Plan a Simplicity Workshop

Here are some ideas for organizing a Simplicity Workshop or Retreat.

image by Rebecca Chalmers

We have included facilitator’s notes from past offerings. Be in touch if you have questions or something you would like to add!
Print Version pdf

Event Model and Facilitator’s Notes

NOTE: This material can be used in a variety of ways depending on the time available and how it is configured. It can be divided into sections to be used as a several-week study for Sunday/First Day School classes, it can be done as a three-hour workshop, and it can be expanded, with the addition of other activities such as:

  • The Right Sharing DVD on world poverty and the micro-enterprise solution, available free online.
  • The Right Sharing Project Partners PowerPoint presentation (download here) showing the women who receive Right Sharing loans and the businesses they start.
  • The Graham Cracker Game found on our website here.

Greetings | Welcome | Housekeeping announcements | Introduce workshop facilitator(s) | Introductory Conversation

Go around the circle and ask each person to answer the first question below.

Then ask the second question of the group in general:

Say your name and meeting or church, if appropriate, and answer the question “When you hear the word ‘simplicity’, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?”

When it comes to simpler living, where do you feel the MOST successful? Where the LEAST?

(It is ideal to get as many people as possible to share aloud during the course of the workshop, whether in the introductions, large or small groups, or in discussions by pairs or threes at some point during the day. Everyone has wisdom valuable to the group and many of us come to realize better what we think on a topic when we begin to talk about it.)

Opening Context—The State of Society

Simpler living is something that many yearn for today.

One thing that tells me this is the Internet. If you Google “simplicity” you 68,400,000 hits!

It gives you everything imaginable:

  • Sewing patterns,
  • Vacuums,
  • Tools,
  • Interior design, suggestions,
  • Math formulas, and
  • Tips for computer use

Clearly marketing experts have discovered that simplicity is a code word for “Pay attention!” or “Very good—you’re going to love this!” I couldn’t use that many hits so I tried “Simple living” (in quotes) instead—and I got MORE—131 million hits! But simplicity is not simple! Richard Foster, in 1981, said this is so, in part, because simplicity means such different things to different people.

  • Spiritual poverty (as in monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience)
  • An ecologically friendly lifestyle
  • And for some, a last chance for emotional sanity!

It is clear that many crave it, but few know how to GET it

Remember the story Black Beauty? How many read that when you were in school? (Ask for a show of hands.)

It was written in 1877 by a young Englishwoman, Anna Sewell, and was supposed to be the autobiography of a horse, told in his own words.

It spoke of:

  • Long work hours
  • Few breaks
  • Being required to bear ever heavier loads
  • Being forced to move FAST, then even FASTER
  • Being expected to work extremely hard despite being given poor food with low nutrition
  • Being required to eat and work at the same time—hence the handy feed bag tied to the mouth while standing at the “taxi” stand
  • Being required to work even when ill, until the horse collapsed and was simply carried off to the glue factory.

This book changed people’s relationship to animals in England and the US —it resulted in the formation of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and laws were passed to prevent such terrible abuse.

Now does any of this sound vaguely familiar to you? I would like to suggest there is a similar kind of animal abuse going on today right here in the US .

The animal that is being abused is we ourselves. As companies are downsized we are required to work longer hours, cover for 1½ people, and then for 2. We eat in the car on the run between appointments or activities. We continually add things to our calendars but take nothing off. And the irony of the situation is that WE are driving ourselves!

Even the well-intentioned and the very spiritual can fall into this trap:

I believe it is because we are like the goldfish swimming in the fishbowl. (A fishbowl of water with a small mechanical fish, found in the kids’ water toy section of a drug or department store, is very helpful here for illustration.) I suspect it does not see the water in which it swims. We are so immersed in our culture, that we don’t recognize what is happening until it is too late.

Or perhaps we are more like the frog. You’ve all heard the story of the frog, haven’t you? (Bring out a mechanical frog and add it to the fishbowl.) What is said about it? If you put a pot of water on the stove, heat it up, and drop in the frog, what will it do? It will immediately hop out and save itself. However, if you put the frog in a pot of cool water and gradually heat it up on the stove, what happens? It will swim happily around until it is cooked! A gruesome story, but one that may have something important to say to us for our time.

Well, surprise—this experience of a society accelerating out of control is NOT A NEW ISSUE!

