tom wanberg - retreat

Retreat – The Secret to Handling Teenagers (and Adults, too)

Tom Wanberg is long in the tooth when it comes to leading and joining in on retreats with Greenwood’s middle and high school kids. 

Over the course of the last 13 years he figures he’s participated in nearly 50 of them. That might have worn some of us out, but Tom is a pro when it comes to being keenly aware of the essential power of retreat. “90 percent of the time I felt filled up afterward rather than exhausted,” says Tom.

Tom considers retreats a significant tool for kids to create a wider margin between them and their busyness. Sometimes we need to disconnect so that we’re in a narrow space and primed to hear from God. Celtic Christian tradition has long referred to this as a “thin place” – that place in time or geography where we are closest to God and His voice.

“When we’re at a middle or high school retreat, we like to separate the kids from their cell phones and other electronic stuff. We intentionally create space where they can spend time with their Bible and journal and simply go outside and take a walk. We see this time after time – when they come back they are different. It blows my mind to see how the Lord reveals Himself there,” says Tom. “God is always there, but if we’re not listening, it’s probably because we don’t have enough of a margin to hear Him.”

It’s surprising to hear from Tom that he wasn’t really a people person until after he met Christ, because when you sit down to talk with him, he’s engaged and connected in the conversation, intensely aware of the present moment and concerned about what both parties have to offer in the middle of it.

“I was never interested in taking time to meet people. I had a surprising lack of curiosity about them. When I met Christ, I changed into something else,” he says. “I became fascinated in the individual journey - how people think and how they form convictions when life tests them. This is why I really love working with middle school and college-aged kids.

“I grew up un-churched and I was very competitive,” says Tom. He was a high-level high school trampolinist almost bound for the Olympics and a scholarship, but he chose the business route instead. “During college I started on the real estate fast-track and I was intent on making millions before I was 30. My roommate and I started buying small apartment buildings beginning our junior year. My plan was to retire early in a beach house in Tahiti, but the Lord had other plans,” he says with an amused grin.

When the market collapsed in 1986 he had a financial crash-and-burn. “That was a shake-up time for me, a bit of a fall with no net,” says Tom. “Later, when I married my wife, Anita, and our daughter Carolyn was on the way, I asked myself, ‘What am I doing? What really is my purpose in life?’ And then I bumped into Jesus,” says Tom. “I had a shift. Before it was all about the stuff, and then it became all about the people,” he says.

That was over twenty-five years ago, and he’s still all about the people and seeking to have a dependent relationship with God. Tom started working with kids here at Greenwood when he started teaching kindergarten on Sunday mornings with his elementary school-aged daughter, Carolyn. “It was our dad and daughter time and she really wanted to do this together. Now, at 26, she’s a kindergarten teacher herself,” he says.  It’s subtle, and you can tell it’s not lost on him that the choice he made to walk beside his daughter in her passion led them both to their callings today.

Tom’s been walking beside and sharing life with middle school kids for thirteen years, and retreat – taking time away just to spend time with God - could very well be his secret weapon.

Cell phones and computers are marvelous tools, but they come at a cost by sometimes eroding our margins of space that use to be there and are now filled. Retreats are designed to give unstructured time back where they can listen for God’s whisper. In Ephesians 2:10 we read that we are God’s workmanship. And did you know that the word for workmanship in Greek is poema? As a mixed up high school kid, how would you know you are poetry from God if you never get the chance to create the space and experience it?”

This theme of thin places - making sure we attend to those geographical and experiential places in time where we can just hear God better - is central to Tom’s life.

In fact, Tom is a student of God’s poetry that’s all around us: whether it’s in a line from one of his favorite children’s books, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt; text from Frederick Bueckner’s Son of Laughter; words from an old poetry book he read with his family as a child; or paragraphs from Geography of Grace by Kris Rocke and Joel Van dyke. Tom knows this poetry displayed when we make space to look for it:  in the kids serving at Camp Barnabas (a camp for kids with life-threatening illnesses and disabilities where our Greenwood high school and middle school kids serve over the summer) or in the smell of smoke at Nicaragua’s shanty town where our kids serve those living amidst a garbage dump, or on a frosty morning walk at a high school retreat at Snow Mountain Ranch.

Another theme that resonates in Tom’s heart is the idea that “we’re all pastors - the priesthood of the believer. We all have the opportunity to walk beside someone, to find out how they think, what their challenges are,” he says. “Doug Ashley has been a big influence on me. He has defined for me what a pastor should look like as he worked with all of us adult volunteers in the middle school ministry. Doug understands how to pull a volunteer along and not push him; he, gave us a vision, and modeled how to do it,” says Tom.

Like many of the staff at Greenwood, Tom and Doug have actually made it a practice to attend the Franciscan Retreat Center in Colorado Springs together for one day about eight times a year.  “We try hard to unplug our cell phones, take a journal and the Bible, and make a day to be with the Lord. It’s all about narrowing your focus.” he says simply.

Tom still works with middle school and high school kids, plus he and Anita continue to host a weekly summer Bible study for college – with many of the same kids he started with in 6th grade trickling through over the years. “Anita and I were recently invited to one of my past 6th grader’s wedding – it was so amazing to get to see that personal journey!”

Tom feels that in volunteering with kids, we give and we receive equally.

He’s honest and says that the process isn’t neat and orderly; it can be really messy and heart wrenching, just like life itself. As his favorite children’s book winsomely captures it: “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt/we’re going to catch a big one/I’m not afraid, are you? Not me! Oh No!/It’s a big puddle of mud/Can’t go around it/Gotta go right through it…well let’s go.”

Is he planning to give up walking beside these kids anytime soon? “Why would I give up my front row seats to all this wonderful revelation?”