Stay up too Late and Other Tips for a Transforming Fall Retreat

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Retreats can be a waste of time, even when they are great. Of course its not a real waste of time but more a sense of…” the impact could have been greater.”

It’s a little over three months before our fall retreat when I’m writing this. I’ve got a theme and a scripture focus, a dynamic speaker booked, and a camp where the retreat will take place. Our worship leader is already talking about the set list. Some time ago I would have said that I’m “pretty much done”. All I need is a bus and a bunch of kids to sign up. If by “done” I mean I have all the makings of a great one-time event, I would indeed be close to done.

Over time I have learned that a big fall event can set the tone for an entire season/year of student ministry. If we prepare the right way, we can be on our way to seeing growth spiritually and numerically. If we prepare for just simply an event, we likely come away with a mountain top experience that may be remembered fondly, but also left our students wondering “what now?” on Monday morning. Here are three things that I believe will help what happens on our retreat lasts beyond the weekend.

Adult Servant Leadership (Small group leaders).

I very intentionally avoided the word “chaperone”. This is number one for a reason. The adults you bring with you will absolutely play a large roll in whether or not the retreat carries past the weekend in the hearts of students. For years I went after people I knew would say yes and stopped asking as soon as I hit the number to be safe sanctuary compliant. This kept me out of trouble but it was counterproductive to the ministry. I have learned to be absolutely strategic in who I ask to be on our student retreats.

Do I bat 1000%? No, and sometimes I still end up taking adults that might have a different gifts than what I am looking for, but far and away I have found recruiting with an end in mind, helps with bring the outcome desired. So who do I look for?

My first ask is always to known leaders in our church currently are investing in the lives of students relationally. Small groups are a focus of our ministry so by this I mean I ask small group leaders and they are tasked with shepherding specific students. 

Second I look to adults who I believe would make great servant leaders, but aren’t currently serving in Student ministry.  Many times there are individuals you know would be effective, yet they like the confidence that they would be accepted by teens. A retreat is a great way to introduce them to your vision for student ministry and if you already have some of your top current leaders there.

Finally I turn to the most effective servant leaders in the church. Even if they are not currently serving in student ministry or people that couldn’t make a weekly commitment.  It’s my belief that good leaders tend to lead well, regardless of the the age context. It also gives your ministry exposure to church influencers at its peak, which is never a bad thing.

What about parents?  Some of the mentioned above will be parents, and that is actually a great thing. if they can take their parent hat off and lead well. That’s not an easy task I’m learning, I have a student of my own in middle school, but it’s vital for the health of any student ministry. A parent with a chaperone mentality (observe, police and little relational effort) can change the tone and experience for students in a negative way. Clarity is vital for all of your leadership partners, it is especially so for those who are also parents of participating students. Set expectations early and repeat them.

Give Students a voice.

Not so much in the planning of the event, although that can be helpful, but more during the event. The fall retreat can really serve as a catalyst for consistent engagement throughout the year if the weekend is used to leverage student leadership. A couple of ways that can be done.

Ask students what scripture/topics they want to hear teaching/talks on (small group time on retreat may be a venue for this). This gives you the opportunity to learn “where your students are.” Even if you can’t plan a teaching series on every suggestion. You know where their head and hearts are.

Give opportunity for service advertisements in your church during the weekend. This could be serving in children’s ministry, sponsoring a compassion child, or local ministry outside the church walls. Even challenge your students to “own” a ministry for the school year.

Stay up too late.

My best conversations with small groups of students have always seemed to happen later than the “official” lights out. In this age we have to be careful and aware of safe sanctuaries and best practices but there are still ways to have “real talk” with students.

One way is to plan “breaking curfew” without it feeling like its planned. When I have the opportunity to lead or be with a smaller group of students I look for things that have grabbed their attention throughout the day and then invite them to a conversation about it at night. Two or more leaders need to be present and never one on one, but its great to figure out a way to engage students outside the confine of the schedule.

Do these things add more planning and work? Yes. But doesn’t real renewal and transformation always mean more? The big things are important on a retreat and are what gets talked about, but in reality it’s the Christ centered relational “small” things that bring transformation and inspires kids to engage the Gospel.

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