The collaborative multi-church retreat is a beautiful dream. It’s a powerful dream, and I have a hunch that most youth workers in America have some version of it rattling around in their heads.

Perhaps it spawns from our experiences at national youth ministry conferences. We see all the different denominations represented. We worship with amazing bands and listen to incredible speakers. Suddenly the hamsters in our minds start running on the wheel. We dream. We Google all the churches within an hour radius of our churches. We do the math. Maybe we could get 10 other churches to buy in to the idea? We’ll get Andy Stanley as the speaker. Hillsong United will lead worship. We’ll play amazing games and have a drama team that could win an Oscar. Oh, and we’ll re-enact that YouTube video of the skit using the song “Everything” by Lifehouse. Minds will be blown. Lives will be changed.

The reality of these events can be quite different from what we imagine our dreams. Having different denominations involved is a great goal, but the theological differences can be tricky. Churches already do many retreats and have full calendars. Adding something means taking away something, which makes things complicated. Worse yet, it can be really hard to make all the different churches happy. We try to gather ideas from everyone and piece something together. Instead of building a dream retreat, we end up with a piecemealed Frankenstein monster. We end up with a camel (a.k.a. a committee-designed horse).

However, there are the fortunate few who have a truly great collaborative retreat with multiple churches in their areas. I am one such youth director. Annually in the fall, approximately 600 middle school students and their leaders from churches in our area come together for a retreat we call Breakaway. Our local youth ministry network has been doing this retreat for almost 20 years, and we’ve learned a few things along the way.

Don’t Be Afraid to Start Small
One of the first mistakes we can make when starting a multi-church retreat is wanting it to be huge right from the beginning. Breakaway started small—very small—one-church kind of small. The youth pastor decided to partner with another church. It went that way for a couple years until a third church joined. A few years later, two more churches joined. It’s grown that way so we now have 25 churches involved.

It’s much easier to invite churches to join something you already are doing, but we can’t invite them to the retreat we don’t like or are not doing well. No one wants to board a sinking ship. Invite people into something healthy and helpful.

It’s best first to reach out to a small handful of churches. Three churches coming together and doing something great is far better than 10 churches coming together and doing something OK. People are drawn to excellence. We always can invite more churches later.

Someone needs to be in charge. This may be counter-intuitive for those of us whose dream is a room with a big round table where there is no leader, where everyone shares and has equal parts responsibility and authority, and we end the meeting holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Maybe that works some places, but it wasn’t our experience. For us, the leader is Meg, and she’s awesome. It wasn’t always Meg, but there always has been someone who served as the overall leader. That person leads and makes the final call. He or she communicates with the campground, handles the finances, schedules and moderates the meetings, and delegates elements of the retreat to team members.

Surprisingly, our team does not get together all that often. Its size and function has shifted through the years. For instance, when there was a change in the leadership, the team grew a little to make sure the handoff went well. Everyone on the team has a role, and they have authority in that role. No one is simply there as a voice. The team does a lot of its work independently. There is trust, but also accountability. When we have meetings, we come prepared. We share what we have planned and receive feedback. After all, if it weren’t for deadlines, many of us never would get anything done.

The Speakers
We don’t bring in well-known speakers everyone has heard of before. This is primarily due to cost. However, the few times we did stretch and bring in a big name, we noticed we got a few more new churches to come that year. It’s a perspective you may not have considered, but the truth is youth don’t tend to care about famous people, while the youth leaders do. We dream of Andy Stanley and Hillsong United; but it’s the adults who line up to see them, not the students. Hiring big names is not pointless, but the benefits may not be exactly what you expect.

There Are No Big Deals
It’s simple math: The more churches that get involved, the more moving parts there are. The more moving parts there are, the more things can (and will) go wrong. Groups will bring half the number of people for whom they reserved spots—or who cancel altogether. Youth directors will beg to add students at the last minute. Kids might get hurt. Speakers might be running late. The money will get (very) tight.

One year at Breakaway, the electricity went out for about four hours. The worship team did an unplugged set by candlelight. It was awesome. One year, we put a complete idiot in charge of the T-shirts—and that idiot was me. I ordered the wrong sizes, and we didn’t sell near enough to cover costs.

It’s important to roll with the punches. This is doubly important during weekends. We want students to remember Christ and what He is saying to them, not how something bad happened that caused the adults to flip out. A few years ago, our speaker spent part of his talk giving a sales pitch for a product he was launching. One youth pastor was incredibly upset afterward and pulled the leadership aside and privately explained how he thought that what the speaker did was wrong. If he had done that in front of the students, all they would have remembered from the weekend was how their youth director lost it. It could have been an epic fail; but because he handled it appropriately, it wasn’t.

While it is always important not to vent in front of the students, it is all the more important during a multi-church retreat. You don’t want youth pastors from other churches going home only remembering the leadership responding poorly to a situation. Have appropriate places where people can give feedback. Otherwise, it comes out in inappropriate ways and places.

The Point of It All
Collaboration gives us more resources than we’ll have alone. It creates opportunities for our students that we cannot offer when we don’t work with others. Collaboration kills the temptation to over-plan. Because we are working with so many different churches, we have to allow for a lot of time for individual groups to do their own thing. In fact, there is only so much time on a weekend retreat that we can plan. The average weekend retreat is about 40 hours in total. Take away the hours of sleeping, eating and the sessions, and we are left with a shockingly small amount of time left on the schedule.

Collaboration can help eliminate the unnecessary. It beautifully encourages us away from time wasters. We spend far too much time on things that do not matter. We must stop trying to decide between two fonts that are practically identical, or spending an entire day looking for just the right YouTube clip. Collaborating with others keeps us accountable and doesn’t allow for the tunnel-visioning that happens when we act as Lone Rangers. When a project becomes a joint effort, especially an effort with other churches, the disbursement of responsibilities intrinsically helps us identify our strengths and weaknesses. We then get to focus on the one, and release the other. (Because, unlike working alone, there is now someone there to whom we are able to release it!)

Collaboration will provide ideas you never thought of on your own. We learn to help one another stretch creatively. The group doesn’t let us settle on our first draft. You can think of creativity as the brain’s ability to connect the dots of the things we know and understand in the world. When we bring more people into the creative process, not only do we increase the amount of dots in play, but also the ability to connect them all. When brains combine, the cognitive power jumps exponentially.

Collaboration allows for us to spread the Word of God more effectively, and I’d argue more completely. Giving students a better understanding of a kingdom mindset is wonderful, and a collaborative multi-church retreat is a great way to let them see a little taste of how big the kingdom can be.

This is the way is should work. More important, it is the way it can work. I testify to this as a firsthand witness. The dream is real, and the nightmare can be avoided. So, dream big, and steer clear of the camel.

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About The Author

Jonathan is the director of youth ministries at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, Pennsylvania. He has worked in professional youth ministry for more than 16 years, including churches in New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. He has spoken and/or led worship for multiple camps, retreats and events around the country. He took karate in high school because he thought it would help make him cool. He was wrong. Jonathan and his wife, Carolyn, have two beautiful daughters, Kaylin and Julia. He loves golf, can juggle two balls skillfully, and does a halfway decent impression of Kermit the Frog. He's also a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @jonhobbstweets.

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