My first kiss was at a church retreat, after I snuck away from the rest of the group. I think that says it all about my experiences with retreats as a youth.

As a middle school youth leader now, I remember all too vividly what it was like to be a thirteen-year-old. If you would’ve told me then that I’d grow up to work with kids just like my little teen self–and that I’d love it–I would’ve called you crazy.

I love middle school ministry because middle school is an incredibly rich time to impact students with meaningful, meaty answers to their many questions about life and faith. At precisely this age, kids are beginning to question the faith of their childhood and make it their own faith. They’re looking for ways to actively apply spiritual principles to their daily lives, and they’re passionate and excited about acting out what they’ve been taught. Research proves over and over again that these few years provide some of the most “bang for your buck” in regards to faith development. What students learn in middle school about their faith will impact them for the rest of their lives.

Planning a retreat for middle schoolers is an opportunity for you to invest in the growth of your students’ spiritual lives, build relationships with them, and have a lot of fun together. Done properly, I believe a retreat can have a life-long impact.

Below are some tips to help you plan and carry out your own successful middle school retreat.

Focus on Your Group

Obviously, you know who exactly you’re planning this retreat for. But, can you honestly identify who they are? Take some time to understand the unique peculiarities of this particular group–what’s going on in their lives? Where are they in their spiritual development? What struggles do they face?

Do some research. Think of yourself as a missionary, seeking to understand a new culture. You won’t be able to plan an effective, impacting retreat unless you
can first figure out what is on the hearts and minds of those you seek to work with. I’m constantly keeping my eyes open for hints as to what my students are going through, what’s stressing them out, and what they’re asking questions about–I constantly use casual conversations and comments from Facebook to custom-design my Bible studies, activities, and events. A retreat is no different, in this respect.

In observing my middle school students, I noticed that there was a definite draw toward all things mysterious–and that our kids were really searching for answers regarding topics like spiritual warfare, demons, and angels. Together with our pastor of student ministries, we crafted a fall retreat to revolve entirely around these topics. The result? Kids and leaders were not only drawn to the retreat like bees on honey, but they were incredibly impacted.

Nail Down Your Site

It’s a challenging balance to find the right place for your group. Take into account your group’s needs, as well as your preferences for the retreat. It may be helpful to write down a list of “must-haves” and “really-wants”: Do you need guys and girls to be separated in two totally separate buildings? Is it essential that you have a large open space outside for games, or can you contain everything indoors? Do you want leaders to sleep on the floor, or will leaders get their own beds? Is it really a good idea to let your middle school kids run loose on the Strip in Vegas?

Once you’ve written your list, take a good look at your potential sites. Check out what they offer–does it meet your “must-have” list? Visit the sites, if you can, or speak with the site’s planning coordinator and ask him or her for specifics about the site.

For middle school kids, it’s always helpful to pick a location in which they can have some unstructured free time, which can be easily monitored by your adult leaders. Middle schoolers crave freedom, and will respect you all the more if you give it to them in small doses. Give them a chance to demonstrate that they can indeed be responsible and mature, and they won’t disappoint. Just keep a careful eye on those eighth grade boys.

Create a Theme

Everyone remembers those not-really-a-holiday-but-an-excuse-to-get-out-of-class-anyway parties you used to have in your grade school classes, right? The best ones, by far, were always the highly-themed parties. That principle holds true for retreat planning, too. The best retreats are those that have a clear, communicable theme. Think in terms of something that sticks in people’s minds, and something that would pique a stranger’s interest in the event.

Often, potentially great events falter because their planner has failed to think of an exciting name for the event. Think of catchy and unique names–sometimes just a
single word can make an incredible impression. If you struggle with coming up with a name, grab the nearest sixteen-year-old you can and have them name it for you.

