For the first couple of retreats you attend as a youth pastor, bedtimes are irrelevant to you. “This is where the real ministry happens,” you say to yourself. “Besides, I can sleep when I get home.”

Then you start to get a little older, and the late nights become more of a burden. Even for you night owls out there, you need to keep in mind that your volunteers don’t have as flexible a job as you do. They are expected to be at work Monday morning, and their bosses don’t really care where they’ve been—not to mention the fact that parents don’t appreciate getting their children home utterly sleep-deprived. Tired? Fine. Worthless to the world? Not so much.

So how can you get your cabin of young people to fall asleep, and how can you train your volunteers to do the same?

First, you need to have realistic expectations. A bedtime before 11 p.m. is simply unlikely given the excitement of retreats. Figure out what makes the most sense for a bedtime, and start out with some flexibility.

Second, have the right gear. For your own sanity and ability to sleep, I recommend a combination of three must-haves for retreat sleeping: ear plugs, a sleep mask and a small battery-powered fan to create white noise. This may be overkill for some, but don’t underestimate how much uninterrupted sleep can help you on a retreat. The key at that point will be to make sure you also have a very loud alarm.

Now to the issue of getting your students down.

My first recommendation is to get everyone quiet and find a student to pray. Yes, it might be a bit manipulative and may not do the trick, but it can serve a spiritual and practical purpose: It can calm students down a bit and help connect them to God, reminding them they’re not just there for themselves.

The second option (which always can be used in conjunction with the first) is the graduated goodnight. You make an announcement to your cabin that the lights are going off in 10 or 15 minutes, and you set a timer on your watch or phone. At that point, you turn off most of the lights (or at least all except the bathroom lights) and give them a bit more time to get settled. It’s at this point your tone has to change.

You must go from good cop to bad cop in about three steps.

Step One: Good Cop
“OK, everyone, it’s time to get quiet. We need to go to sleep.” You have a smile on your face. Your tone is light-hearted.

Step Two: Half Good Cop, Half Bad Cop
“Hey, everyone? Please. It’s time to be quiet.” You are not smiling, but you’re not upset. Your tone is firm, but not angry.

Step Three: Bad Cop
“Guys. Seriously. I need you to be quiet. Right. Now.” There is no hint of a smile in your demeanor. You are now using your firm voice, and the tone has changed dramatically. It may even get a little uncomfortable in the room, which is fine. You aren’t angry, but you’re close. For them to get the message, they may need to experience a little bit of healthy fear, because the reality is that if steps one through three fail, you will find yourself at step four, which is where you start to freak out.

Nobody wants to see a youth leader freak out. Good luck and happy sleeping!

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About The Author

Syler Thomas is a native Texan who has worked as a pastor at Christ Church Lake Forest in Illinois since 1998. He writes a column for Youthworker Journal, has had articles published in Leadership Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and enjoys acting in the occasional play. He believes with all of his heart that the Cubs will one day win the World Series, and he and his wife Heidi have four kids.

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