Being fairly new to leading youth ministry, I have found a great amount of purpose and meaning in camps and retreats. I have actually shaped a lot of our high school philosophy for programming and strategy to revolve around camps and retreats. If you add up the simple math of a two-day retreat or winter camp, you have 48 hours with students, and maybe 25-30 quality hours to engage in meaningful relationship with them. If you compare that with a weekly program which is only about 2 hours, that one retreat has as much potential for relationship building as about 4 months of mid-week programming. Camps and Retreats provide an opportunity for immense growth and relationship building amongst the students.
While I think mid-week programming is absolutely essential to growing and building upon students’ spiritual foundations, I also believe that mid-week programming can be much more fruitful if you utilize camps and retreats to create a healthy underpinning of relationship in their lives. It accelerates the depth and vulnerability of the students’ willingness to engage with youth leaders and other students.
I have compiled what I believe to be the three most crucial tips you need to think about when preparing/planning and doing camps and retreats.
1. Leaders in the Midst.
Our students generally go to camps about 4 hours away and retreats anywhere from 2-3 hours. Most churches utilize the ever-so-dangerous and shaky 15-passenger vans. However, if you think about it logically, there are 13 students trapped in this van, not able to escape for 2-4 hours. That is exactly what you have been hoping and praying for. An opportunity to have space and an environment to listen, learn and speak into their lives. Most leaders sit in the driver’s and shotgun seats. I have realized that this is crazy and a visual depiction of the anti-thesis of youth ministry.
Youth volunteers are created, trained and equipped to live amongst the students’ lives. They are called to a missional lifestyle which is incarnational in every fiber of their role. From some help of my senior pastor, I realized that unless you are driving, you sit in the middle of the students, and you use that opportunity to engage in fun and meaningful conversation. Students will not cry with you unless they have first laughed with you. Students will not be vulnerable with you unless you have first been vulnerable with them. And lastly, students will not develop deep relationship with you unless you meet them where they are at, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well (John 4).
2. Remember your why.
I spend an immense amount of time prepping for camps and retreats. It feels like the second I get back from summer camp, I am planning and prepping for the next year’s, and the winter camps that are to ensue. With a lot of planning and programming, you head off to camp and embark on this opportunity for students to engage in a different environment and culture than their norm.
However, it is important that you remember the “why” of your reasoning for camps and retreats. You shouldn’t just be going to camp because “we have gone to this camp for years.” You should be going because this camp/retreat has an incredible purpose that helps facilitate growth in your group’s community, and maybe even an opportunity for “fringe kids” to see Jesus in a new and reviving way. It should provide a space for youth leaders to engage with and grow with the students. Often times I walk around the camp of several churches and I see tons of leaders standing around on their own or talking with other leaders. While this could be helpful and fun, it isn’t about leaders, and it isn’t about you. You have to constantly be asking yourself the “why” behind why you are at this camp or retreat, and how to create a space for your “why” to be further explored by the students and leaders. Whether the camp is outreach focused, or discipleship based, or a high school guys “rites of passage into manhood” trip, you have to remember the “why” behind why you are doing it. Don’t lose sight of the God-inspired vision that has been entrusted to you.
3. Allow Room
I have fallen prey to the “OCD planning virus,” and hold so tightly to the schedule that I’ve created, or collaborated on with others. I generally try and program our high school winter camp (as our middle school camp is programmed by the camp), and I have planned everything down to a “T.” I picked the content I wanted to speak on, the songs I wanted everyone to sing and the restaurants we would eat at on the way there and back. Just to be clear…planning is extremely important and it seems to be our “kryptonite” for a lot of youth workers.
But I want to stress the necessity for loosening your grip and providing opportunities for the Holy Spirit to guide and work through the camp/retreat. If you hold everything so tight because you love control, you’ll have a hard time allowing God to work and move in ways you didn’t originally dream possible. Never put God in a box, because he will break out. Some of the greatest parts of camp…actually most of the greatest parts of camp/retreats were things I didn’t plan or originally intend to happen.
Pray and ask God to create an opportunity for him to work in ways you didn’t see or think possible. Whether it’s blowing off “12am lights out” for a two-hour spontaneous worship session or an opportunity to talk 1 on 1 with a student during a “programmed game.” When we loosen our grip on what we deem best, God radically reveals to us his power and providence in the lives of students and leaders. Flexibility doesn’t just mean you can flex around things, it means you are comfortable with not being in full control. It allows God to come in and say: “I’ve got this.” The entire narrative of the Bible is God saying two words: “Trust me.” So why wouldn’t we do the same with the students HE has entrusted us with?
Camp and Retreats matter. Place leaders in the midst of students. Never forget your “why”. Always allow room for God to work in ways you deem unimaginable or impossible.
TREY GILMORE is the Pastor of Students at Vail Christian Church in Tucson, where He is currently working through his second year of full-time ministry. He seeks to empower students to become lifelong Christ-followers and to teach, write, and inspire in a way that exhibits the gospel in a profound but simple way. Apart from ministry, He loves fly-fishing, Taco Bell, and thrifting. You can follow him on Instagram, @TREEGILMORE.