Youth ministry trips can prove to be transformative experiences in the lives of students. We labor all year long in the grunt work of student ministry, pointing toward Jesus all the way. Often, the aha moment happens when we’re away from home.
You know the drill. You’re not in your group’s normal youth room; someone else just preached a sermon; and a kid comes up and asks, “Can we talk?” We live for those moments, don’t we? Of course we can talk!If the pay-off is life change, the investment in trips—a retreat experience, a week-long camp or a fun get-away where you finally can cash in relationally with kids (sans a program to run)—is worth it. That makes the work of planning (and the failures that come with that) worth every ounce of sweat, frustration and panic.
I’ve had my fair share of Can-we-talk? moments in youth ministry. To get to those, I’ve also had my fair share of logistical nightmares, as well as a few really, really big goofs. Here are a few of my aha moments, some of which followed fairly significant Oops! moments.
No. 1: To Technology or Not to Technology
Ten years ago, small wars were waged against teens and their parents about allowing cell phones on trips. Anymore, this is a tired battlefield. A decade ago, we spent a good amount of time policing who might have snuck a phone on the trip. On one trip, a room of boys smuggled a television and video game system. Hats off to them for their creativity!These days, more and more parachurch organizations, conferences, camps and retreat centers are utilizing technology in their programming. I have laid down my sword. We allow students to bring their gadgets but exercise wisdom and responsibility in doing so. We don’t want the distraction, but so often it supplements what is happening. Since ceasing that battle, I’ve seen more #tbt pics of mission trips and life-changing weeks than I see of anything else. I think that’s a win; and if you’re at a theme park, there’s no better way to communicate.My vote: technology. Permit it, and put this argument to rest once and for all.
No. 2: 15 too Many
As a student, I remember cramming into 15-passenger vehicles, and no one cared. Increasingly, those vehicles are viewed as exceptionally dangerous. Could you get into an accident in any vehicle? Of course, but here’s my 2 cents: Never, ever, ever put 15 kids in a 15-passenger van. Gorging a top-heavy vehicle with the weight of the bodies and luggage is an accident waiting to happen. Just don’t do it. What do you do instead? Try two 12-passenger vans with a luggage-only vehicle to reduce weight in the people vehicles. Drive the speed limit or less, and take more drivers than you have steering wheels so people can takes turns driving. No one wants to be eight hours from home with the stomach flu and no one to drive in his or her place.On a similar note, don’t rent charter busses so you can travel over night. You know how you feel at 4:45 a.m. when you try to drive through the night? That’s how those drivers feel, too, professional or not. One of our drivers scraped the side of an 18-wheeler once because he was dozing. We were 5 feet from burying students, and it totally fried our volunteers on that bus, who didn’t get any sleep anyway. That’s my opinion but totally not worth the risks associated.
No. 3: Food
Nothing screams student ministry trip as does pizza, ice cream, potato chips and sugary beverages. However, as you age in ministry, that kind of diet increasingly lands you flat on your back. The generation we’re serving is growing up in a more health-conscience state of mind. Mix in salads, and don’t overdose your group on sugar. By about the third day of a week-long experience you’ll pay for it.
No. 4: Sleep
I’ve planned my fair share of weeks of church camp, and I start the planning with sleep: when we will go to bed and when we will wake up. There is absolutely zero reason to ask students and volunteers to wake up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning.Sleep deprivation can make for some fertile ground for emotional manipulation, resulting in a higher number of low-quality decisions for Christ, as well as add to exhaustion, drama, conflict and stress. If it’s just a night or two, you may be able to get away with it, but not if it’s more. When the excitement of a week wears off on about Day 2 or 3, make sure you’ve got eight hours wedged into each night for rest, and throw in an hour of rest in the afternoon.
No. 5: Head Counts
One of the worst moments in my life was getting to a rest stop in Indiana after spending a week in Michigan and discovering we’d left two students in Michigan. We did the head count. We loaded two charter busses, a smaller church bus and a minivan. Still, we left an elder’s kid and his best friend snoozing away on a college campus in Michigan while we headed south.Oops.On the plus side, this is exactly why we had the minivan. A volunteer and his wife booked it back to the retreat site and retrieved the two kids without holding up the whole group. Still, that was embarrassing. Recruit a high school math teacher who is OCD and give him or her the list of kids who should be in each vehicle.
Make that two math teachers.
Also, to be completely candid, that particular incident wasn’t really my fault. I wasn’t leading that trip, but I was leading the one where I left two (different) kids at a conference center when we drove to the local mall for lunch.
No. 6: Prepare for Landing
One thing I learned from a veteran youth minister was to prepare for your arrival back at church. A lot of times, we’re so anxious to get home to our own beds, showers and families that we sprint to the finish without giving it much thought. However, he offered some great suggestions, and I’d like to pass them on to you.
First, take care to return together. For a parent, when four minivans arrive together instead of randomly during half an hour, it’s reassuring that you’ve stayed in a group. In order to do this, make plans to stop 30 minutes from home at a gas station. Everyone gets out (yes, including those who are sleeping), and the group works together to clean the vehicle. You huddle everyone up and talk about what a great trip it’s been. This will ensure your vehicles arrive together, as well as gives you the opportunity to challenge students to think about how they’ll answer the question, “How was your trip?” Parents don’t drop $100, $200, $500 or $1000 on a retreat, mission trip or conference to hear, “It was good. I’m really tired. Let me sleep.” Coach your students to come up with a “I learned…I felt…I think” response so parents will get some substance from their replies—and you’re giving them a half hour to think about it.
When you arrive back on site, finish strong. Shake every hand, pat every back, smile big, and talk up the experience. Compliment parents on how their kids did. Work the room.If possible, recruit a volunteer or another staff member at your church to stay at the church with any students whose parents haven’t arrived yet. This gives you and your volunteers a chance to go home and rest while fresh legs stand vigil with students whose parents apparently don’t own a watch, clock or cell phone.
No. 7: Youth Minister Goals
I have a weird obsession with arriving exactly at the time we announced we’d arrive. There is no better feeling in the world than telling parents three months before a retreat that we’ll arrive back at “about 10” and then pull into the church parking lot at 9:59. It just feels good. It’s weird, I know, but it also matters. Don’t be late, or parents will stop showing up at the time you’ve specified, and you’ll be standing with a kid for a half an hour waiting for Mom or Dad to take him or her home.
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There’s no doubt you crave those transformative moments in the lives of students more than anything. You pray hard for life changes; but if you’ve been in student ministry for more than a year, you know that for every van to reserve, a 15-year-old girl repents. For every menu to prepare and a million logistics to figure out, a teenage boy confesses sin at the end of a retreat. Pray the prayers for life change, and work your tail off on the details. You maximize the impact of trip experiences by doing both.