Youth Ministry

Ownership: The Annual Youth Retreat Post

2013-03-23 20.09.48

Last weekend was the annual youth retreat run by our regional camp and conference center. This was the third one I’ve taken students to (read my posts about the first two retreats here and here). After wrestling with the message and the atmospherics of these retreats for two years, this year I was much more focused on the mechanics of who was in charge and how they related to my students.

The Director of this year’s camp was returning from last year, and he was just as impressive. He’s energetic without being silly, thoughtful without being professorial, and in control without yelling. The unifying theme he prepared and the graphic that tied it together all weekend was relevant and interesting. Seriously, I’m a fan.

The thing I appreciate most about this retreat, like the last one, is the self-directed nature of what students are asked to do. There’s a central Biblical text driving the weekend, but smaller cabin groups led by adult counselors take ownership of a small part of that text in order to explore it with depth and then share their learning with all their peers.

[The unifying text was Colossians 3:12-14. My cabin group (8th-11th grade boys) chose to wrestle with “meekness.” Think about that for a minute.

What they found and shared will certainly stick closer to them than anything any speaker could have told them. Of that I’m confident.]

It’s the students’ ownership of their own learning at these retreats that is producing my one nagging . . . critique? The substance of it is this: as a person with a high level of ownership in my relationships with these students, I want more ownership of their retreat experience.

Tell me if this is bad. It suddenly feels off to me that the people pulling the levers of the retreat experience are young adult youth workers and musicians who don’t know the students–mostly (many of the students have been to the retreat or to summer camp before). They don’t know them at the start of the weekend, and since the heavy small group lifting is born by small group leaders (the students’ pastors and youth leaders), they don’t really get to know them by the retreat’s end.

Here’s what I’m feeling: it would be a good move to either involve more of the pastors and youth leaders from the churches sending students in the conception and planning of the retreat. It would also be a good move to structure the event to force more interaction between youth and these dynamic, smart, compelling young adult leaders.

Retreats are a valuable supplement to my Christian formation program. I want my students taught by people other than me. I want them interacting with peers from far away. Part of my un-ease feels like a lost opportunity–either for my kids to really get to know the paid staff leaders or for their pastors to inform more of what they do at the retreat.

What do you think? Which is more valuable: the exposure to new adult teachers and leaders or a program designed by the people who know students best?



8 thoughts on “Ownership: The Annual Youth Retreat Post

  1. Carolyn Kingshill says:

    Rocky —-
    When I was in Junior High and High School, I went to every camp/conference that I could possibly get to. I never knew beforehand who would be either the other young people or the counselors/teachers. For me, those events were the only times I got any Christian Education of substance. The pastor at our church was a complete “wash out”. I’m sure he went into the ministry because there was nothing else he could do. Back then in the late ’40s, perhaps the only guys not in the military were the “wash outs”, who they went into the ministry. I don’t know, but as far as I was concerned it was a disaster. So whenever I went off to a summer activity, it was a wonderful experience.
    Hopefully that does not happen often today. But I do think it’s important for young people to get the camp experience where they hear what other pastors and counselor-types have to say, other than the pastors at their own churches.
    Even with good people in the local churches, young people can always gain from the experience of
    hearing others. I remember either you or someone else commenting one time when the kids came back
    from a quite awful camp experience when it came to leaders, they were all disgusted and recognized the fact that that experience had NOT been worthwhile. They had had enough good experiences to realize when something was not up to par.
    Knowing that our young people are getting good teaching should free your mind from worries that perhaps you aren’t doing enough for them. That way, you can put your mind on other things, even perhaps teaching/counseling young people from other churches other than just CPC, because you are already setting a good foundation for our kids.

    • Thanks for this, Carolyn. The value for our kids getting taught and shown Christian faith by people other than us is unquestionable. Partly, I want the staff of this retreat to lean into that value more and share more of themselves with our students.

  2. Matt Schultz says:

    I had similar questions about the youth retreat in Montreat. I’m a fan also, as you are of yours. But the critique I have is that it becomes an island unto itself which I had no control over (as you did not here). It becomes this shining jewel of faith which the rest of the year then looks dull next to.
    I suggested that they use it as a launching retreat rather than a stand alone retreat, meaning that in August we would go and have this wonderful experience that served as a starting point to the home curriculum.
    They were iopen to the idea, but then I went and got laid off, so I don’t know if it will see fruition. But in your case it seems within reach, with it being a regional camp. Can you contact them and see if you can have their curriculum ahead of time, and then develop with them a few weeks before as prep time and a few weeks after as follow up time, so that your kids’ experience there becomes the centerpiece of an organic series rather than an island that the local churches couldn’t live up to?

    • I like this idea a lot, Matt. That needs a consistent camp staff from year-to-year, as Montreat has. Here the staffing situation is a bit more flexible. I’m struggling with the urge to form some kind of church-led team to create continuity. Some colleagues and I have actually run two fall retreats now that are “launching point” style retreats, which makes these spring ones a little different. They’re still terrific and valuable; I’m just worrying about durability. Maybe you should be our next speaker 🙂

  3. Modern teenagers seem so much more confident than I felt at the same age. I remember camp–and I would never miss it, the EXCITEMENT–as always having a different speaker. Having a new guy tell us the same things, but with a different way of doing it, made an impression. My friends and I would really think about it afterwards and discuss it amongst ourselves.

    i remember that a stranger, who didn’t know us, could say things in a new way that would sink deep and we would wrestle with it on our own.

    The fact that the preacher didn’t know me, and didn’t know all my stuff meant it felt more like the VOICE OF GOD.

  4. I appreciate much of what you said Rocky. As a youth worker, I often covet the camp experience because its a time where I put in little to no effort ahead of time, but get to be present with, play with, and even think and cry with youth. The paid camp staff does the pre-planning and handles the problems that arise. As much as I appreciate that, I think I agree with you about having more local input. One thing stuck out for me from this most recent camping experience: On the final night, there was a sort of free time with boundaries where students had to stay inside (so that no one would go and make purple) and some of the options to occupy oneself included dancing to contemporary music (if you count the macarena as contemporary), board games, fooseball, table tennis, hackey sack, or talking. The boys I brought (after being told they had to stay inside) sat and for what seemed like an eternity. They were bored and had no intention of joining in with what everyone else was doing. I found it a little comical that they sulked there for so long and ignored opportunities to join in on something. Reflecting on that experience now, I am confident I would have found something that these boys would have been more likely to participate in. Having participated in the planning of the fall retreats you mentioned in the previous reply, I remember comments like “my kids wouldn’t find that useful” or “my kids won’t want to do that.” At the very least, leader’s input into what happens in a camp experience like this most recent one could have resulted in better final night free time options, at least for my boys.

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