Okay. So I'm still on that summer youth camp retreat high. Like in a mega way. Do you know what I'm talking about? That feeling that you and your teens will absolutely take over the world easy peezy style, slay giants, get crowns, own the streets, all while proclaiming the beautiful name of Jesus.
There were tears, there were laughs, there were unexplainable creatures and events, and there were once in a lifetime memories made. And I can honestly say that I love my teens more than I did before. And my own passion and love for God has been stirred and awakened in a way that I'd never expected. I mean, I was coordinating this whole thing. But even so, God met me in the midst of it all. He's so GOOD like that.
So back to my summer youth camp retreat high...That feeling that you're almost floating because something that took months to plan finally came to fruition. But not only did it come to fruition, but it played out about a million times better than you could have ever imagined.
If you are a youth leader, youth pastor, or you got conned into being a chaperone/planner/fundraiser/driver for your next youth group retreat. Have no fear! I have some tips to share with you to make this process a bit less painful, and a lot more satisfying. Not just for you, but for the kids and teens (and even young adults) that this may be for.
Now, a little backstory on me:
I've been involved in different youth ministries since my early childhood years. Does the word AWANA mean anything to you. If not...I'm sorry. AWANA was legend. But let's move forward.
Fast forward. I became a "spiritual life advisor" at my undergrad college and then I became a youth leader for a fairly large junior high and high school ministry while I was finishing up my senior year of college. After graduating from Pepperdine and heading to USC for my graduate studies, God led me to a small "mom and pop" church in Los Angeles.
At this point in time, I was burnt-out on church, on Christians, on people, etc. But I felt so at home at this small church that I just kept going every Sunday.
And then the pastors asked me, if I would ever be interested in heading up a youth ministry for their church since they didn't have one yet. I did the normal thing and simply said, "Um...I'll pray about it." Translation: "UM HEEZEY NO."
But trying to outrun the call only makes you more frustrated.
And so in 2007, I said yes. I said yes to leading a youth ministry that had ZERO kids. I mean. How hard could that possibly be?
Well after I said yes, they miraculously started showing up. I don't know how these kids even found out. But they did.
And our youth group was an age range of 11-15 year olds those first couple of years. There was probably about 10 kids all together. That was plenty for me. Because I didn't feel like I knew what I was completely doing. And I didn't want to risk messing up the minds of our future generations in mass numbers. So small was GREAT for me.
It still astounds me how much my pastors trusted (and still trust) me so completely. I mean, I could have been a complete wack job. But in those early years (and as I still do presently), I desperately leaned on God to get me through every lesson, create every curriculum, activity, prayer time, teaching style etc. Because I felt strongly that I was not meant to model this small youth group on the mega youth groups and ministries that I had been apart of. I felt strongly that God wanted to do a new model. Which involved me being in a lot of prayer to hear what the heck that model was suppose to look like. (I'll share in more detail regarding what that model has evolved into over the years, in future posts)
Meanwhile, God sent me amazing youth leaders like Dina in those first few years. Everyone should have a Dina. Someone who understood that teenagers were not to be feared or to be caged, but needed opportunity to sincerely connect and be adventurous. My youth ministry gained its heartbeat because of this woman.
And then a few more teens (or "kids" as I call them) started coming. And the natural progression of things seemed to point towards a youth retreat. Honestly, the thought had never crossed my mind. But Dina had pitched it to me.
And then I remembered, all of my profound memories of encountering God as a young person had to do with being at a camp or on some retreat with my peers. How could I have forgotten how monumental these trips were in building community, strengthening spiritual life, and establishing (or continuing) a powerful personal history with God?!
So Dina took the reigns and planned our first ever summer retreat, a spring retreat, and our second ever summer retreat. All of which were successes--Admin wise as well as Impact wise on the kids.
Dina's admin skills, helped to take the load off of me especially since I'm a bi-vocational youth pastor. Meaning, I'm on staff at a church, but I also work a secular job. And my second job happens to be in the realm of television. So for those of you in this field, you know how long our hours can be...
