Successful Retreat Planning 101

If you’re planning a retreat this year, use this free guide to make sure you’ve got your bases covered–whether it’s your first or hour one hundred and first event!
Prayer and Purpose: Why? Begin in prayer with your ministry team about the purpose of your retreat or camp.

  1. Why do you need to have a retreat or go to one?
  2. What do you hope to accomplish?
  3. Is the point to attract youth and build relationships and fellowship, or discipleship, or spiritual reflection?

You can, of course, combine all these things to a degree, but you need to have a primary purpose so that both you and your audience are clear about what you hope to accomplish.
Logistics: When? What? Where? Who? Knowing the purpose of your retreat or camp will help you with the planning process. At least six months in advance you need to answer the other “W” questions.
When? What time of the year is the best time to have this retreat or camp? Look at the church and school calendars to make sure you do not conflict with another major event that will affect youth participation.
What? Using your purpose as your guide, what do you want to do on your retreat? Hiking, boating, climbing, shopping, praying, swimming, serving, etc., all impact the next question.
Where? Your location is important. How far you travel for a weekend retreat impacts your schedule on Friday night and on Sunday morning. The activities a retreat center offers affects what you can do. How much a retreat center costs will affect your budget. But most importantly, you need to BOOK a place for your retreat six to nine months in advance because retreat centers fill up. Don’t get caught without a place to go on your retreat because you didn’t plan far enough in advance. Who? Your purpose will also help you answer this question. Who is the retreat for? Junior High? Senior High? Is it a retreat that friends are invited to? Is it for new believers or strong disciples? How many youth can come? How many can we afford to budget for? Is there a minimum number or maximum number of participants?
The final question for the planning stage is how much? You must develop a budget. How much will each youth pay? How much can you pay out of your youth budget? Do you need to have a fundraiser? Do you need to borrow someone’s lake house to save money? Knowing how much in advance will help you ask for the money you need in your youth budget for the next year.
Theme: You MUST have a theme or focus for your camp/retreats. Not having a point to your retreat/camp makes it pointless . . . literally. Coming up with a theme is easy. What is something you would like to teach your youth? What is something you would like for them to practice doing? The purpose you agreed upon for your retreat or camp should guide your theme. It is helpful to pick a theme and then think about how to make it catchy. For example, we worked with a church that wanted to focus on discipleship and they chose the theme “Like Christ” (and used the Facebook “like” icon).
Activities: Your theme should flow through most of your activities and programming. You don’t have to come up with a way that canoeing relates to following Christ. Some activities can simply be for fun and fellowship, but the more you can thread the theme through the activities, the better your message will stick. So what activities will build upon your message and on the purpose of the retreat or camp? In addition to canoeing, hiking, and messy games, make sure that you list out worship opportunities, meditation times, or other spiritual activities.
Schedule: Once you have an idea of what activities you would like to do, you are ready to create your schedule. Start by putting in your departure and camp arrival time. Insert meal times and any activities that are time-related. Next, enter your devotional, session, lesson, and/or worship times. Will you have a lesson like at youth group or will you have a morning devotional? Will you have an afternoon session? Will you have a session at night or offer a worship experience? Veteran youth ministers will tell you that planned activities are essential to building your theme and growing your community. Too much free time can lead to folks being left out and cliques doing their own thing. You can always cancel an activity if you have over-programmed them and they need some free time, but you will have a hard time getting them to do a required activity that wasn’t already planned. You don’t have to know what you are teaching, but instead you want to build your tentative schedule so that you know and can tell others what you will be doing in general terms.
Publicize: Now you are ready to publicize. You can now answer all the questions that parents and youth will want to know as they decide if they will choose to attend this camp or retreat. Get the information out to them as soon as possible so that they can make an informed decision. Six months in advance of a weekend retreat should be enough time, but realistically details for any summer camp or mission trip should be available nine months in advance.
Recruit: If the trip will require someone to take off work (i.e. it happens Monday through Friday), then you need to recruit six to nine months in advance to allow volunteers to plan to take time off. Weekend retreats can be recruited for closer to time, but you should have them in place three months out if possible. It’s never too early to begin recruiting volunteers and leaders for your trip.

Lessons, Devotionals, and Worship: Three months out, begin to plan out your lessons, devotionals, and worship times by developing sub-points or themes to your overarching theme. For example, the church that used the “Like Christ” theme further connected it to Facebook by creating sub-themes of Like Christ (Friday night), Follow Christ (Saturday morning), In a Relationship with Christ (Saturday night), and Share Christ (Sunday morning). Once you have developed your focus for each session, lesson, devotional, or worship, begin to make an outline of your curriculum/devotional plan for each one. Start a running supply list as you develop your lessons to make sure you have everything you need.
Activities and Games: You will want to begin to plan out your activities. Some activities like swimming at the pool don’t need any planning, but others like messy games take a lot of planning. Use your theme and purpose to pick games and activities that make sense. The Source for Youth Ministry is a good resource for games and activities. Also consider building in meditation or reflection time, labyrinths, or other spiritual practices into your retreat.
Spiritual Souvenir: The spiritual souvenir is not an essential component to the retreat or camp, but it can serve as a reminder of their experience and an encouragement within their daily lives. Youth will keep things to remind them of great experiences, whether it’s a t-shirt, a bag, a rock, a ball, or anything else. You might want to give some thought to what kind of spiritual souvenir you might give the youth or have them create. If you plan to have shirts with the logo and theme on them, you need to get those ordered as well.
You could do something as simple as getting a bandana and having everyone write down their favorite thing about their time at the retreat or camp. Then, cut up the bandana (you might need more than one) into long strips that everyone can turn into bracelets, attach to key chains, or put in their Bibles to remind them about that retreat.
Registration: Get them signed up. Continue to remind them about the event and the registration deadline. Don’t forget that intentional invitation goes a long way, so if there are youth you really would like to attend, call them or tell them in person. Also, make sure you are getting all the things you will need from the parents at one time: registration form, money, discipline covenant, and medical release.
Shopping List: With one month to go, you want to build a detailed shopping list of all the supplies and food (don’t forget snacks) that you will need. If at all possible, buy these things in advance and take them with you. Another helpful tip is to pack them how you will need them. Have all the supplies for lesson 1 together, worship supplies together, etc. This will keep you from hunting through everything to find pens or candles.
Onsite Logistics: Once your registration deadline has passed, you can begin working on onsite logistics like rooming lists, name tags, and assigning small groups and leaders. You will know if you have too many or too few youth to do certain activities and plan accordingly.
Things to Bring: Finally, after the registration deadline has passed, send parents and youth final information about the retreat or camp. You may have told them already, but make sure they know what to bring including how much extra money, bedding if needed, Bibles, types of clothes, etc. Also, be sure to communicate to parents how to get in touch with you on your cell phone and the camp office number, as many camps are located where there is poor cell service.