When I started out in Student Ministry over 13 years ago, I knew what I didn’t know, and one of the things I knew I didn’t know was how to put together an effective weekend retreat. So, naturally, I looked around for retreats or weekend conferences I could just take my students to. Although, it was a lot easier, logistically on my end, I realized how difficult it was to find a retreat or conference that was what my students needed. So after 8 years of trying conference after conference, and after declining attendance to those conferences, I decided to try my hand at planning our own retreat.
I’ve now done 6 years of our Fall Retreat, and throughout those years, I have been able to adjust and make decisions that have made our retreat one of the best and most anticipated things we do during the year. We have also seen our attendance increase by over 400% from our last conference we attended 7 years ago, to this past year’s retreat we did on our own.
So, here are 5 of the best decisions our team has made when planning our Fall Retreat:
1. Get Small Group Leader Buy-In.
This one is huge! The success of our retreat is tied heavily to our small group leaders buying into going on the retreat. I tell all of our new leaders when I meet with them to block off the 2nd weekend of November for our retreat. Each year, we have about 95% of our leaders attend. This does a few things: 1) It makes it easier to promote, as all of our small group leaders promote within the group, and it becomes a small group emphasis. 2) It gives us plenty of van drivers, and 3) It speeds up small group bonding having 33 hours together with the students. Throughout the weekend, we give 3 specific times where small groups meet together to discuss. Any new student that comes on the retreat also gets exposed to a small group, and hopefully, connected for when they get home.
Oh, and in order to get Small Group Leaders to Buy-In, make sure you “Buy” their retreat for them!
2. Hold the Retreat Over a Saturday & Sunday.
This may not seem like a big deal, but I quickly realized that having a retreat over a Saturday/Sunday, as opposed to Friday/Saturday, or even Friday-Sunday was a big deal. When we would leave on Friday, we lost a large portion of adult leaders due to work. Whether they were rushing to get off work in time or getting their kids squared away, leaving on Friday was a headache. Fridays also posed a headache for students and families, due to Friday night sports, parents getting off work, etc.
When we changed to Saturday/Sunday, the floodgates opened!
We also made sure the retreat location was not too far, so we didn’t waste time driving. While 33 hours doesn’t seem like enough time to have an effective retreat, when planned accurately, it’s plenty of time! Keeping the retreat at 2 days also cuts down on the costs, which is always appreciated by families.
3. Tie the Theme of the Retreat in with Weekly Programming.
This is just something that helps bridge the retreat to our weekly programming. We essentially treat the retreat as 3 worship sessions and 3 small group sessions. And then our team plans a 4-week series, using the 4th session as our final week of programming in November. It ties the retreat in well, and gets students a little more excited to come back on the final week, which has a little bit of a retreat feel to it.
4. Connect Summer Camp/Conference to the Retreat.
This can be something really simple. Each year at our Summer Conference, our students write a “Letter to God.” In the letter they capture how God challenged them, what He revealed to them, and how they are changed. They seal those letters up, and we hold on to them until the Fall Retreat, where we give them an opportunity during quiet time to open them and reflect on the journey they’ve been on for the last 5 months. It can be a really powerful thing for them to read what they wrote and talk about it in their groups.
5. Keep It In-House, if Possible.
Our first retreat, I hired a speaker and a band. It was a waste of money. The speaker was good, but the students didn’t know him, and in a setting where it’s only our church, it became more of a barrier. So, we now do our own worship and teaching. We save a lot of money, and the students don’t have to spend time getting to know us. The retreat becomes an extension of our programming.
Each year, we learn of something else we can do to make it better, but hopefully you can get a head start with these ideas!