So having someone like Dina was a true God-send.
But the time came when Dina was meant for other endeavors and I then stepped into the role of retreat planner. And I thought, "Well this can't be so bad. I've planned other high school functions back in the day."
All I can say, for anyone that tries to plan a trip for more than 10 people...well, God bless your ministry.
I've learned a lot over the last few years, and this year's retreat was by far my most favorite. Granted, I'll probably say that every year from here on out. But this year, something shifted. And the lessons I've learned from my failures and success in planning retreats over the last years has most definitely paid off.
Now with that said, I want you to have thee best youth retreat ever.
Those kids deserve it, and so do YOU.
I want you to be continuously excited and not exhausted throughout this process.
I want you to anticipate and not dread.
And absolutely know, God has something special for you on the other end, even through the chore of admin, a few apathetic kids, and fundraising.
It'll be worth it.
It's gonna be good.
Now, without further ado.
But for serious. Don't even get into any sort of committee or staff meeting until you have spent some time in prayer about What, Where, and Why. And just as importantly, wait for the answer. It may come unexpectedly and from an unexpected source. But it will come.
When I pray about planning a retreat, I usually ask God to highlight a theme to me or phrase. This year, my youth leaders and I took some time to pray about the youth retreat about 7 months before our retreat date. I then got feedback from my leaders and a month later, I began exploring locale options. I knew that this retreat was meant to be "adventurous" and "cozy". I quickly began researching camp options in Southern Cali.
And ask others in your realm of influence and/or church family to pray for the retreat, in the months leading up to it, including the actual dates of the retreat. I truly believe prayer makes a difference!
2. Pick a Theme
What is the goal of your retreat? What is the main objective you want your group to remember from this trip? Is this retreat about learning how to Pray? About Marriage? About Songwriting? About Creating Art? About Rest? Or all of the above? Whatever your theme or theme phrase is, it should be clearly communicated to your kids, the parents, and your leaders, so everyone is on the same page.
You'll be doing a variety of activities throughout the retreat, but you always want to come back to the main objective. And you want to make sure all of your attendees fully engage with this theme.
And get creative.
With your theme, you can create logos and fun paraphernalia that can be used to advertise for the retreat, can be put on T-shirts, and welcome packets.
3. Give Gifts
I love, love, love preparing retreat welcome goodie bags for my kids. These goodie bags have a variety of gifts in them, some of which are personalized. Meaning, their names are on the bags, and they might have a special note addressed just to them. They never really know what they're gonna get at a retreat. But they've been spoiled. They always know a goodie bag is coming and it will almost always include a t-shirt of some sort with the retreat logo on it.
Things to put in a goodie bag: A"Mixtape" Translated: A homemade mixed CD of special picked songs for that person, a personal note of encouragement written to a teenager, A homemade piece of artwork, an Instagram magnet picture that reminds you of them, gag gifts, retreat schedule, etc.
My goodie bags in terms of aesthetics, usually go in line with our retreat theme as well.
4. Plan Ahead. Like Way Ahead
To book some of the more popular retreat centers and camps, you need to make reservations at least 6-12 months in advance.
Once I had a concept of what I was looking for, I happened to find our camp from a day's worth of searching on Google. And Wallah! I found a gold mine and some other gems as well.
Also, TWO people should be involved in the planning of this retreat. Never just ONE person. Even if there's one primary person planning, find one person that wouldn't mind assisting in the planning process and possibly chaperoning on the retreat. Be sure to budget your "per-person" retreat cost to include covering the cost of your coordinators, so that your coordinators are not paying out of pocket to attend the retreat.
Once you've locked down a location, whenever possible, try and visit it with your other coordinator. It definitely helps you get your bearings as well as build anticipation in going back for the actual retreat, if you've found a gold mine.
Things to always think about: Narrow down and specify the activities you want your group to do. Oh and of course, FOOD and meal times, Try to pick a locale or camp that allows your group to have a bit of a flexible schedule. And if you can, veer away from preparing meals or even ordering meals for your group while on your retreat. Trust me, you want to do as little coordinating as possible once you're on your retreat.
