We just finished up our annual fall campout/retreat. This has become an annual event for us. While very little went quite as planned, it was still an amazing weekend. I started to evaluate what made this weekend a success and came up with ten things we didn't do to make this trip successful. So, here are ten things youth workers do to ruin a weekend retreat.
1. Micro-plan every second. Part of what makes a retreat work is there is downtime. The idea of the word retreat is that we are retreating from our normal lives. If our retreat weekend is busier than our normal life, we will create more stress and fatigue rather than giving an escape from them. Have a schedule, but make it loose and allow room for flexibility.
2. Allow/encourage technology. I butted heads with several of my students this weekend who were texting back and forth as well as playing video games. One student even insisted that her parents would be upset if she made herself "inaccessible" and turned her phone off. But what is the point of getting away if we stay connected to the real world? I'm not saying everything in the world is bad, but we limit our availability to the Holy Spirit by keeping one foot back home.
3. Make it all about fun. Any retreat experience has to have a recreational aspect to it. We go camping for ours. However, if fun is the only aspect, students aren't challenged and probably won't learn anything. Make sure fun has a point.
4. Don't offer any new experiences. We have one place we have gone the last 4 years for our fall retreat. However, each year has had a different theme and different activities. Also, there has been a different focus each year. This year we looked at the history of the area we were in and a famous Indian raid that happened in 1836. We tied the story of the pioneers to our own spiritual journey of being strangers in a foreign land.
5. Go to a big city with lots of attractions/distractions. This probably goes without saying, but I wanted to throw it in. I don't know if people in small towns ever go to big cities for retreats, but it just seems counterproductive. Even in a town of 18,000 people, there are a ton of distractions. And the majority of our students live in the country in homes surrounded by woods. Yet they spend the majority of their time playing video games and talking on Facebook. Giving them more distractions from an urban environment squelches the purpose of the retreat.
6. Provide luxury accomodations. Part of a retreat is helping students realize how good they have it. Doing your retreat in a 4-star hotel isn't doing them any favors. The gospel is something that grows out of simplicity and hardship rather than the plush and lavish things of life.
7. Try to lead the whole thing yourself. I've been with great youth workers and I've been with terrible ones. The latter were probably more because I failed to train them or they insisted it was my job to do everything. i.e. What do you get paid to do? But I've found that on youth events where I tried to do everything myself, I was stressed out the whole time and couldn't really enjoy the experience. Have someone to plan your meals. Have someone plan some recreational time. Have someone plan your Bible study times. Don't use your free time preparing for your next session. Use that time to bond with your kids and your youth workers.
8. Do it in a familiar setting. We have a fantastic camp/retreat center less than 10 miles from our church. Our kids go to our district summer camp there for one week every year. I've tried to schedule other events out there and they are always poorly attended. Many of our students literally live closer to the camp center than they do to our church. There is no mystique about going out there for a 2-day retreat. Try to plan your retreats in a place that isn't "old hat".
9. Don't give an opportunity for a spiritual response. One thing I try to do when planning every youth event is ask myself "What do I want to accomplish with this event?" So try to focus the activities and studies towards some sort of spiritual response. This year's response was to live with more of a kingdom purpose. Without a spiritual response, it would have been just a campout in the woods.
10. Expect a certain kind of spiritual result. Remember, I'm saying these things will kill your retreat. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that we shouldn't design the events, activities, and Bible studies toward a certain spiritual focus (#9). But when we expect a certain result, we put God in a box by insisting that what we want to accomplish and what he wants to accomplish are one and the same. Maybe you're hoping that one guy will quit making such poor choices or that one girl will finally have the strength to break up with her boyfriend. Maybe there's another student you hope will finally put his faith in Christ? When we expect these things to happen and they don't it kills all the great things that DID happen during the weekend. A weekend is not necessarily a miserable failure because we were hoping for a particular breakthrough in a particular situation and didn't get it..
What have been the things that have destroyed some of the retreats you have been on? What things really make them better?