Every year we have a retreat to help bridge the chasm in between the end of eighth grade and the beginning of ninth. We used to assume the transition would happen automatically, and the eighth graders would be as excited to come to high school as we were to have them there. We lost a lot of kids through this assumption.
After a lot of trial and error, here’s what we do:
Friday afternoon upperclassmen go to the retreat sight to set up Midnight Olympics. Freshmen meet at the church at 10pm. Immediately upon arrival at the retreat sight, freshmen are greeted by upperclassmen saying, “You’re on my team.” The next two-three hours are spent doing crazy, messy games. The next day we sleep in.
After breakfast there is worship and the first talk: New Youth Group. An upperclassmen explains what to expect, how to plug in, and what they wish they had known as freshmen.
There is free time then another burst of worship and the second talk: New Friends. An upperclassmen explains that who you hang out with affects your choices enormously and gives advice for how to choose and keep good friends. They also advise on how to be a good friend in high school.
We eat lunch and go on a float trip.
After the float trip, we are ravenous. We eat 32 pizzas (give or take). There is another time of worship and the third talk: New Choices. An upperclassmen explains our choices affect those around us and life is not just about ourselves. She gives advice for making good choices, and encourages seeking friendship with adults who love Jesus.
It would be bedtime, but every year the legend of Capture the Flag grows. We play capture the flag until we are so tired we collapse.
The next morning we have an extended time of worship and our final talk: New Relationship with God. An upperclassmen explains it is up to you to chose whether or not you are “in”. If you are, it is up to you to embrace the disciplines that help you stay in love with Jesus. “Take this seriously, because it totally matters,” he says. We worship some more, pray, and eat lunch.
After lunch the underclassmen have their first small groups where they make a covenant together with their leaders. “ You get to decide what this will be and what you stand for”, they are told, and they rise to the challenge. Meanwhile, the upperclassmen clean then head off with an adult. They spend the rest of the day eating and debriefing. After the first small group, we go home.
We have found over the past several years, those who go on the Freshman Retreat tend to stay instead of disappear. Transitions are worth doing well because it matters that much.
Now we start scheming early so that (ideally) every student is registered for the Freshman Retreat before they graduate eighth grade. Here is our template:
March: Reserve location, start watching high school juniors to see which are especially good at including others.
April: Recruit small group leaders for rising ninth graders. Give these leaders the dates and persuasively invite them to the Freshman Retreat.
May: Invite students at eighth grade graduation ceremony. Place a registration form in every student’s hand.
June: Recruit rising high school seniors to run retreat alongside youth minister. Remember the transition from middle to high school together. Invite upperclassmen into the opportunity to affirm and welcome eighth graders.
July: Have two meetings with upperclassmen.
At the first meeting hand out responsibilities. Each upperclassmen will lead a talk. Assign topics, walk through a schedule, and teach how to deliver a talk. Set your second meeting.
At the second meeting, upperclassmen give their talk. You give kind feedback. Run through the schedule again and ask if there are any questions.
August: Go time!