7 Tips to Prepare for a Great Retreat

Youth Specialties
November 23rd, 2016

Retreats are a staple for many youth groups, especially during a busy school season when students need a chance to get away and take a break. A great retreat requires hard work and intentional preparation. Here are a few tips to make your next retreat a success:

  1. Set expectations in advance.

    Understand that some students and volunteers crave structure while others thrive in uncertainty. Clearly communicate expectations and plans ahead of time to prepare both groups for a great retreat. Share packing lists, rules and other information in advance so that no one is caught off guard and unprepared. Especially communicate what type of clothing should be packed for any special activities. For example, while tennis shoes seem an obvious item for a retreat with rock climbing on the agenda, remind students and adults to pack these things as someone will forget. Think basic and over-communicate.

  1. Communicate consistent cell phone policies.

    This simple step is often overlooked, but it can greatly affect your time away from home. Before leaving for your trip, communicate to both volunteers and students what your cell phone policy for the retreat is. There is no right or wrong answer here, and your policy may be identical or different between students and volunteers. That is ok, as long as the information is clearly communicated to each group. Preferably, give them this information several days ahead of time so students especially can mentally prepare for anything out of their normal routines. If you are allowing adults but not students to use their cell phones, ensure your students are aware that the adults have not been given the same guideline as they have. Otherwise, students may assume no one is permitted cell phone use and feel you are showing impartiality by overlooking noncompliance in your adult leaders. You may be on the opposite end of the spectrum by encouraging cell phone use for interaction through Twitter, Instagram, etc. or for looking up Bible verses. Again, there is not a right or wrong answer as long as you are consistent and communicate.

  1. Get ready to play hard!

    While we often consider the more spiritual side of retreats, don’t neglect the importance of play for both students and volunteers. God made us to play and to enjoy one another’s company. Play refreshes us. Group initiatives and games help students relax and connect with one another, making them more receptive to what they can learn, both from the games and the rest of your retreat. Encourage your leaders (both adults and students) to come prepared with a few short games in case of unanticipated downtime. Most importantly, encourage your adult leaders to participate in games and challenges alongside students, drawing you closer together as a team. Leaders can connect better with students by participating with them as opposed to supervising from the sidelines.

  1. Spoil your volunteers.

    Volunteers are human, and retreats can be exhausting between excessive amounts of physical activity and little to no sleep. The last thing you want is burnout. Come prepared to surprise your volunteers with extra coffee, soda or a favorite snack. Notes of encouragement are another favorite. If you have a set time for a volunteer meeting, use this as the perfect excuse to share these items exclusively with your volunteers as a small token of your appreciation. Even such a small gesture shows you care and are rooting for them. Stash these items somewhere your volunteers have access to as an emergency pick-me-up.

  1. Treat your hosts well.

    Whether staying at a camp, hotel or a friend’s cabin, treat your hosts with respect and dignity. Do not treat them as a cleaning service or domestic staff taking care of your physical needs while you embark on a higher, spiritual journey. Take this as an opportunity to demonstrate a good witness, viewing your hosts as partners in ministry. Encourage your volunteers to lead this attitude by example.

  1. Avoid dichotomy.

    Yes, a retreat is holy ground. It is a unique environment crafted for spiritual reflection and growth. It is a good thing. Decisions will be made and commitments reaffirmed. Realize, however, that this is a mountaintop experience from which students will come down within a few short weeks. Prepare them and your volunteers for this shock. Tell them it is normal to set high goals at a retreat only to feel discouraged upon returning home where others have not experienced the same things. A part of this discouragement comes from how our society often compartmentalizes the sacred and the secular. Teach your students to see the overlap-how God is at work in every part of their lives, both at retreats and at home. Show them how a retreat is connected to the rest of life as a time of reflection and growth to refresh and challenge them in their everyday lives. Avoid creating a church culture of seeking one spiritual high after the next.

    Work with your volunteers and students to create healthy expectations and a game plan for how they will handle this transition. Journaling during a retreat can help facilitate this. Students record their thoughts in the moment. During the next few weeks, you can have them take a second look at those thoughts as a reminder of their commitments and to debrief. Teach them that life changes take time, and the exact game plan for accomplishing them may shift and develop over time as they continue to seek God’s plan for their lives. Work with them through that process rather than allowing the initial discouragements of life to kill the seed of change.

  1. Enjoy yourself.

    A retreat is both for students and the adults who journey with them. As a youth leader, part of your job is to empower others, allowing them to develop their ministry gifts. Don’t be afraid to delegate some of the planning to your other leaders or even students as you also take time to relax and reflect on where God is leading you personally. Take a breath and enjoy spending time with your group as you play and learn together.

briannaBrianna Cooper-Risser has invested the past few years of her career in full-time Christian camping ministry, working in organizational and volunteer management. She loves partnering with churches and other organizations to provide a unique environment in which people can relax and reflect. She lives in central Ohio with her husband Tanner. In an attempt to be cliché as a camping professional, Brianna loves anything active or outdoors such as kayaking, biking, climbing, etc. Brianna can be reached at linkedin.com/in/briannacooper.

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