Why I Take Students On a Smaller Winter Retreat

For as long as I have been a youth pastor, my calendar of events has been anchored by a summer and winter trip. All of our momentum in the ministry has come from these two opportunities. Having just come back from our yearly winter retreat, I thought I might share a little more about why I find this trip to be so important.

Before I get into the reasons why, let me first explain the format of the retreat. Every Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday weekend, we rent a cabin in a mountain city a few hours away. Our trip lasts two full days, and during that time, we have four sessions walking through passages of scripture exploring an idea I think will benefit the group. Immediately after these morning and evening sessions, the students are split up into smaller “breakout groups.” The rest of the time is spent exploring nearby attractions, having free time in the cabin, and eating our meals.

During this same weekend, many other churches take this time to bring their students to a larger conference going on in the same area. While there is certainly a benefit to these types of events, I’ve found that they didn’t quite fit into the vision and direction I had for my ministry. Here’s a few reasons why:

1) A Smaller Winter Retreat Creates Unity

While this can be said of nearly any trip students take together (if leveraged properly), there’s something about our group being in the cabin together that helps all of us get to know one another better. During these down times, adult leaders get more time to build relationships with students. As a student pastor, I enjoy the extra time I have to have conversations with students and hear their stories. I can jump in on some of the board games and I have an opportunity to act a little crazy- showing students that sometimes I’m only slightly more mature.

2) A Smaller Winter Retreat is More Cost Effective

Sometimes, trying to take kids to one of the larger conferences causes an increase in the cost of the trip. This increase in price is usually passed on to the parents. In my current ministry, I have quite a few families with three or more kids in the group. These prices add up quickly when you have to pay for more than one teen.

On the other hand, having an in-house winter trip meant that we could feed each student for around $2 per meal. By cutting back here, and only having the cost of the cabin and gas for transportation as the other expenses, it’s easier to keep the cost low, making the trip available to more students.

3) A Smaller Winter Retreat Means You Can Focus on the Needs of Your Group

I’ve already hinted to this in the introduction: one of the advantages to this model for a winter trip is that I can pick a topic about which the students need to learn more. Do they need more teaching on apologetics? I have two whole days to invest in them. Need to focus on evangelism? Here’s my chance.

I used this weekend as a time to focus on answering the question, “What is a Christian?” It was a chance to get rid of all of the baggage which comes along with the territory when you’re ministering in the Bible Belt. For two days, we looked at the Scriptures and saw what was at stake, what was to gain, what it looks like to follow Jesus, and how we tend to get it wrong. The breakout groups that followed then took the information I shared and help students think of ways to apply it in their lives. This trip can be customized in any number of ways to meet these needs.

I’ve been involved with this sort of winter retreat for nearly eight years now. To be honest, this model isn’t original to me, but was passed down to me by a great student pastor I had the opportunity to shadow. In my time working as an adult leader and now as a student pastor organizing it, I have seen the Lord do incredible things. Year after year, the benefits have outweighed the extra time it takes to put it together. The group grows more unified and grows in their love for the Lord. And for me, that makes it all worth it.

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