If you MUST order meals at your venue or camp, be sure to reach out to your vendors and look at their catering menus (Subway, Pizza Hut, etc.) and know your needed order about 2 weeks out from your retreat date.
Start advertising about the retreat to parents and kids at least 5-6 months out.
Reach out to potential speakers 4-7 months out, depending on how in-demand they are.
Start fundraising for the retreat at least 4 months out.
Do a rough sketch of your entire retreat schedule 4 months out.
Reach out to potential drivers at least 2 months out.
And through it all, get familiar with Excel or another equivalent to keep track and record of: Attendees, money collected, items needed, etc.
5. It's A Family Affair
Not a one man show.
Often as the youth leader or youth pastor, you're the one everyone looks to, to make things happen. And if you're not there, it's like. "Um. Now what?"
But this shouldn't be so.
Everyone has a part to play. (I Cor. 12:12-27)
And often when you extend a level of trust to someone, they will rise to the occasion. Yes, not always, but many times.
With that said, get your older youth groupers (Between 18- 21) to get more involved and engaged with this retreat by helping fundraise, being youth leaders for small group discussions at the retreat, dorm room chaperones, etc. And if you have young adult youth leaders (Over 21 years of age), definitely encourage them to help chaperone/teach/and/or drive during the retreat.
This is a great way to give more responsibility to the older ones, and it's a great way of sharpening future leaders. And through this process, organic discipleship begins to flourish.
There will always be one if not more kids that need financial assistance to attend a retreat such as yours. Be sure to connect with parents and kids regarding this issue. This can be a sensitive topic for some. The desire may be strong for a particular kid to go, but there's shame he/she (or parent) is carrying in having to ask for financial assistance.
So be kind. Be compassionate. Be forward in asking certain parents and kids if they need financial assistance. But there will be times when you will sense the need to be discreet. Follow that.
There are plenty of ways to fundraise, from baking goods, selling jewelry, knitting scarfs (Yes, we've done all of those), to simply putting up a donation box designated for the "Youth Retreat" at the back of the church.
Because of these methods, we, as a small "mom and pop" church have been able to raise thousands of dollars for our youth retreat over the years and have paid the way for quite a few kids to go on retreats for free. Kids that would have never been able to afford to otherwise.
You'll be surprised by the giving hearts of the people around you.
Generous people still exist in case you were wondering.
7. Be Flexible
Be willing to be flexible. Things happen. And often you think a monkey wrench has been thrown into your plan 3 weeks out, or even during your retreat, but in actuality it turns out, it's for the best.
Pay attention to what's happening in your group, and be willing to go in a slightly different direction.
I remember preparing to teach in one of our retreat "teaching" sessions and then I prayed and felt that the group was meant to get in one-on-one groups and simply "talk" to one another and pray for one another.
What about that teaching that I prepared?!
Oh, calm down Rigid Rita.
The fruit of what happened after those amazing teenagers and young adults spent quality time being present, talking about their home life, personal life, God, the weather, favorite band, etc. and praying, resulted in tears and momentous life decisions. No big deal.
8. Have Fun!!
It's hard to be fully present and engaged in the awe and wonder of being in a new or exciting place, when you're in coordinator mode, but it's possible!
I know I mentioned prayer before, but I'm gonna say it again. Prayer makes a difference. And having a prayer team covering you and your team and the kids during your retreat is vital! You need to know that you are not going at this alone.
And remember, before you were given the task of spearheading this retreat, God already knew all about it. And He trusted you with it, because He knew you could do it with Him.
Go ahead. Breathe deeply.
And get into the rhythms of His grace. It's in that place that you'll be able to enjoy the fruit of your labors. Even in the midst of planning.
And with that said, I hope you're ready.
Because you're about to have a retreat to remember.
Photo Credit: All photos are from our 2013 Summer Youth Retreat