It started as a snafu. Our large senior high ministry in the Chicago suburbs was scheduled to attend a retreat at Spring Hill camps in Northern Michigan. We had chartered a luxury bus for the trip and reserved 60 spots for our students. We planned to sell out all of our spaces quickly and anticipated calling the camp for a few more spaces as the retreat approached. But two months passed and only 45 students committed to going. We scratched our heads, lost a few thousand dollars, and figured it was a fluke. Surely it wasn’t the retreat center. There’s no way it could be anything but a fluke because retreats had been such a sure fire hit in the past. Something just must have not clicked, that’s why they didn’t come. At least that is what we told ourselves.
The next fall it happened again. About 30 of our 100 students attended our traditional high impact retreat. We lost more money but were convinced that it must have been another fluke. I now look back on those early experiences as warning signs of what was to come.
A few months passed and I started working at a church in Northern California. Certainly, these students would love to get away from it all and enjoy a retreat? Not so much. Only 20 students attended of the hundreds we invited from several churches. More head scratching and rethinking and lost money. Frustration was mounting. We had done so much work; we had done everything exactly by the book. We shouldn’t have failed but this was now three in row.
What was going wrong? Perhaps the old hype wasn’t reaching students like it once had? Perhaps we have chosen bad weekends? But it couldn’t be that the thing we all hold so dear could be failing us. We almost couldn’t imagine doing student ministry without the magical retreat.
A few years later I arrived in the northern suburbs of Detroit. We planned another retreat with a new emphasis and zero hype. After all I had 3 failures under my belt so I must have learned something. We called it an “unplugged un-retreat.” We went to a simple retreat center and spent extensive times in prayer and fasting. We made the event very cheap by not having a speaker or worship leader. We planned that students would experience more depth and less hype. Surely that would entice them from Friday Night Lights and iPods and worries about homecoming. For two years we talked up our retreats. We continued to lower the price point and increase emphasis on the experience. But our retreats continued to fail.
In fall of 2004, just seven students attended the fall retreat. I literally couldn’t give spots away! My students simply wouldn’t consider going. How is it that a ministry that was going so well could not entice students to take the next step and go on my retreats?
After the last retreat debacle I met with my leadership team to figure it out, once and for all, what was going wrong. Then, we talked with most of our students. Based on those conversations, we came to the following conclusions and decided to kiss retreats goodbye:
– It wasn’t about money. The cost was not prohibitive. Students had access to the funds if they wanted to go and there were plenty of adults who were willing to sponsor students who didn’t have access to funds.
– It wasn’t about activities. I wanted to know if there was a conflict with band, sports, plays, or other activities. Had we simply not communicated our flexibility? Even though students knew that we could make arrangements for them to arrive late or leave early, they still weren’t interested. Even so, they were not interested.
– It wasn’t about a lack of or too much content. They did learn and retain lots of what was happening. They had enough fun. They enjoyed the time away. But not enough to make it a priority or truly want to go again and again.
– It wasn’t that we didn’t promote the retreat well enough. Students were fully aware of the retreat. They just didn’t want to go.
– It wasn’t that we didn’t fully integrate what we were trying to accomplish in our ministry. We did that and they got that. They knew what they were missing; they just chose not to go.
At the end of the day, the ones who did go were mostly going because they would feel bad in letting me down. Very few, if any, of our students wanted to do more retreats.
As we continued to deconstruct our beloved retreat ministry, it seemed that there were two missing ingredients which make retreats hard to pull off. This is what was summarized to us in the data we collected.
- Today’s students are far more mobile than you and I were as adolescents. As a high school student a big draw for me to go on a retreat was that I didn’t go very far very often. And I rarely went places without my parents. In our church culture, our students travel a lot. In fact, if they had a free weekend with no school activities they were happier to stay home and spend time with family than to have “something more to do.” Our retreat didn’t help them retreat. In retrospect, I see this as a healthy shift.
- Today’s students aren’t looking for a spiritual high. I’ll admit that this surprised me since my adolescent spiritual development is ripe with memories of major decisions made at camps and retreats. This is an amazing concept since students seem to recognize it as more healthy to live every day for Jesus than to expect a short term experience to charge them up. This is also a healthy shift.
Life After Kissing Retreats Goodbye
It should come as no surprise that our team concluded to stop doing retreats in our ministry immediately. We simply could not invest so many resources into an event that was ineffective, no matter how much we liked it.
So we did it. The fall of 2004 came and went without a retreat. A new era of our ministry was born.
An odd thing has happened in the last two school years. Not a single student has complained about skipping our retreats. Instead, our ministry has begun to flourish in ways we never would have imagined. Not putting all the effort and time into making retreats happen, making them cool, and emphasizing something our students clearly didn’t want has opened up the opportunity for our students to grow in unexpected ways.
Imagine today’s student. Pressured on every side to perform, to develop, to grow up, to compete, to lead, and to fit in. All too often the church does not relieve that pressure; instead we pack it on. By making the statement that we aren’t going to put that pressure on our students we helped them relax and enjoy being in our ministry a little more.
Obviously, kissing retreats goodbye meant more than just burying a tradition. It also challenged us to adjust our philosophy of ministry. We had banked on those concentrated times of group dynamic and Biblical content development. Without them, we had to find new ways to integrate those components into our everyday ministry. Instead of reading this as “something we couldn’t live without” we decided this was an opportunity to adjust our ministry philosophy to the culture we lived in.
Kissing retreats goodbye also meant ending or reinventing some long term relationships. While the larger venues seem to flourish, it’s plain to see that we aren’t the only ministry kissing retreats goodbye. I have talked to many camp directors who report that retreats are down. One retreat center we used went from having every weekend booked long in advance with 2-3 groups each weekend, to just 4-5 retreats the entire season. This is a serious problem for these ministries as they have fiscal needs that must be met.
As with any shift in ministry philosophy, it has effected how we spend our money. Every dollar of revenue lost to our t-shirts printers, not spent on worship bands or retreat speakers or paid to retreat centers, has forced these vendors to discover new ways to meet the needs of their businesses and ministries. As I challenge the reader to rethink their retreats please bear in mind that your ministries decision is not without repercussions. But also bear in mind that it’s not our job as youth workers to keep vendors businesses alive so much as it’s the vendors job to meet our need.
When my team decided to stop doing retreats we had to overcome a lot of fear. We weren’t sure youth ministry could or should be done without retreats. We were feeling guilty because we knew the camp depended on our business. We feared that our students would miss them. We feared that we wouldn’t be offering them the same opportunity that was so valuable to us. But just like the fears for our vendors were overcome with a dose of reality, so did our fears dwindle as we saw God grow our students without retreats. We simply couldn’t justify doing retreats simply to continue to do retreats.
My Challenge to Youth Ministry Professionals
It’s easy to get caught up in a sacred cow syndrome. It’s easy to get caught up in doing something just a little different and a little better than the year before. It’s easy to go with the flow. It’s easy to do something simply because you’ve budgeted for it. It’s easy to keep doing retreats.
But have you been able to measure their effectiveness over the past several months? Have you noticed it getting a little harder to fill the roster each year? Have you had a fluke or two? Have you wondered if they were worth all the trouble? Have you asked students why they are coming?
Please don’t read this as a vilification of retreats or retreat ministry. It is hardly that. All I am simply asking you to do is be open to rethinking how retreats fit into your philosophy of ministry. And if you find that they are ineffective or putting pressure on your students artificially are you willing to take a break? Are you willing to retreat from the “must do” retreat mindset?