We got back yesterday from our annual Winter Retreat to Jr. High Believe in Tulsa, just in time to NOT watch the Super Bowl, although I DVR’ed it to skip to the important parts… the commercials. I was especially thrilled to see the casket Doritos commercial. It was created by the pastor and others associated with Mosaic, an LA-area church I follow through their podcast.
While I’m wiped out and was glad for a day off to recuperate today, I thought I’d share a few tips for those blessed with an opportunity to go on any kind of youth group road trip, retreat, overnighter, etc.
- Go. And if you’re a parent of a student in the ministry, make sure they go. A trip where students and adult leaders are together all day and overnight creates so many memories that you would take months of weekly meeting times to even come close. Your sacrifice is totally worth it.
- Prepare for the worst, and the best. Come ready to engage in deep conversations at the least expected times, but don’t freak out if they don’t come. My group of 6th grade boys are really great kids, but they were a lot more interested in body noises and staying up late to watch TV than deep spiritual conversations. Yet when I shuffled over to the ice machine late Saturday night, I found another adult volunteer from our group in an unscripted conversation prompted by some very real pain in a student’s life. Trust the Holy Spirit to open doors.
- Be flexible. (closely related to #2) On Saturday morning, we – along with all the other groups – showed up right at 8:30, expecting to find the doors opening so we could hang out, jump on the inflatables, and get good seats. A sign on the door said doors actually opened at 9. Oops. We were bummed and confused until we found out later that they were setting up to record video footage for next year’s promo DVD. We may see ourselves in it! Again, expect the unexpected.
- It’s all about the kids. When you have 4 kids and an adult in a room with 2 double beds, adults in our group often get to sleep on the floor or an air mattress. I usually get lucky and get a bed because boys think it’s cool to sleep on the floor. That and this was only the second time in 6 years I’ve actually had boys willing to share a bed. Most of them think that’s way too weird. Funny story – because of all the unfamiliar night noises, I always bring ear plugs. One of the boys saw them sitting on the nightstand, thought they were marshmallows, and almost ate them. Even if they were, I wouldn’t have just because they were sitting on a nightstand. Ew.
- Raise the bar. Our middle school pastor was floored by the response he overheard from another youth leader on the elevator – extremely young, he noted – when the kids asked him what the “rules” were for the night in the hotel room. His reply? “No rules, just as long as I can get sleep.” Oh no you didn’t! Shatter everyone’s preconceived notion of what groups of teenagers act like. Expect them to clean up after themselves at the restaurant, to be polite to truck stop employees, to walk and whisper in the hotel corridor. People will notice, I promise.
- Enjoy the ride. We had a boys’ and a girls’ bus on the way there, but halfway back we allowed the 8th grade boys and girls to have a bus to themselves (with their leaders, of course) while the younger kids combined. When separated, the kids were so well behaved some leaders actually wondered what was wrong. They also did a great job when we combined. Make use of that bus time. A few suggestions…
- Decide and make clear ahead of time whether kids can bring iPods, cell phones, PSPs, etc. We allow them on this type of trip, but they must stay in the hotel room once we arrive.
- Challenge the persistently plugged-in to talk with you at least some of the trip. Don’t let them hide the whole time.
- If music and/or movies (via speakers or DVD players) are available to share with others, play only Christian music and movies no higher than PG rated. This will keep you out of a lot of trouble and you will not have to explain what is so “bad” about the lyrics to Soulja Boy. For high schoolers, you might be able to get away with some non-Christian music and perhaps PG-13 films (be sure to be discerning as leaders and also engage the students), but assume there will always be at least one parent who might question the gray areas you allowed.
- Have a few riddles, stories, or other game ready to keep kids occupied the last leg of the ride home when they get antsy and bored. I love playing “Bang” and “Lala Land” (also known as Queen Anne’s Riddle).
- Follow up. While some great conversations can happen during the event, the event itself is really only a springboard for further engagement as the weeks roll on. Call, text, or Facebook the kids in your small group a few days later to see how well they are living out what they learned. Have a mini reunion a month later. Challenge kids to be accountable, to each other and to you, for decisions and commitments they made. Don’t dare let the weekend become yet another in a series of emotional highs followed by disappointing crashes.
Any other tips anyone can share? Comment below.