Retreat ‘saves’ women’s lives

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Retreat ‘saves’ women’s lives

March 27, 2008    News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0819}

NOTE: A headshot of the Rev. Carol Sue Hutchinson is available at

An e-Review Feature
By Sarah Alsgaard**

FRUITLAND PARK — The strong bond between many of the women who went to the 2008 Florida Conference Women’s Retreat in Fruitland Park March 6-9 helped save one woman’s life.

Women attending the March session of the 2008 Florida Conference Women’s Retreat enjoy fellowship while working with etched glass candleholders during an arts and crafts class. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-0788.

“We have a team member, Judy Stephens, from Rockledge United Methodist Church, who did not show up on Thursday (before the retreat),” said Sherri Lingle, lead administrator in the Florida Conference Connectional Ministries office and staff support for the retreat.

“We were expecting her around 3 p.m.,” she said in an e-mail following the retreat. “On Friday morning, the (planning) team’s concern grew. We had all left messages on her phone.”

Lingle grew so concerned she called the police to ask them to check on Stephens. “I felt like we needed answers and needed to talk to a live person who could immediately check on Judy,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sue Sommers, one of the retreat’s enrichment leaders, had called a mutual friend at Rockledge United Methodist Church and asked her to check at Stephens’ home.

“Judy had been found in her house confused,” Lingle said. “It turned out that the house had a natural gas leak, and Judy’s life was in jeopardy.”

Two friends of Stephens’ drove to the retreat the following day and thanked the team for their concern and for saving Stephens’ life.

‘Practicing the presence’

Prior to the retreat, which was held at the conference’s Life Enrichment Center near Leesburg, the planning team prayed that the women attending would “receive every unique blessing of words of encouragement, rest and renewal for their soul” and “the fellowship of women with needs just like yourself… ,” according to the retreat Web site.

Although Stephens didn’t get to attend after all, she did benefit from that spirit and the women living out the retreat’s calling and theme, “Practicing the Presence.”

Every year, the retreat has a theme, and this year’s came from Matthew 11:28: “enter the rest of God, cease from your labor, from worry, from dread. Enter my presence … and I will give you the rest that you need.”

The women were encouraged to follow that prescription by swinging on benches in the sun, walking along the lake nearby or simply celebrating fellowship with one another during the retreat’s free time, said Michelle Lust, a member of Shady Hills United Methodist Church in Spring Hill.

Michelle Lust, a member of Shady Hills United Methodist Church in Spring Hill, holds up her finished etched glass candleholder from an arts and crafts class at the March session of the 2008 Florida Conference Women’s Retreat. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard.  Photo #08-0789.

“I think it’s wonderful; they (all women) need to all come and see what it’s about and learn about Jesus because it’s in a totally different setting there than it is in the church, and here you can do your thing,” said Judy Ann Ruth, a member of St. Cloud United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Carol Sue Hutchinson said the annual retreat is a place where women can spend time personally reflecting together, worshipping, listening to speakers and joining small groups.

“I think it gives women an opportunity to get away from the busyness of life,” said Hutchinson, the retreat’s director. “We encourage them to leave their children and their families home for the weekend and to just be here as women … to take that time apart to refresh themselves and their souls and their spirituality so that they can go back ready to start again.”

Providing inspiration

Among the enrichment activities offered during the weekend retreat, like the session on being a single Christian, prayer journaling and hymn singing, a favorite activity was the arts and crafts class, taught by Kathy Hubbs.

“They have a craft every year that you can do and take it home, and we always have a good time doing it,” Lust said. “Always a lot of laughs wondering how it’s going to turn out.”

Lust sat at a table of friends she’s known during her four years of attending the retreats. In the crowded room, lined with picnic tables, each woman pasted foam words, such as “Jesus” and “Peace,” and hearts and crosses onto a glass candle holder.

“My art started going toward the craft side, and I like creating a craft and then teaching it,” Hubbs said, who has taught the class for five years this year. “It’s so inspiring here.”

Lust said the session gives women a time to relax, be with friends and not worry about anything in particular.

Next year’s plans already taking shape

This year marked the 24th year of the annual retreat, which offers four weekend sessions each year — one in January, two in February and one in March.

Rev. Carol Sue Hutchinson

Hutchinson said attendance has increased significantly since the retreat began in the 1980s. Twelve years ago approximately 1,200 women attended over the course of three weekend sessions. Now there are four weekends and 2,100 women attending overall.

“We’ve looked at all sides of it (reason for the increase), and we’re just leaving it to God because we don’t understand it,” Hutchinson said.

The team is already planning something special for next year to celebrate the retreat’s 25th anniversary.

That planning — for one retreat — takes a year, said Hutchinson, who, after 12 years of directing the retreat, is passing the mantle on to someone else. Hutchinson is retiring this summer from her work on the conference’s Connectional Ministries staff. During that time she’s been involved in summer camp planning and development, social justice issues, Christian education and, most recently, developing modules for the conference’s e-Learning ministry. She’ll continue with e-Learning, but the March retreat session was her last as director.

The job as retreat director “was assigned to me, but it was something I wanted to do, and so it worked out really well,” Hutchinson said. “I think it’s a United Methodist-sponsored unique opportunity for women to come and be spiritually fit.”

Every year the Florida Conference distributes brochures about the retreat to each church, but women interested in registering for one of the 2009 sessions before the brochures are available may look for an application on the Florida Conference Web site at in September.

Lingle said to sign up quickly, however. The retreat fills up each year by October.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is a freelance writer based in Japan.

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