was born one day," Dr. Brandt explained, "while I was climbing the hill behind our house. Gasping for air at the top, I scolded myself, Wow, are you out of shape! After catching my breath at a favorite quiet-time spot, my prayer thoughts included some struggling young Christian families, medical and otherwise, that seemed too weak and unprepared to climb the steep hills of their lives. Like me climbing that hill, they needed to get in better shape. But I knew that many of these couples felt that even with two paychecks, they still couldn't, or wouldn't, afford a weekend family seminar, not to mention adding the cost of childcare."

Next, the surgeon, a member of CMDA since 1956, asked himself what he and his wife could do to address this need. "Our children were grown," he said, "and looking down on our home I thought of their empty bedrooms. I pondered all the planning, prayer and energy we had put into parenting. Could we share some of the ideas we used with our own children? I wondered. Maybe young couples would come to a free weekend away from their cute little noisemakers and other distractions--to think, pray, and plan about improving their family life."

The idea takes shape

"After discussion and prayer," Dr. Brandt said, "despite having no special training or skills, and knowing many could do it better, Ruth and I decided to go for it! We designed a simple weekend retreat we've christened, "Family Fitness Retreats--Fit to Serve."

Having attended many family seminars through the years, the Brandts had collected a lot of books, videos, and other resources targeted for families. But they realized as they tried to settle on a program that in many instances the seminars had left them feeling flooded with great ideas, inspired and motivated, yet without sufficient time to discuss and assimilate the new ideas into timely family situations. Upon returning home and resuming their hectic schedule, "Lots of great possibilities got poured down the drain," Dr. Brandt said. "We didn't want to sponsor something destined for failure because it overloaded participants with too much of a good thing all at once," he added.

After considering a variety of approaches, the Brandts settled on a "program" that they believe can be duplicated nationwide, a movement they hope to facilitate. They asked themselves: What if mature Christian empty nesters would entertain young couples for a whole weekend utilizing their children's empty bedrooms, sharing biblical principles for families along with their experience and advice? In this case, they would stick to basics--Christian Family 101: our relationship with God (individual and family); the interactions between spouses; parenting principles; practicing evangelism with "neighbors."

Although their original passion focused on medical families like themselves while they were in the midst of parenting, the Brandts started their experiment mixing medical professionals with couples from all walks of life. Dr. Brandt recalls one couple in particular whose life together was improved through their weekend getaway.

"When Mike and Jan swaggered into our home on Friday evening, they were impressive," he said. "Mike's square jaw, beefy neck and muscular physique spoke volumes. Jan, a slim brunette, also appeared athletic and fit. They worked out regularly and looked sharp."

"But on Sunday morning during a family goal setting session, Mike's eyes moistened and his voice broke as he confessed to throwing and breaking things in a fierce fit of anger directed at Jan," Brandt added. "Despite her deep love for him, Jan tearfully confessed to adding tension by taunting Mike when he'd lose control of himself. Other retreaters in the room reticently nodded as if they'd been there and did something similar. They took turns sharing hurts, and discussed opportunities to improve their families. Then they asked to be held accountable by the group. Healing began while they hugged."

How it works

Ice-breaking is the main objective for Friday evening with snacks, self-introductions, jokes and laughs while retreaters get comfortable with each other. Young mothers often need to unwind after arriving a bit harassed, having hurriedly settled the kids for the weekend.

On Saturday morning, the group discusses an ideal relationship to God, reviewing the most obvious Scriptures, pertinent principles and various experiences. Each person is asked to picture himself or herself standing alone before God, explaining their relationship to Him while making note of opportunities to improve. Then each couple critiques their relationship to God. Family devotions are encouraged. Dr. Brandt tells the group, "In our family we added a new vocabulary word at each morning's devotions. Our children loved to stump us with a new word, and it boosted their SAT scores!"

After lunch, the focus is spousal relationships. Robb and Ruth divide the group for gender-specific discussions on the proper role of sex and intimacy in a spiritually fit family. They teach that tension happens in the best marriages and that fitness to serve depends largely on how each person handles it. They ask everyone to list what they appreciate most about their spouse and something for them to improve--then the spouses come together and compare notes.