Thomas Kelly, in 1935, had the opportunity to teach at the University of Hawaii . He observed that many people on the mainland felt their lives were too busy, too demanding. They yearned to get away to a tropical island where they could finally relax, let go of stress, and recover. But, to his amazement, he discovered that it wasn’t long after arriving in Hawaii that these persons began to recreate there the same exact lifestyles they had fled. Kelly blamed this social overload on the invention of the radio and car! Just imagine how much more technology we have had added to our lives since then!

• Kelly said our world experiences a “poverty of life induced by over-abundance of opportunities” and we feel life slipping away without peace, joy, or serenity

In the US we have experienced ever increasing affluence since WW II (but, studies have shown, not increased happiness). Much of the world envies us and our lifestyle. BUT there is a downside.

Right Sharing of World Resources has a two-fold mission to address:

  • The burdens of poverty in the developing world, and
  • To address the burdens of affluence in the developed world.


(If this is a short session or workshop, these questions can be discussed by the group as a whole. If there is time, this makes an effective small group exercise: divide the group into teams of 4 to 6 persons to discuss these questions. Ask them to make a list of their responses and choose a reporter to briefly report back to the group. Allow about 15 minutes for the discussion and another 10 minutes for the reports. You can also have them write their responses on flip chart paper to be hung up around the room, or you can write their answers on the flip chart as they are reporting, noting duplications.)
Where do you see the burdens of affluence in—

  • Your own life?
  • Your family?
  • Your meeting or church?
  • Your community?

Context—The Bible on the Pitfalls of Affluence and the Need for Simpler Living

George Fox and the first Quakers saw the problems of affluence and excess in England in their own day.

John Woolman here in America observed that in economic imbalance—whenever some must work long hours for little pay so that others can live well—lie the seeds of war.

The Quaker simplicity testimony or tradition that both practiced was soundly based on Bible teachings—both knew it well and their writing are full of Biblical images that we often miss because we are not as familiar with its teachings!

Already in the Old Testament, written thousands of years ago, the book of Ecclesiastes observed: Those that love silver will not be satisfied with silver; and those that love abundance will not be satisfied with increase. Early Bible writers recognized that somehow MORE IS NEVER ENOUGH. The New Testament contains many of Jesus’ teachings about the dangers of material excess. Both Old and New Testaments recognized that over-abundance can be a block to the experience of shalom—total well-being of self and community.

Small Group Activity

Hand out Scripture references for Simplicity Workshop.

(With groups that are not so familiar with the Bible or are not comfortable with its setting in a culture so different from our own, it can be helpful to suggest they not allow themselves to get hung up on those differences but to look for the unique kernel of wisdom that this scripture has for our society today).

Divide the group into small groups of four to six persons and send them off to discuss for 20-30 minutes depending on the time available. Ask them to choose a reporter who will briefly report back to the entire group.

(It is good to check on the groups as they are working to see if they have questions about the task at hand or if they are having difficulties with their particular passage.)

You may need to give a five to ten minute warning to groups as they can get very involved in their discussion and/or get stuck on one or two questions and not get to them all.

Call for reports in the whole group.

If time, ask the group what similarities they noticed in the reports. In the wisdom gleaned from the scriptures.

Context—Quaker and Contemporary Authors on Simpler Living

The burdens of affluence include:

  • Health issues
  • Since the time of Hippocrates, it has been known that stress causes illness and death.
  • In medieval times it was recognized that it was not the rich with their rich food and drink who were the healthiest, but the poor who primarily ate the fruits and vegetables that they grew in their own gardens and the nuts and berries they collected in the woods.
  • Ecological problems
  • Spiritual malaise

In this last are the seeds of hope, the push to simpler living. Janet Luhrs, in her Simple Living Guide, says:

“The #1 reason that people give for seeking to simplify their lives is finding inner peace and fulfillment.”

She says we try to find it in:

  • Houses
  • Clothes
  • Love relationships
  • Travel
  • Education
  • Careers

BUT—those things don’t bring fulfillment. Instead:

  • They add stress and chaos to our lives
  • The pleasure they give is fleeting
  • They leave us with a void—we find ourselves wanting MORE

That void has traditionally been recognized by mystics, theologians, and other spiritual leaders as a God hole that can only be filled by a relationship with the Divine. Bible authors recognized that 1,000s of years ago. Clutter’s Last Stand, a great book to help get rid of many kinds of excess in our lives, says that the Bible can be summarized in one short sentence—“De-Junk thy Life!”

