by Stephen Ingram
The most transformative opportunities one has in student ministry are those 24-48 hour-long free-for-alls we call retreats. Retreats are excellent places to bring our groups together and create bonds and memories that will last for years to come. If, however, we only think of retreats as youth group vacations, we’re missing out on an amazing opportunity for intensive and meaningful ministry. Because retreats easily fall within the 17-hour parameter for forming a cohesive group, these events can be excellent times to inspire and mobilize your students. There are a few checkpoints and questions I always consider as I enter into the initial planning stages of a retreat. These five questions can help plan more focused, purposeful, and significant retreats for you and your students.

Conference or Retreat: Pharmacies and Hardware Stores

Before deciding on a catchy name, t-shirt design or even location, we have to determine what sort of event we are trying to design. Until now many of us may have used the word “retreat” as a general term describing an event we are planning. From this point on we are going to differentiate these events as retreats, a more self-guided experience, or conferences, a more prescribed experience. Choosing the vehicle that will carry a transformative message is the first step in the planning described as follows.
I often think of a conference like a pharmacy. The pharmacist, a trained professional, dispenses a product that the average person cannot attain on his or her own. She fills a prescription based on a specific need. Likewise, we can think of a conference as a weekend where the students are transformed by lessons that they learn directly through teaching, preaching, instruction or discussion—prescriptions for a spiritual or theological need. These weekends are transformative because of their ability to present information and experiences that both inform and inspire the students to a common goal or purpose. Conferences are often focused around a main speaker, small groups, and a primary text of study that together, like a pharmacy, offer the students perspectives and expertise that they would not be able to receive otherwise. These main elements are often broken up and supplemented by worship and activities. The goal of a conference-style event is to transform our students through knowledge and other cognitive experiences. Just as a pharmacist takes exact measurements and gives specific instructions, the conference is intentional in its prescribed learning objectives.
Unlike a pharmacy, a retreat is more like a trip to Home Depot. When you walk into Home Depot there are a variety of tools that are presented to you. While there are experts that can and will help the customer, it is ultimately up to you to decide what tools you want to use and for what purpose. In this same way a retreat is very intentional and organized in its delivery and method, but is much more ambivalent in the specifics of its final goal. When we think of a retreat it is important to think of overarching goals. For an example, I offer a retreat in the Fall called SHIFT. The primary goals of that retreat are to create an atmosphere of rest and spirituality. Not to learn or teach about rest and spirituality but to create an atmosphere that is conducive to these goals, allowing the students to discover their own paths toward rest and spirituality.
While you can find all you need to install a sink at Home Depot, it’s not a sink store—it has a broader and less specific purpose to aid in all sorts of home improvement. One of the goals of the retreat, as opposed to a conference, is to allow the students to start where they are, find their own way, and go at their own pace. This can be somewhat difficult to program because so much of it is dependent on each student’s ability to find her own pace. During SHIFT, we offer a retreat guide, prayer stations, and individual devotions as tools to the students. We then supplement these tools with an inspirational speaker and worship, all with the purpose of creating an atmosphere of rest and spirituality. Our goal is provide the tools and help when needed so that the students can create and sustain structures and practices of rest and spirituality in their lives.

Curriculum: Canned or Fresh?

So after we decide whether to use the pharmacy or the hardware store model, we need to think about whether we want to use canned or fresh curriculum. Canned vegetables make a Monday night at our home a little easier to deal with. They’re consistent in amount and flavor and make our overall meal preparation much faster and provide a vital part of our dinner. While they provide the ease of simply opening a can, they are often less nutritious, less versatile, and nowhere near as fresh. Similarly, canned curriculum are the type we can buy from our local Christian bookstore or website. There are hundreds of great resources out there (many of which can be found on this site!) that will provide you with topics, graphics, discussion guides, t-shirt ideas, PowerPoints, and even keynote talks to give you a great weekend that is both concise and creative. Canned curriculum is an incredibly useful tool, especially when you have limited time, resources, or staff. But just like canned vegetables, it too has its drawbacks.
Theologically, the curriculum may not match up to the goals and type of weekend being planned. They can also be more generic and sometimes outdated in their examples, presentation, and pedagogy. Fresh or in-house curriculum takes more effort, but when given the appropriate amount of time and resources, can be much more versatile and meaningful to your weekend. They can be shaped to your specific age group, demographic area, theological expectations and the contextual currents that run through your student ministry. They do, like fresh vegetables, take more know-how, preparation, and time.
Most student ministries probably would benefit from a mixture of the two approaches, like a soup made of both fresh and canned goods. A soup, in this metaphor, would be a blend of canned and home-grown curriculum to more easily provide a fresh, relevant driving force to the event. For example, I often take the ideas from a book I like, such as Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality, and mix it with the context and specific needs of the youth group. Using the book as the structure, I choose themes and chapter headings and create original group guides, devotions, and key note talks. With this blended approach you can customize and freshen your curriculum based on the amount of time and resources available.

