After a miscarriage, a stillbirth and her marriage in trouble, Franks says she was struggling with the Christian experience. “I went through a period of about three years that I did not pray,” she shares. “I didn’t feel like a Christian anymore, let alone a Seventh-day Adventist. Through the years, my parents had invited my husband and me to a couples’ retreat to help our marriage as well as for spiritual healing. We finally agreed to go, though, to be honest, I was expecting it to be a man-bashing seminar.”
Instead, Franks found a place to pray for the first time in years. “We were immersed in a wonderfully spiritual and loving atmosphere the second we got [to Camp Blue Ridge]. While I was there, it just clicked. The love, openness and acceptance of the other couples drew me to reach out to God in prayer. My husband, Audie, was graciously and patiently at my side, quietly encouraging me, knowing my pain from losing the babies and our struggle. I felt so open to the Holy Spirit. It really changed me.” Two years later, the couple celebrated these changes while at the retreat through a private vow renewal ceremony, with Franks’ parents, Desiree and Tony Soto, and long-time retreat coordinators, Joe and Annie Benedetti and Scott and Melissa Meyerhoffer, as their witnesses. “In many ways, that has been the real beginning of our marriage,” says Franks.
It’s been seven years since their first retreat and the Franks continue to make the long, 11-hour drive from Massachusetts to attend each year, picking up the Sotos in New Jersey on their way to Montebello, Va.
Surprisingly, neither couple is a Potomac member. “I read about the retreat in the Visitor about 20 years ago,” recalls Soto. “Tony and I were getting ready to celebrate our 20th anniversary and we decided that a retreat like that could benefit a couple at any stage in their marriage. We met the friendliest of people and the marriage presentation was outstanding. We learned so much. We were hooked! Throughout the years, I’ve asked Tony if he would like to attend a retreat closer to us instead. He responds with, ‘Why? I would miss everyone!’”
A typical retreat starts with the couples arriving on Friday evening. They open with music and prayer, announcements and then introduce the weekend’s presenter — this year was Claudio and Pamela Consuegra, Family Ministry Directors for the North American Division. “We are consistently blessed with some of the finest marriage counselors we’ve ever met,” says coordinator J. Benedetti. “They know what they want to accomplish, but also know how to make it a retreat and not just a weekend of seminars.” On Saturday, couples are packed picnic baskets and are encouraged to find a quiet place to eat and reconnect in the stillness of nature. “We could not ask for a nicer setting. Camp Blue Ridge is so beautiful. The atmosphere is peaceful and quiet. It puts you in a different, clearer frame of mind.” The Benedettis have been coordinating the retreats since 1998, after attending the meetings themselves since 1993.
The Benedettis and Meyerhoffers work hard to make the weekend special for couples and find ways to make the weekend feel like a getaway. The presenters focus on fostering an open and safe environment to engage with couples and provide practical tools to bring into each marriage. “The most valuable thing I’ve learned at the retreats is something called the knee-to-knee,” shares Franks. “When you and your partner are in a disagreement and it’s getting a little heated, you say, ‘We need a knee-to-knee,’ you set up a time to talk – after work, after dinner – then, you sit down next to each other, with your knees physically touching and you talk out your problems. It’s so much more impactful when you can feel your partner next to you. It helps you reassess and realize that these are real emotions that someone is feeling. You sit there, knee-to-knee until you’ve reached some sort of agreement, resolution or compromise. It has been one of the most beneficial things for our marriage.”
At the end of the retreat, there is a special time for individuals to share their personal testimonies. One year, Franks shared her personal struggles with prayer and faith. “At the end, several people thanked me for having the courage to share my story,” said Franks. “They felt like it helped them own and tell their story, even if it wasn’t in front of the group.”
Jimmy and Gale Strickland, who have celebrated 45 years of marriage and many years at the couple’s retreat comment on what a blessing it is for married couples to have the opportunity to share a special weekend with other couples, committed to strengthen their marriage and grow as individuals. “Every marriage has its challenges and struggles and this weekend offers an opportunity for couples to grow closer together,” says G. Strickland. “Several couples have shared testimonies and credited the couples retreat for saving their marriage. They had almost given up, but they decided after attending the retreat to recommit to their marriage. What a powerful effect the couples retreat is having on our families. All couples need to invest time to strengthen their marriage and we recommend the couples retreat week-end.”
The Meyerhoffers are stepping down from their long-time posts as coordinators this year, but the Benedettis will continue and are already planning the next retreat, which will be held at Camp Blue Ridge Oct. 7 – 9, 2016. “Without a doubt, the Lord continues to lead this event,” said A. Benedetti. He continues to answer ‘yes’ in very big ways for us.”
The Franks, Sotos and Stricklands unanimously say they will all be in attendance this fall. “Something truly terrible would have to happen to keep us away,” says Franks. ““I believe this retreat is a sacred place, ordained by God to reconnect with your spouse. I thank God for the opportunity to go each year and look forward to many more.”