This past weekend we had our annual fall high school retreat. Retreats can be a great community builder, and if done well, they can build a lot of positive momentum in a youth ministry. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about putting on a great retreat, mostly from making mistakes:
1) Know the purpose of your retreat. Why is your group going away for a weekend? Do you want to break down barriers between cliques in the youth ministry? Do you want to launch a small group ministry? Is the main purpose to introduce guests to Jesus? Knowing the purpose of the retreat will make planning it a lot easier.
2) Lock in your adult leaders early (and be picky about who you invite). There’s a lot to do in the last days leading up to a retreat. The last thing you need to be doing is desperately going through your church directory the night before the retreat praying someone will say “yes.” In addition, being a leader at a retreat can be intense and exhausting. Invite adults who will be coming for the right reasons and who are ready to sacrificially love the students in their cabin, even when they don’t get enough sleep.
3) Get lots of people involved in the planning and execution. For the first few years I did retreats, I did all the planning, speaking, buying of supplies, set-up, etc. Usually, it meant frantically running around all week before the retreat, desperately asking my wife (whom I was dating at the time) for help at the last minute, and going into the weekend on little or no sleep. Ask people to help you plan and get ready.
4) Allow plenty of time for fun. I’ve found that a big reason teenagers love retreats is because they are given permission to play. I’ve seen students who are normally sullen and withdrawn giggle with joy at a retreat while standing on a teeter-totter or playing a silly game before a session. Play games as a group, and allow free time for them to be creative in how they play.
5) If you are the regular speaker for your group, invite a guest speaker for the weekend. I’ve done it both ways (speaking myself and hiring a guest speaker). While I love speaking on retreats, there’s something about a guest speaker that can get through to students–even if that person is saying the exact same things you’ve been teaching for the past two months.
6) Rustic is a-okay. Don’t feel like you have to spend big bucks (or ask parents to shell out the money) in order to go to a world-class retreat center. In fact, I believe students actually have a better time when they’re not pampered with hot tubs and state-of-the-art game rooms. There are probably more camps in your area that offer clean, friendly, but simple facilities than you realize. The other benefit: they tend to be cheaper!
7) You don’t need 100 students to have a fun, memorable retreat. The first high school retreat I led at my first youth ministry job had exactly five students in attendance. I found a cabin up in the mountains for pretty cheap that included a small lake and great hiking, and off we went. To this day, that retreat is one of my favorite youth ministry memories.
8) Provide students with a practical “take home” that they can focus on after the weekend. As soon as your students step back into their everyday lives after the retreat, what they learned and the commitments they made will quickly fade away. Provide something that will help them remember what the weekend was about.
9) Bring a medic. For the past two years, I’ve asked the dad who’s a deputy fire chief and a trained paramedic to join us on the weekend. For the most part, he just hangs out and has fun, but when the inevitable bumps and bruises happen, he takes care of it.
10) Foster spiritual disciplines. This year, we had three intentional quite times where we asked students to spend time in silence studying God’s word and listening to God (and idea I stole from Chad, our junior high pastor). The hope is that they’ll not only have time to process what they’re hearing and experiencing, but they’ll also see the benefit of being still before God as a part of their regular routine.
Bonus tip: Pray, pray, pray. Despite all of our planning, it’s God who works in the hearts of our leaders and students. Surrender the weekend to him, and be flexible when it turns out that God has an entirely different plan than you put down on paper.
What would you add to this list?