One couple wrote: "Thank you for stressing the need for couples to walk and pray together. The stresses of life can look a whole lot differently when you first take things to God and spend time talking them out with your spouse. My favorite part of a week is when my husband asks to pray with me and walk together."

Although most but not all retreaters are parents, Saturday afternoon's discussion of parenting principles draws peak interest. Despite certain trends, parents are reminded what the Bible says about disciplining children. Then they go off together for a private discussion of parenting principles personalized to their home and some goal setting.

Here are some of their comments after this exercise:

"As parents of teens, we appreciated hearing your positive talk about those years. We've been challenged to be more deliberate in our use of time with them, both spiritually and in our individual one-on-one time."

"We've committed ourselves to be more intentional in planning our parenting activities."

"The discussion of the necessity of boundaries and consequences for the children really helped us."

"The focus on the Word as it applies to family relationships was very timely."

Saturday evening's emphasis on evangelism is a particular challenge and high calling because unless the couple has their act together in the first three topics, God, spouse, and children, there's simply no credible family energy left to overflow to others. The Brandts review scriptural principles, their favorite evangelism methods and tools, along with their experience and advice.

One family commented, "Using our family devotions as a foundation, we've been able to incorporate other goals we'd set for our family, such as reaching out to our neighbors."

The Sunday morning session is designed to pull the weekend together into a life- and family-changing plan of action with each couple establishing specific goals in each of the four critical areas with time frames.

Dr. Brandt said, "The Sunday morning sessions have been most gratifying for us. We see talented young couples like Mike and Jan do self-analysis in light of God's Word and then set and share challenging goals to become better Christians, spouses, parents, and a family most fit to serve God and share Him with their neighbors. Our retreat schedule finishes about noon on Sunday, leaving some weekend time for the parents to discuss their new goals with their children."

Following up

"Even after they're gone, it's still not over," Brandt added. "We're soon planning a reunion. And when we meet former participants at a planned reunion party, lunch, or anywhere else, they've come to expect the question, 'How are you doing on your goals?' And we love the answers--plans for dinner with dad, date nights, family nights, camping trips and ball games. Some even decide they should be more active in their church."

Ruth places a small lasting gift in each bedroom to remind participants of their experience and the goals they set. Once it was a tiny rose bush. "Our miniature rose bush reminds us of the seeds of love," the couple later wrote, "which were planted more deeply during that weekend."

At the conclusion of every retreat the Brandts ask the retreaters to complete a survey to help improve the experience for others. During a recent retreat held exclusively for doctors and their spouses, Dr. Brandt asked if they felt that what they had just experienced was readily translatable to most communities in America and beyond.

Yes! Was the unequivocal response.

"There are many superb methods and tools available to assist families in becoming more spiritually fit," Dr. Brandt said. "I believe that a Medical/Dental Family Fitness Retreat represents a new tool with some unique advantages. One is cost. While new in my surgical practice, Ruth and I admired the brochures for Christian doctor getaways in beautiful snowcapped settings, but there was always a stack of bills that took priority. This tool is simple, local, inexpensive and now proven effective. Because it's a time away but still local, it also offers the practical potential for follow-up and accountability."

Fernando Ascendio D.M.D.--Endodontist

"Being away from a busy life schedule, I was able to develop an intimacy with God that will allow me to grow in His love."

Lorraine Ascencio

"It allowed me to refocus on the areas of my life which needed to become more spiritually fit for the benefit of not only myself but for my family and others."

Dr. Brandt believes that "Family Fitness Retreats" could be readily available to young residents and newly practicing doctors in a community where a mature medical/dental empty nester couple develops a passion to encourage the next generation of medical/dental professionals to get into better spiritual shape. And when led by CMDA members, such retreats would be a great way to introduce non-members to the many benefits that membership affords.

This passion takes Dr. Brandt back to his exhausting trek up the hill behind his house. But now in that house both the empty nesters and the empty bedrooms are more occupied, redefining a concept for enabling family fitness.

More information is available at the Family Fitness Retreats Web Site: A Family Fitness Retreat Leader's Guide, available through the Web Site, will guide you step-by-step through the before, during and after of hosting a retreat. The Brandts are also available to present the Family Fitness Retreat concept in more detail, and to share their experience with on-site training and retreat coaching. They can be contacted through the Web Site or via e-mail at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..