A personal example: I advertised a youth event last Christmas by playing up one particular activity we would be doing, “Gingerbread Head”. Yes, the game was just as messy as it sounds (and what youth leader doesn’t enjoy spending an extra hour cleaning sprinkles and frosting off the floor, right?), but by exciting the curiosity of my youth with that unusual name, I ended up having kids inviting their entire classrooms at school to come to that event. Our usual crowd tripled in size–all because of the right name.

Invest in A Team

This past fall, after I had worked tirelessly for six months planning a gigantic middle school retreat, I came down with H1N1–less than two weeks before the retreat started. I had piles of work to do at the office, but I was entombed in my bedroom, suffering through feverish chills for well over a week. If I had been the lone ranger in charge of this entire retreat, it simply wouldn’t have happened. There was just no way I could wrap up all the final details all by myself.

Fortunately, I had invested in a team of incredible leaders, who picked up the pace while I was out of the office and handled everything without breaking a sweat. I was
obviously still involved, but these leaders handled every last detail–transportation, communication, room assignments, supplies, schedules–without me.

One of the toughest lessons I’ve learned in my few years of ministry is that it’s absolutely essential for a youth leader to invest in other leaders. You simply can’t do it all. In fact, Jesus himself invested in twelve leaders (and was closest to three of them!), who eventually spread the Gospel all over the world.

Is it hard to trust others to do something? Yes, of course. However, when I consider that I am not only following the leadership model that my Savior set forth for me but I’m also empowering a whole team of leaders who will reach more kids than I ever possibly could, I see how important it is. In youth ministry, it’s essential to train yourself out of a job.

Plan for Variety

As I already mentioned, the middle school years are a fertile ground for spiritual seeds. These kids are in the midst of questioning their childhood faith and discovering what they actually believe, and for this reason many of them are experiencing very serious doubts. They’re seeking ways to apply spiritual principles to their lives, but they still need to be coached on the specifics of how to do this. Because they are so passionate and energetic, they will most likely be your biggest cheerleaders and most enthusiastic servants. It’s important for you, as a leader, to direct this energy and gently remind them that even when they’re not feeling the “mountaintop high” in their
faith, God is still with them.

Because middle schoolers are growing and changing rapidly (and at varying rates), an activity that one student might like is one that another might hate. Keep your activities full of variety and focus on “living lessons”, rather than lectures. They learn best through kinesthetic activities and object lessons.

They respond well to tasks that require responsibility on their part.

Try to plan activities where all the kids participate, instead of just one individual at a time. Plan your activities well so you avoid pauses–thirty seconds of dead time means you’ll spend five minutes trying to get the kids refocused. At the same time, give the kids time to unwind, and plenty of time to process things.

All the Little Details

As the popular saying goes, “The devil’s in the details.” Yes, he probably is–because he wants to drive you bonkers.

The fine details of planning a retreat include the whats, wheres, and hows of everything you’ll be doing. Let’s work with retreat transportation, for a quick example. You need to know who’s driving, where they’re meeting you, what their cell phone numbers are, which students are going to be in their vehicles, what maps you can give them, how you’re going to reimburse them for gas, and so on.

I’d suggest keeping several separate files within one main file to cover your big details: budget, transportation, site information, contact information for both leaders and students, permission forms and medical forms, food, activities, worship, and Bible study sessions. It’s always helpful to keep all of this information backed up on a flash drive or hard drive, in case you need a quick copy (or you happen to somehow set your paper folders on fire…)

Have Fun

At their core, retreats are all about connecting with kids to impact them for Christ on a deeper level than you can do at a normal event. Having a perfectly run event is not nearly as important as building your relationships with students and leaders in order to show God in a very personal way to them. You are not meant to be known as the “Youth Leader Behind The Clipboard” all weekend.

The wisest advice I received before my wedding was, “There are two weddings: the wedding you plan, and the wedding that actually happens. Accept both.”

