1. Thou shalt know the reason – So many times I (and others I’ve known) have planned retreats just because they are expected. Fine, just know why you are doing it and have some goals in mind for the weekend. For example, my very first retreat, the youth group I served had a bad problem with cliques. My goal was to break up the cliques.
2. Thou shalt start and end with a bang – I always try to get a jarring opening to get everyone’s attention. For the clique retreat, I arrested everyone in the youth group for “gang-like” activity and then sentenced them to serve time in other gangs. What this meant for them was that they could only hang out with others of their gang (shown by wearing a colored bandana). It definitely was a shock to the whole group.
3. Thou shalt have a plan for every part of the retreat before you leave – A lot of time is wasted by trying to organize things while you are on the retreat. All activities, games, etc. need to have been thought through and prepared for. Don’t waste everyone’s time by making them watch you sort equipment for the next game.
4. Thou shalt not be stuck in your schedule - Having a schedule is great, but sometimes, you need to allow for those moments you couldn’t have seen coming. I took a group one year to a retreat center that had a tree next to it that was leaning to the point of being almost horizontal. The youth had more fun sitting on that tree and bouncing than anything I had planned.
5. Thou shalt have things to do all the time – There is a problem that is can be catastrophic for youth ministry. Bored teens. Bored teens tend to find things to do that you might not encourage. Don’t set them up by making them bored.
6. Thou shalt have down time – This seems like it contradicts the previous commandment, but it doesn’t. Just because you have options doesn’t mean that they have to use them all. Give them freedom to process some of the things that you are talking about during their retreat.
7. Thou shalt pray – My tendency is to work hard and have fun. What I often need to do is to pray like everything is up to God and give him the space to use the leaders and the retreaters to listen and do what they see.
8. Thou shalt engage – Have engaging talks, sure, but more importantly, have time to make connections. These connections are often the best part of the retreats. Don’t make yourself or your leaders so busy that you aren’t available.
9. Thou shalt use leaders – Here is one that I abuse all the time. I try to do too much on my own. I have great leaders, They are gifted and skilled in doing things I just can’t. Let your leaders do what they can and spread out the work and blessings of the retreat.
10. Thou shalt plan for response – I spent a lot of my planning trying to order the speaking, fun and fellowship of the retreat. Often I left out a time to respond to what was being said. At Seneca Hills Camp, they call this a “say so.” The last night of camp, they sit around a fire and someone eventually reads Psalm 107:2 “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” What follows isn’t a time of thanks for leaders or praising the speaker. Instead it is a time acknowledging what God is doing and thanking him for that.
Those are my ten, though I have a couple of others. One thing is the forefront of how I plan a retreat and what I am trying to see happen. Commandment #10 is the crux of it. Let me tell you that story.
The last night with the clique retreat, which I called True Colors (and of course used the Cyndi Lauper song), was one of those nights of response. We had talked a lot about relationships – how they get broken and how they can be restored. I knew that there were lots of those kinds of relationships in the room. In fact, two girls in particular had gotten into a slap fight at a missions trip years before and hadn’t said two kind words to each other since. For the whole retreat, no one had been able to hang out with their friends and we heard about how lame they thought it was the whole time.
So the last night I told them they could take off their colors and be around anyone. But first, I asked them to read Matthew 5:23-24. I then told them to take some time and pray about the passage and then, when they were ready, to take off their colors and hang them on a cross I had set up. The first two people out of their seats were the two girls who had fought. They went arm in arm to a quiet spot and later returned with tears and smiles. After that, no one wore their bandanas, but the groups had shifted. Almost every “gang” stayed together. It was a great night of responding to what had happened.
Those moments are what make retreats special for me and worth all the planning and expense.