We asked three youth workers how they connect with students on retreats. Here’s what they said.
- Plan plenty of ‘organized down time’. Just down time isn’t enough, you need to deliberately plan it and provide ideas for activities students can do. Old-fashioned board games work wonders for instance, or planned short hikes, or sports games. These provide a great opportunity for talks.
- Organize evening/night walks. These have provided me with the best and deepest conversations over the years. There’s something about walking in the dark that makes students feel safe and thus open up.
- Make sure you have enough leaders during the retreat, so that you can spend time with students. The first few retreats I organized, I was just too busy to hang out with students. I learned from that and delegated more tasks to free myself.
- Recruit a support staff beyond your regular leaders to handle your logistics: transportation, cooking, last minute errands, etc. Parents and other caring adults from your community might just be waiting for a chance to contribute to your ministry outside the role of a regular volunteer. They might not want to lead middle school small groups, but if they love to cook or organize they could be invaluable to your team!
- I totally re-iterate Rachel’s point about organized down time. Don’t feel like you need to program everything about the weekend wall-to-wall. This is unlikely to feel like good news to you or your students, and we all know its the spontaneous moments of connection that are often the most meaningful and formational.
- Make it a priority for you and your leaders to invite students to have one-on-one conversations (obviously within appropriate safe church boundaries). When we seek students out and invite them to talk with us in a way that is mutual and authentic, it reminds them that they’re seen and provides space for them to share some of the deeper stuff. And Rachel has a great point – there’s something about walking together under the stars that is just magical.
(1) You’ve heard it already but down time is huge! Explore, play, laugh, sleep! I probably lean more towards the unstructured free time than Morgan and Rachel do but it accomplishes the same purpose. I love when a suburban junior high student comes up to me all muddy and smelly, “How much more free time?” My answer “Two hours!” Purposefully divide your adult team during these times but allow student to recapture wonder and nature by giving them the gift of time.
(2) Help free up your time by empowering adult leaders to problem-solve and discipline. Spend time on the front end modeling for them what is important (safety, including others, respecting property, etc) and what is not important. For instance, I don’t battle “lights out time” and “mandatory morning devos on your own” like I used to. All our weekend schedules now read “in room time” and I program devotions as a part of a large group experience.
(3) Night time is a powerful time to be with students. Don’t be an early-to-bed person on trips! Time away with students is the world series of youth ministry so give it everything you have. Late at night you will find me learning a new card game, counseling someone, playing basketball, or sitting by the fire with a group of students. Am I tired the next day? Yes but since I’ve empowered my volunteers and planned well, the retreat carries on.