5 Tips to Pull Off a Great Retreat

Youth Specialties
July 1st, 2015

After youth group a few weeks ago, I went to see Pitch Perfect 2 with a few of my youth-ministry volunteers.

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the plot: The Barden Bellas lose their groove, and in an effort to reconnect and find their true sound, they go on a retreat. For one weekend they go to camp—complete with campfires, s’mores, and cheesy team-building exercises. And the retreat works wonders for the Bellas! Retreats create an environment where much can be accomplished in a short amount of time.

I once had some youth-group teens who hated me. They avoided me and wouldn’t look me in the eye or respond when I said hello. It was tough. I was the exact opposite of their former youth pastor, and they wanted me to know I was unwelcome. But then something magical happened: a weekend retreat helped me win over these hard-to-love teenagers. We went to the mountains, we spent time together, and on our last night, around a campfire, I got an apology. I got a hug. I retreated with them, and it made all the difference.

Retreats don’t have to be over-programmed, expensive, or even a whole weekend long in order to make a difference.

Whether it’s a day away to brainstorm and plan with your leaders or three days you use to reconnect with students, retreats can be powerful. In her book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean writes about the power of camps and retreats. She describes the Celtic idea of thin places: “places where God reached through heaven’s floorboard and grabbed humans’ attention.” When you, like the Barden Bellas, take time to retreat from the distractions and pressures of everyday life, you’re allowing room for God’s thin places—and great things can happen. Focused time away helps students and volunteers reconnect and take steps forward in their relationships with God, each other, and with you.

How do you retreat? How do you create “thin places”?

Here are five tips to pull off a great retreat:

  1. Know your audience. Is this a retreat for students, volunteers, or both? Is it a retreat for your youth group, or are you joining forces with other churches? Know who you’re bringing and This will help you narrow down your space needs and aid in content development.
  2. Survey your resources. Figure out your budget, and look around for ways to get the most for your money. Who in your church owns a cabin, lake house, or has a connection at a local camp or retreat center? Retreats don’t have to bust your budget. Our student team had a day away at a lake house owned by someone in our congregation. Someone knew someone, and bam, we had a house with beach access and a view of Lake Michigan. (Note: When someone is generous with you, always make sure to send a thank-you note afterward!)
  3. Plan with priorities in mind. Whether it’s one day or three days, figure out the why of your time away. If your main priority is to build relationships with students, then design or look for a weekend retreat experience centered around shared time together. If you’re booking a retreat hosted by a third-party organization, look at their content and schedule before signing that contract. Make sure their priorities align with yours.
  4. Pick a time that works for the majority of your people. No one event, day, or weekend is going to work for everyone. But plan a date and time that most of your people can pull off. If you pick Memorial Day weekend or Labor Day for a retreat, chances are your turnout will be terrible. Don’t make your students or volunteers choose between their family and your ministry.
  5. Get ideas from others. Connect with other organizations and churches in your area for retreat ideas. There are probably business leaders in your church who are awesome at leading brainstorming sessions, goal mapping, and planning team-building events. There might be a church down the street that just had the most epic retreat weekend and in their excitement posted all their creative prayer station ideas to Pinterest. Talk to people, utilize local experts, and don’t forget Pinterest as you design a retreat. When your retreat is over, write down everything you loved and everything that didn’t go so well. The only way to get better at pulling off meaningful retreats is to keep refining all of those retreat ideas and experiences.

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Gina2013headshotGina Abbas has been in Youth Ministry a little longer than The Tower of Terror has been open at Disneyland’s California Adventure Park. Gina leads the.element [7th/8th grade] ministry at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids. She lives with her Star Wars loving husband and 3 kids. Gina is the author of the book, A Woman in Youth Ministry, and can be found decoding Taylor Swift Lyrics, hanging out with Middle Schoolers, or shooting foam finger rockets at her children.


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