One of the most basic and important elements of working in youth ministry is being able to plan a retreat. It is inevitable that you will be planning one within the first few months in a church or at a camp, whether on internship or a new call. Retreats are part of the make-up we use to enhance community and help students grow deeper in their relationship with God. There are all types of retreats, for different audiences, and which serve various purposes. There’s no “one way” to do it, but here are a few key steps to follow in pursuit of planning a first-rate retreat.
1. Determine Purpose — This is the first and, what I would say, the most important step. The definition of “retreat” is to withdraw with a group for prayer, meditation, study, etc… If there is not a purpose in mind, the retreat loses its significance. If there is a purpose and goals sets for the retreat, then all the planned Bible studies and activities enhance the quality of the experience for each participant. Is the purpose mainly spiritual growth? Or community-building? A purpose for the retreat also can be a step in deepening relationships in the community and helping students grow with God.
2. Who is your audience? — The next step is to understand the audience. Are you planning a confirmation retreat, or it is for high school students? The planning process will vary depending on the audience because of developmental differences. The way you approach community-building and the topic of discussion will change based on the age group you are working with. If you are working on the assumption of planning a general retreat, it could be less effective. The more specific the retreat can be planned for a specific audience, the better experience for the group.
3. Select a theme/topic for Bible study — It’s only appropriate that a retreat has a theme, or main topic of discussion and Bible study. Brainstorm topics that may be of interest to the students, whether they are hot topics or faith questions. Perhaps use a popular movie or television show and select themes for life application. For example, if the topic is prayer, plan prayer stations or more experiential elements that engage the students in understanding a broader topic. If you have an idea and the time, don’t be afraid to write your own Bible study, but set aside enough time to flesh out the topic and really make it worthwhile. If time is a factor, borrow a study from a fellow youth worker, or explore your resources. It’s OK to use a curriculum; that’s why they are written! The more relevant the topic, the better students will engage and take something away from the retreat.
4. Location, location, location! — Location is important and the fact that the planning is for a “retreat” should mean that it occurs away from church, home, etc… How far should we go? What kind of facilities do we need? What are the sleeping arrangements? These are among the questions to ask as you are researching potential retreat sites. From my experience, going too far can be more of a burden, and going within a couple hours distance is far enough away, but a manageable drive. Most camps offer year-round weekend getaways and offer great facilities at affordable costs. The location should be a place where everyone can relax, and, even preferably, a place where the availability of technology is limited (i.e. cell phone signal is low; students will probably still bring the phone, but if they can’t use them, it prevents withdrawal from the group). It’s pretty amazing how retreating in God’s creation, away from the busyness and distractions, can only enhance a student’s experience.
5. Schedule — When planning a retreat, the amount of days away and how time is scheduled is a significant decision. Weekend retreats are an ideal amount of time, because it’s a short, but still enough quality time to relax, get to know each other and meditate on Scripture. Ideally, regardless of a junior or senior high audience, the retreat needs to be longer than just one night. It takes time for a group to get to know one another on a deeper level. If only one night is possible, plan activities and studies that are to the point and purposeful for the group. In a weekend retreat schedule, allow hang-out time as well as time to run off energy. The younger the group, the more they need to exert energy and participate in some physical activity in order for them to be able to function the best in a retreat setting.
6. Community-building – If the main goal of a retreat is to build community among the participants, there are plenty of elements to consider. Community-building is not just about relationships being formed, but how it’s done and who is a part of the process. Brainstorm activities that are purposeful, especially trust walks,/falls, which require the group to work together and communicate in new and challenging ways. If you are at a camp, there is likely a challenge course or ropes course available. Talk to the camp director ahead of time and ask if there will be a trained facilitator available to take your group through the course.
It’s also helpful to have other leaders/helpers on the retreat to promote relational growth. Select adults who already may play a significant role in your youth ministry. It’s important for the students to feel comfortable in their retreat setting, since they will likely be taken out of their “box” in other ways during the retreat. In addition to adult leaders, ask yourself, “Is this a retreat where students can mentor one another?” Perhaps it’s a junior high retreat where senior high students can get involved? Or a senior high retreat where college students can gain some leadership experience? These types of mentors are key participants, because they are setting an example to help younger students understand the idea of serving others. Also, older student participation promotes excitement for younger students to join the high school or college ministry in the future and bonds will have already formed when the transition takes place.
7. FOOD! — What’s a youth event of any sort without food, really? There are a few possible options for food when you are planning a retreat, specifically. Depending on the location, food may be provided by a camp or retreat center. Food service may bring the cost down (or up!), but make sure its quality and specifically meets the needs of your group. Another route to be taken is to bring and make your own food. In the past several confirmation retreats I have participated in, we have planned the meals, bought the food and brought it with us to make. While this requires more work and cost for the leadership, it has been a valuable and memorable experience. With this route, students sign up to help with meals and spending the time to serve the food teaches them about serving others and values their participation and gifts.
8. Cost — If a retreat is the “main event” for a youth group during the year, there is probably money in the budget to be used. While it is unlikely that a church can pay for the event and all the participants, look at what is available and set some aside to supplement the cost for students. Money should not be a factor in the decision-making process for a family, so as planning is taking place, choose options that are cost-effective and affordable, while still creating a quality event. For most retreats, the lodging is the largest cost, so if students only have to pay for that, and the rest can be supplemented by the youth budget, this is a good way to go. Also, when researching locations, ask if there are church discounts available, since many retreat centers/camps host retreats on a regular basis.
In the end, and the beginning and the middle, PRAY! Keeping God and His purpose in the forefront of our minds as we plan retreats, keeps everything in perspective and ultimately makes it worthwhile for both the youth and for you!