We need to remember when we read the Bible however that abundance was not considered to be bad—it was a gift that showed people were in favor with God.

How we relate to it, use it, and think about it makes all the difference however
Unfortunately, it is even possible to have too much GOOD in our lives

The greatest problem for the well-intentioned person—the serious issues invariably arise from things that are good in themselves unless or until they are placed or allowed to come between the individual and God.
—William Penn, No Cross, No Crown

Our days are often governed or guided by lists of generic “musts” or “oughts” that are usually fine in the abstract. In the aggregate, however, in our individual lives, they leave little or no time for quiet or reflection, for opening ourselves to guidance, for receiving or honoring nudges of the Spirit. They usurp the freedom, empowerment or peace of the Spirit in the moment. Filling us to overflowing with their demands, these psychological or demonic powers usurp our sense of ourselves and alienate us from family, friends, nature and the wider world. They leave no room for the Spirit of God to move in our lives: few and fragmented moments of spontaneous rest, reflection, appreciation, thanksgiving or joy.
—Patricia Loring, Listening Spirituality, Vol. 1

Quaker Wisdom

Long ago Quakers recognized that simplicity is a practice that leads to an enhanced relationship with God/the Divine, self, and others. It can bring us:

  • Single-mindedness, and
  • The ability to focus on what is most important in life.

Richard Foster has said that:

  • Simplicity is an inward reality seen in our outward lifestyle.
  • It is both a grace and a spiritual practice:
  • It is a grace because only God can give it to us
  • It is a spiritual discipline because it is something that we can DO—a practice.
  • It doesn’t get us simplicity, but
  • It puts us in the right place to receive God’s:
  • Peace
  • Serenity
  • Wonder
  • Empowerment
  • Concentration
  • Confidence, and
  • Integration.

The practice of simplicity is not easy—because it is so counter-cultural. But it is WORTH IT!

Kelly quote on A Peace-Filled Life

Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming. We need not get frantic. He is at the helm. And when our little day is done we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well.
Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

So How Do We Get Started?

Foster—in 1978, Celebration of Discipline, gave suggestions for beginning to practice simplicity in our lives. Foster’s guiding principles for Simplicity Workshop.

At Right Sharing, as we have talked to many around the country about simplicity as a spiritual practice, we have begun to feel it is primarily about making sacred time for quality relationships with:

  • God
  • Self, and
  • Others


  • First—meditation/prayer—silent listening for Divine guidance for our lives
  • Second—setting aside “Sabbath time” weekly
  • The origin of Sabbath observance—scripture told the early Jews to honor the Sabbath so they didn’t wear out their servants or their animals—probably we too could use rest today!
  • Review the handout’s 5 tips for getting started. (Review them with the group.)

We Have All the Wisdom We Need To Do This

If we stop, meditate, listen, and consider:

  • We know what we want/need MORE of in our lives, and
  • What we want/need LESS of
  • We have role models to look to for examples
  • But we need support to be so counter-cultural

Final Exercise:

  • Distribute blank sheets of 8½” x 11” paper. Invite participants to:
  • Draw two vertical columns;
  • What I feel a lack of/desire more of in my life
  • What I feel I have too much of/want less of

(These answers can include things, activities, people, responsibilities, etc.—the whole gamut of clutter or excess.)

• Then draw a line across the bottom third of each column and write 1 thing you could do in the next 10 days to make a difference, to start simplifying—one for each column


  • Because of Quakers’ long history of practicing the simplicity testimony, we have many resources available to us to aid us on this journey
  • And because many others in our society know of our history, I have experienced that they respect us and listen to what we have to say on this topic.
  • Some believe this is a gift we could give to the world that could help our families, meetings, communities and world to move to a healthier place
  • And it could quite possibly help us to build our meetings at the same time.
  • Richard Foster seemed to feel this many years ago when he said what seems even more relevant today: (read quote below)

Closing Quote:

Models of simplicity are desperately needed today. Our task is urgent and relevant. Our century thirsts for the authenticity of simplicity, the spirit of prayer, and the life of obedience to the guidance of the Spirit. May we be the embodiment of that kind of authentic living.

Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity