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Confessions from a Failed Retreat Leader

By Rebecca Kruyswijk | Associate Editor, Bible Study Magazine -- Logos Bible Software | December 29 2010

Your ideas aren't that new. What you're doing has been done before—in a different way—and perhaps even done better. That's OK. Our fresh ideas are products of many other bright ideas.

I find this liberating, particularly when it comes to youth ministry. Recognizing this helped me acknowledge that I need to be influenced by other people with more experience, but it wasn't a painless lesson.

My work in youth ministry started with enough enthusiasm to frighten any high school student. I was barely older than those I was supervising. The leadership team I worked with organized events for several churches throughout the year, which culminated in a weekend retreat. Our team members—equipped with varying levels of experience—had a passion for outreach, and we were going to do it all on our own.

What should have been a weekend of spiritual refreshment wasn't.

I've thought about that weekend often—about what went right and what didn't. The truth is, we did do some things right. We planned. We prayed. We thought about the message we wanted to communicate. We were effective. There were those who attended our retreat who left refreshed and encouraged in their faith.

When I think of the things that didn't go right, I can't help but trace it back to a lack of respect for others' ideas. Our team had no immediate authority to whom we could defer, which rather suited us at the time. Suggestions from past youth leaders were dismissed without much consideration. We were honest and open with our chaperones—honest that they would spend the weekend cooking in the kitchen.

We learned from our experience, and our experiences informed the way we continued to conduct our ministry. The failures made me realize that if we intentionally had sought out mentors who would have guided us and prayed with us, we could have been more effective leaders to our young (and not-so-much-younger) charges.

So, what could the newbie youth leader take from this?

A simple approach to leadership might involve observing the ways others interact with youth. This is the first step for aspiring teachers, so it makes sense that new youth leaders would want to do the same. Observe behaviors and attitudes that you would like to mirror, improve or avoid. Study the way students respond to leaders. Are they effective?

It's sometimes difficult to have perspective about our own leadership abilities. For that reason, have others observe your interaction with your youth group. Intentionally seek criticism and communicate intentional vulnerability to your observers.

Try finding mentors who have worked in a similar leadership capacity. Meet regularly with them to discuss challenges and set goals. Talk with them about your vision for the ministry. Ideally, this would be someone within the church community you're serving. Don't be afraid to voice your ideas, but be ready for criticism and feedback. Be ready to re-imagine how your ideas will come into play.

Innovative ideas, passion and action are essential. Tempering them with a little experience and wisdom is the next step.

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