Creating Space: Feng Shui-ing Your Weekend

The art of Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese practice that helps find balance, direction, and focus. In its most modern and westernized versions, it helps a person decorate his living room. These ideas are especially important when designing the schedule and flow of the weekend. It’s very easy, especially when we realize the importance of retreats, to try to fit in as much as possible in our programming. I offer the challenge to temper the programming with a well-balanced and varied schedule.
Direction is another key element to remember in retreat planning, especially when making the actual schedule of your weekend. Transitions are pivotal to providing clear direction to your weekend. At our SHIFT retreat there was no way for us to jump directly from the kickball game into a thirty minute long prayer station, so we added in a transition piece. This transition piece provided a “come down” buffer between the two elements of the weekend. The element we chose was a simple 15 minute snack break where the students could rest, clean up, get a cool drink, and a energy providing snack that would help them calm down and transition into a different mindset. Transitions help tremendously with the flow of a weekend.
Finally, keeping the focus of the weekend on the central goals means asking the constant question, “Why are we doing this?” As you and your volunteers design the weekend, make sure to ask this question of everything you put on the schedule. With this examination, the elements of the retreat will be more consistently intentional and relevant to the final goals. Be willing to give up any “golden calves” in the process, and you will find yourself liberated to design more creative, effective, and focused events.

Standing Out: Labeling and Trade Marking Your Events

Our students are inundated with opportunities and activities which fill most afternoons and weekends. What I have found is that they often choose activities that stand out, those they believe are worth their time and money. A great way to increase participation and add momentum to your programs is to label and trademark events. This means that the name recognition (labeling) and distinctive characteristics (trade marking) are well defined, well known, and well publicized. When the students know the defining trademarks of the retreat, it not only gives them ownership and something to look forward to, but also gives them the ability to talk about and promote the event to their friends with specifics and selling points. These aspects give the event singularity amidst the many other activities surrounding the students.
While it’s good purely for publicity, it also provides structure for planning the weekend that will bring continuity and consistency from year to year. When a student hears the name of your retreat, these trademarks should automatically pop into his head and either bring back memories or create a sense of urgency to participate in the upcoming edition of the event. Trademarks not only help your event stand out from the crowding community events, but also help define the program from the other events on your calendar. This definition aids in the goal-setting and purpose of each event in relation to the others, as you strive to create a diverse repertoire of programming, conferences, and retreats.

Programming as a Means

With all of this talk about Feng Shui, trademarks, and canned vegetables, it can be easy to forget that the conference or retreat is not the end, it is the means. The ultimate goals in each stage of planning and in each type of program should be relationships with God, each other, and the rest of creation. This is always an important check-point for me; it’s so easy to become caught up in writing exciting studies, making funny videos, and trying to pull off a great retreat, that the primary relational reasons for why I do student ministry sometimes takes a backseat.
My prayer is that this will be the final filter as you design and execute meaningful, effective retreats for your student ministry.
Stephen Ingram is a dad, husband, and foodie. He serves as the Director of Student Ministries at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala. He has a BA in Religion from Samford University and a Masters of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. Stephen has worked as a student minister for more than 13 years and also serves as a consultant with Youth Ministry Architects. He lives in Birmingham with his wife Mary Liz and their three kids Mary Clare, Patrick, and Nora Grace.
Stephen’s book Hollow Faith: How Andy Griffith, Facebook and the American Dream Neutered the Gospel is now available from CYMT Press. He blogs at