As my in-laws' 50th wedding anniversary neared, Hugh and Norma made it clear they did not want to celebrate in the customary way.
"No cake and punch reception in the fellowship hall for us," they insisted. "We'd rather have a family reunion with our children and grandkids."
Their suggestion made sense. With each of my in-laws' adult children living in four different states, family time together was rare. My wife, Wendy, and I agreed to take responsibility to plan an anniversary reunion Mom and Dad would never forget.
When we learned that Hugh and Norma had never returned to the sleepy beach city where they'd honeymooned, we decided to find accommodations in Seaside, Ore., that could house the entire clan. Since individual families would come from great distances, we planned for a week's stay.
Wendy searched the Internet and found a beach house a block from the hotel where her folks stayed 50 years earlier. The rental cost seemed high at first glance, but when we divided it four ways, it was less than what it would cost for each family to have their own room at a midrange motel.
For several months prior to the reunion, family members planned the special week's meals, sleeping arrangements, activities, outings and even discussions based on a Christian book the adults were asked to read. The outcome of the planning was beyond our expectations — six days of laughter, bonding and making memories.
A month or so before the big trip, I called the local newspaper and informed the publisher of our celebration. I pictured the headlines in my head: Honeymooners Return 50 Years Later With Brood in Tow.
When we arrived, a reporter and a photographer showed up to feature the reunion as a front-page story. As you might guess, a cake and coffee reception could not compare to the delicious joy we experienced. The week was such a success, we held a similar reunion five years later.
Have it your way
Anniversaries aren't the only occasions worth celebrating. It's just as easy to schedule a reunion in honor of a significant birthday or milestone.
Steve and Chandler Roskam chose their son's 13th birthday as the occasion for a family reunion. As part of the reunion, they held a rite of passage ceremony. Aunts and uncles gave Micah words of wisdom with which to enter adulthood. An elderly grandfather recited an entire chapter of the Bible and challenged his grandson to hide God's Word in his heart (Psalm 119:11).
That same family has a weeklong reunion every summer at a Christian conference center in Michigan. Rather than renting the facilities, the Roskams sign up to be part of family camp. During the morning hours, parents and kids take part in age-appropriate workshops. Each afternoon and evening they gather in a couple of the adjoining cabins for Roskam time.
Seize the day
Family reunions don't have to last a week or be held in a vacation home. Rallying the troops can take place in conjunction with a cousin's wedding or a grandparent's funeral. Seize the opportunity for a gathering when out-of-town relatives will be in attendance. When you encourage family members to stay an extra couple of days, you can create a reunion that brings a poignant dimension to both happy and sad events.
Keep it simple
Determine not to make the extended-family gathering a complicated affair. Divide the responsibilities ahead of time, and share meal preparation and cleanup among the different families represented. Be sure to agree from the start how expenses will be shared.
One person can be tasked with coming up with an overall schedule. By all means, don't over-program the time you have together. Allow plenty of free time for walks, talks and spontaneous adventures.
For the scrapbook
Reunions are a great time to intentionally create memories, and have fun doing it. Consider creating a custom T-shirt with a family logo. Encourage each person to contribute to an all-family talent night. Record the memorable time together by producing a DVD from still photos and video. Consider hiring a professional photographer for a family photo.
Younger families may enjoy creating a time capsule. Such capsules can include a copy of USA Today, a TV Guide, a grocery store circular with current prices of products, an envelope with a canceled postage stamp and current photos of family members. With the joy of a scavenger hunt, everybody can contribute items that will be buried (or stored) in a waterproof container to be unearthed at a future reunion.
Faith and fun
Because family gatherings will likely include spiritual prodigals or those who have never accepted the Lord, reunions provide informal settings where sincere faith can be observed and shared.
Creating a spiritual atmosphere is easier than you might think. Invite Grandpa and Grandma to tell stories after dinner one night. Encourage them to reflect on how they met each other and how they met Christ. Sing Christian songs around a campfire on the beach.
At our family gatherings, we always sing the "Johnny Appleseed Prayer" before meals. A spiritual component could be as easy as composing a table prayer that is uniquely yours to say or sing whenever members of the extended family are together.
Family reunions take a little effort and planning. But the payoff is huge. You'll celebrate core values, create traditions, pass on legacies. Most of all, family reunions provide a preview of an ultimate gathering that awaits God's children in heaven.Greg Asimakoupoulos is a minster, writer and newspaper columnist.
Strengthen the marriages in your church by hosting one of our Focus on the Family marriage events. Details here.