You’ve planned an amazing white water rafting trip for your youth group. You’ve written every devotional, laid out every game, ice breaker, and small group activity. You found a great rafting company that will take care of all the logistics. You put down a deposit. A non-refundable deposit. You’re so excited about what this trip is going to mean to your students.
But you announced this event four weeks before it happens. And only four kids can go. The minimum is 12. And you can’t get that deposit back. What went wrong? And why are the parents so annoyed with you?
Events need to be on on the calendar 12 to 18 months before they happen so that you can effectively plan, budget, and recruit ahead of time. One of the biggest blunders in youth ministry is to begin planning far too close to the actual date of an event. When you fail to plan for youth ministry events 12 to 18 months in advance, several things can happen, including:

  1. Family calendars are already filled up and students can’t attend your event;
  2. Volunteers are already committed to other events, leaving you in a lurch;
  3. Care is abandoned and events turn out shoddy, or worse, unsafe;
  4. Accommodations and transportation are already booked, and you end up having to choose more expensive options or canceling your plans.

These are just a few reasons that advanced planning in youth ministry is essential.

Six Phases of Crafting a 12-18 Month Calendar

While you will have a major role in formulating and working on the master calendar, this is not an activity to do on your own, especially in a new ministry. Crafting a good calendar also doesn’t happen in 30 minutes. Here are a few phases in the process:

PHASE 1: Fact Finding and Discovery

In this phase you draw from the knowledge and wisdom of existing leadership structures (youth council, parent council, students, etc.) and make sure you have a clear idea of what the major events have been in the past. For example, if there is a tradition of a winter ski trip, find out the traditional weekend (if there is one) and get it on the calendar. During this phase, your master calendar doesn’t need to take the form of a final, well-polished product! You mainly want to get these key events and dates on one calendar to later be polished and put together for presentation.
Here are the questions to ask and answer in this phase:
1. What are the major annual events in the life of the youth ministry?

  • When are the existing annual retreats?
  • What are the annual fundraising efforts?
  • What are any other major overnight events?
  • What are the new things that you want to add to the calendar for the next 12 to 18 months?

2. What are the church wide non-negotiable events you need to plan to participate in?

  • Make sure to include input from the whole church staff on this one! There may be major things that they know that might not surface in other groups!
  • For example, church wide fundraisers, family retreats and events, Vacation Bible School, etc.

3. What are the major denominational events that need to be planned for?

  • For example, conference or denominational youth events, retreats, etc.

4. Factor in schedules of schools, events, etc. that may impact students and their involvement.

  • Secure a copy of the calendars for the school system and private schools that you currently have students from, as well as schools you may be targeting.

PHASE 2: Add “Sneaker Conflicts” to Your Calendar

If you’ve ever lived near the ocean then you’re probably familiar with “sneaker waves.” You can be enjoying a nice afternoon in the water with little waves lapping at your feet when all of the sudden a sneaker wave comes out of nowhere and drenches you. If you’d only been paying attention to the surf you might have seen it coming. Guess what, youth ministry has its own equivalent of sneaker waves:  weekly programs, practices, community events, and routine church happenings that everybody forgets about until they conflict with your major events calendar. You may have the “Youth Christmas Musical” clearly blocked out on your calendar, but did you talk to the choir director and find out when practices are usually scheduled? Oh, there’s a full dress rehearsal two Saturdays before the musical?! Good thing you asked before scheduling a major event that Saturday.
Here are a few other typical “sneaker conflicts” that can drown your calendaring plans if you’re not careful:
1. Have you noted all major church events on your personal calendar and inquired as to whether there are practices, preparations, setup, etc. that the youth usually participate in?

  • Be proactive and seek out those who lead these events and coordinate practices and preparations with them.

2. Have you marked your own Sunday and midweek programs on the calendar?

  • What happens if a weekend retreat runs over a Sunday? Does the church expect that you’ll still be holding youth activities at the church? Maybe the youth mission trip should return on a Monday or Tuesday instead of returning right during Wednesday night youth group. Or, on the flipside, will you cancel youth group that night? How does the church feel about that? What’s been done in the past?

3. Check your own anniversary, birthday, and other special dates.

  • Did you plan a youth mission trip on top of your wedding anniversary—again?!

4. Major sporting events and other community activities.

  • What?! You planned youth retreat for the weekend of Homecoming?!
  • What?! You planned summer camp for fair week when all the FFA kids are showing their sheep?!
  • What?! You planned ski trip on the biggest S.A.T. date of the year?

5. Holidays big and small

  • “Ah, yes, Mother’s Day might not be the best day for an afternoon paintball event after church.”
  • “No, I didn’t realize that the start of hunting season was considered a holiday in our town.”

In the end, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid these sneaker dates, but if you can at least be aware of the possible conflicts by adding them to your calendar before scheduling events, then you’ll be able to brace yourself (and the ministry).

PHASE 3: Sketch Proposed Dates

Take the information you gleaned from phases one and two and begin sketching out possible dates on the calendar. You know the ski trip is generally held sometime in January or February during the winter. Then pick a possible weekend. It’s best to use a traditional grid calendar so that you can visualize the actual time span between events. This can be a lengthy process (especially with a group), so try setting these proposed dates with the input of one or two other people (one or two parent council members are ideal).

PHASE 4: Float Proposed Dates

Once you have drafted a calendar of proposed dates and have discussed them with your youth staff, share the proposed calendar with the entire parent council, youth council, church staff, and relevant committees. Make sure that anything you print says DRAFT – PROPOSED DATES on every page (you don’t want people to think these dates are written in stone). Ask these people to look for possible conflicts and problems that would affect a significant number of youth or the church as a whole. Work out any kinks in the schedule that are discovered. Thank people for their help.  Take any insolvable calendar knots to your direct supervisor for wisdom.

PHASE 5: Ratify the Calendar

Ask your direct supervisor at the church about the proper procedures for ratifying the youth events calendar and getting those dates added to the master church calendar. At the very least your parent council needs to vote to approve the calendar. And even if not necessary, it’s probably smart to present the final calendar for approval at the next staff meeting and maybe even at the next SPRC/Session/Elder Board meeting. Gaining wide approval of the youth ministry calendar is smart, and it also is the first step in advertising these youth ministry events to the congregation.

PHASE 6: Publish It!

After you’ve done the hard work of making a 12 to 18 month master calendar with all the key dates, now it’s time to distribute that calendar in an effective manner. Some possible options include:

  • Giant Yearly List: This is easy to distribute to parents. It should have every major event on it, as well as weekly programming as best you know and can plan.
  • Monthly Calendars: Easy to create in desktop publishing software like Microsoft Publisher, allowing you to easily add clip art, pictures, etc. if you decide to polish it to that degree.
  • Seasonal Calendars: The same program can be used to create larger seasonal calendars.
  • Online Calendar: Consider using something like Google Calendar on-line to create a calendar source that anyone can look at and/or subscribe to in programs like Microsoft Outlook, Apple iCal, or Mozilla Sunbird.  More information on Google Calender can be found online here: 

Determine the best ways to distribute this calendar out to key stakeholders including parents, youth, church staff, and church leadership. You may determine that there are two or three ways you need to distribute the calendar; for example, while the church staff may want a printed copy to work from, parents may want a simple list and students may want to access it via the internet. Determine the best options that work for you and set up a maintenance schedule for each.