The same holds true for retreats. No doubt you’ll plan your retreat perfectly–but the chances are high that your perfect retreat won’t actually happen. You’ll forget something important, your leaders will make a mistake, your students may break something, and your carefully chosen worship songs or activities will flop. Keep that smile on your face and don’t panic. God has certainly worked incredible events through some pretty messed up people before, and He’ll do it in your case, too.

Handle Those Middle Schoolers

Here’s a little secret I learned very quickly: there’s no set way to handle middle school kids. Due to the wide variety of kids going through totally different emotional, physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual stages, it’s pretty hard to put any middle schooler in a box. In order to know how to effectively deal with these young teens, you do need to be aware of some major issues that they’re all going through.

Puberty is perhaps the most obvious–their bodies are changing, and they’re hyperaware of it. As a leader, you shouldn’t single kids out or draw attention to them
individually. Even something as innocent as yelling, “Hey, Chad!” when a student is walking into a room is attention that makes many of them very uncomfortable. For this same reason, you won’t get most middle schoolers willing to participate in activities like karaoke or impromptu skit games in front of a large group. If you want them to enjoy activities, do large group games that are, for the most part, physically easy and don’t require all eyes to be fastened on one individual at a time. As a rule of thumb, anything that makes kids visibly nervous as you’re explaining it is probably not going to be a well-received activity.

Socially and emotionally, these kids are on a rollercoaster. Friends and social status are more important than ever–yet many kids are still desperately trying to
navigate the challenging waters of acceptance. At the same time, they are becoming more independent, and most are starting to fight seriously with their parents. They struggle with self-esteem, and with alternating feelings of happiness and depression. It helps to address these issues head-on, and sharing your personal experiences may be beneficial to these kids–if for no other reason to show that someone can survive middle school. It’s a tough time for every single kid. As I tell my students, “There’s a reason you don’t ever hear adults talking about how they would love to go back and experience middle school again.”

Intellectually, middle schoolers are transitioning from concrete thinking to abstract thinking. For example, concrete thinking would say, “rocks sink”, while abstract thinking would say, “rocks sink because their density is greater than the density of water.” They’re idealistic, and are developing their problem-solving skills. They’re also starting to question what they’ve been taught (remember that independence setting in?).

Middle schoolers absolutely love establishing relationships with leaders, unlike their older teen counterparts. The time that you spend with the kids is what they’ll
really remember. They realize that you are investing time and energy in them, and they appreciate it–even though they probably won’t tell you that. Kids in this age range respond well to a diverse mix of leaders, including parents, high school and college students, young adults, and older adults. In addition, middle schoolers relate well to you when you share some of your embarrassing moments. Don’t be afraid to let the kids laugh at you.

However, be aware that one of the trademark traits of these kids is their constant testing of your boundaries. They will try to see how far they can push you. Set up clear expectations and boundaries, and keep them–don’t let their constant nagging change your decisions.

Take Notes

After your retreat, make sure you take notes to better prepare you for future events. The day after you get back, sit down and spend fifteen minutes writing down
everything that went really well and everything that didn’t go so smoothly. Have your students and leaders fill out evaluations so they can give you some insight into what they thought went well, and what could be improved. Trust me–if you don’t write it down, you forget it pretty quickly. Be honest, and be accurate–and your ministry events will just keep on getting better.

Give Glory to God

That temptation to pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for accomplishing a successful retreat is always there. Sure, you worked hard–but Who gave you the brains to plan this baby in the first place? You can be proud of your well-run event, but at the same time be humble–give credit to the Holy Spirit working in you, in your leaders, and in your students.

As you work on planning your next middle school retreat, my hope is that in everything, Christ is your focus. Be prayerful and open to His promptings. You have a special charge that’s been given to you in your middle schoolers–they are ripe for eternal impact. God will continue to use you to reach students, families, and those in your community, and this retreat may be one of the most powerful ways in which He works.

Oh, and if two of your youth just happen to be smooching at your retreat? No worries–they have a pretty good chance at turning out just fine. I did, after all.