Essays exploring the restorative potential, experiences and outcomes of spiritual retreats

Chelsea Gill*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Spiritual retreats have a long history within various religious traditions, and in the twenty-first century also offer a potentially valuable experience to a much wider audience. Opportunities to get away from the busyness of life to rest, relax and restore balance are sought by individuals from many walks of life. Spiritual retreats involve separating from everyday life and entering a new temporary experience that enables restoration, transformation, healing, renewal and personal development.

Technological advances and the ever-increasing information overload in all spheres of life make it increasingly difficult to disconnect from technology and work, balance leisure time with competing demands, and actively maintain psychological health. One important aspect in this regard that is often taken for granted is the capacity to direct attention. This capacity is highly susceptible to fatigue but is vital if we are to function effectively. It is therefore important that individuals are able to recover cognitive capacity so they can not only navigate but flourish in their context. Attention Restoration Theory posits that spending time in a restorative environment facilitates recovery from directed attention fatigue.

Restoration is increasingly being recognized as an important outcome of religious tourism experiences and there is an expanding body of literature demonstrating the potential of religious and spiritual tourism to positively influence wellbeing. There has been minimal empirical investigation, however, into the restorative experiences and benefits of spiritual retreats and there is a lack of practical recommendations for designing retreats that foster wellbeing outcomes.

This thesis, consisting of three interconnected essays, draws on Attention Restoration Theory as the underpinning framework to explore the restorative potential, experiences and outcomes of spiritual retreats. The religious vocation provides an apt context for this research as annual spiritual retreats are often included as part of the clergy support structure. Clergy within four Christian denominations in Australia who attended one of 17 retreats during 2016 were invited to participate in the research. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected using questionnaires before, at the conclusion of, and two weeks after the retreat to investigate if and how restorative outcomes occur and the factors that lead to immediate and continuenduring restorative outcomes. Follow-up interviews were also conducted with 30 participants to further explore the restorative experiences and outcomes of the retreat.
Collectively, these three manuscripts contribute to the religious tourism literature by demonstrating the restorative outcomes and benefits of spiritual retreats and identifying the specific environmental attributes, activities and experiences that lead to restoration. Reflective retreats were found to be more restorative than educational retreats, and comparisons between silent and non-silent reflective retreats yield interesting findings. By using a mixed-methods research design, this thesis provides rich qualitative and quantitative support for Attention Restoration Theory and extends its application in the context of spiritual retreats.

Practically, the thesis offers valuable recommendations for the design of restorative spiritual retreats which could be applied to other professional groups beyond the clergy vocation. The findings indicate the annual spiritual retreat generally affords participants some time away from normal demands and routine to recuperate, pause, reflect and regain perspective. Having the space and stillness to engage in these processes facilitates an integration of the past and present as well as re-prioritising for the future, resulting in greater capacity to positively move forward in life. The sense of belonging and community engendered by the retreat is also of great significance. Spending time with others who can empathise and understand one’s experiences helps to reduce isolation and strengthen self-identity. Thus the retreat contributes in various ways to enduring restorative outcomes.

It is therefore recommended that religious organisations utilise the annual spiritual retreat not merely as a tradition or as an educational or spiritual experience, but as a restorative intervention to enhance cognitive wellbeing. The findings, while emerging from the clergy context, provide promising research avenues for other professional and retreat contexts.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Queensland
  • Packer, Jan, Principal Supervisor, External person
  • Ballantyne, Roy, Principal Supervisor, External person
Award date16 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


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