Youth Ministry Retreats

This weekend we head out on our fall retreat with the guys and girls in our middle school ministry. I’ve been looking forward to the retreat for several weeks now. It’ll be a great chance to connect with students, build relationships and share life. Over the past several weeks I’ve been reflecting on retreats and why we do them and I’ve had to confront a thought that I have found myself confronting often over the past several months: why do we always have to keep students busy?

Jeff Dunn recently shared his experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani. It’s very interesting to me that he found the silence to be too loud. At the risk of sounding too much like Mark Yaconelli, do we fear offering students the opportunity to experience silence? Jeff talks about spending time simply reading the Gospel of John or sitting in the shade of a tree. It sounds to me like what he is describing is sabbath, arguably one of the central purposes of a retreat. But in my experience youth ministry retreats, whether of the week-long summer variety or the weekend school year variety, are often just as busy as the rest of our overstimulated lives.

I wonder what it would look like if instead of a busy retreat weekend we created space for students to relax, be themselves, unwind and perhaps experience God in the rest of sabbath and in one another. Instead of a schedule that merely allows for a couple hours free time on Saturday afternoon, what if our retreats instead focused on a rhythm of morning, noon and evening prayer and allowed our students to spend the rest of the time resting, playing, and encountering God in ways that connected the best with them. What if the proportion of downtime and programmed time were flipped, with a few hours of the weekend devoted to program and the majority devoted to free time, rest, silence, reading, running, sitting in the shade of a tree, praying, talking and otherwise connecting with God and one another. What if we started the morning with prayer and then offered students the opportunity to find a place to be alone, read a passage of Scripture and reflect on it? My guess is that they would actually engage more fully with that Scripture than they would in a more tightly programmed context.

My suspicion is that if we were to really think about it, we don’t fully trust our students to connect with God on their own. If we can program things we can both ensure they’re having fun and being entertained, and also assuage our own conscience by ensuring that there are times devoted to more spiritual pursuits. But if our efforts at helping them connect to God simply create more busyness, maybe we’ve missed the entire point of a retreat. I don’t know the students in anyone else’s ministry, but my students need rest more than anything else. They are constantly going, constantly doing, constantly being measured and constantly busy. No wonder our students have trouble connecting to God; they don’t have the time to sit and hear his voice.

Personally, I think that if we made holy leisure a part of our retreats, we might find that students have an easier time connecting with God. Lest I be accused of being lazy, I’m not proposing this as an excuse for us as leaders to avoid planning. In some ways I imagine this might take more planning and thought. This isn’t just about going on a retreat and ignoring all of the important aspects of preparation that go into a retreat. But maybe a little less stress on our part in terms of moving from one thing to the next might help us be more present with our students.

Even in the midst of all this reflection, our middle school retreat looks very similar to most others I’ve seen. We’ve loosened the schedule in some ways, and tried to provide a large amount of free time on Saturday afternoon, but not to the degree I’ve proposed here. I still think it will be an excellent retreat, and maybe middle school students need more structure than high school students (though I fear that sounds too much like an excuse to my ears), but maybe we’ll find that the most important parts of the retreat are when we are simply being with students.

In the future I hope to integrate larger amounts of silence, rest and free time into our retreats, even if only as experiments. Returning to the core of what a retreat is about is precisely what our students need. I suppose I have to be willing to put my money where my mouth is.

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