Excerpt from “It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry”
by Oeland Camp
Almost every youth minister has led a trip that turned into a nightmare. During my second year of ministry, I experienced my worst youth trip…so far, anyway.
I was an intern for a growing youth ministry in a beach community just a mile from the ocean. We had 42 kids in three vans and two trailers on a ski trip with a chase car following, and a great time seemed to be on the horizon. Then, everything fell apart. At a rest stop, one kid revved the engine in one van, slipped it into drive, and dropped the axle on the ground. Kids moaned through a two-hour delay to get it to the shop, while no other 15-passenger rental vans could be found. So, we just piled everyone on top of everyone else, without seatbelts, and continued into the mountains.
Then the blizzard set in.
Facing three days of relentless snow, we spent hundreds of dollars on tire chains that we would never use again. The temperature dropped to what felt like sub-zero weather, and our sun-tanned kids refused to go out on the ski slopes. Great ski trip.
The day we were going to leave, we loaded the trailers; and as we moved the van, the rubber tires actually ripped and remained frozen in the ice. The trailer pulled away, but the bottoms of the torn tires were stuck in the parking spot. And, of course, the local U-Haul store was closed. My boss went into town to figure something out as I hauled the entire load of luggage into the ski lodge and waited.
Our stuff was spread everywhere in the lodge as kids whined. Can I call my mom to come get me? I have a credit card; can I book a plane ticket? Other customers complained. Management was angry. But what could I do? Out of personal desperation, I pulled out my acoustic guitar and started to distract myself. My group perked up, “Hey, Oeland, play us a song!”
But they persisted. The only song I could think of was “Awesome God” by Rich Mullins (It’s an old one now, but it was a great one back then!). So we started singing quietly (I eyed the manager hoping he wouldn’t grab my guitar and smash it). And then…cue the majestic movie music…I heard more singing. More and more voices joined in, at first from my youth group, and then from others. Dozens of people from other tables, and even on the stairs, were singing along! I was amazed as groups of people started calling down requests from the balcony. I discovered that all those grumpy “customers” were actually other youth groups also stranded in the snowstorm.
Moments before we had been disgruntled, selfish, whiny individuals; now we were beginning to act like church.
I learned a lot of lessons through that experience that have helped me during subsequent activities when my plans don’t go right.
Ask for the manager (ahead of time)
A little planning prevents pounds of pain. I now plan our meals by picking a food court in a mall or designated restaurant, and I call ahead. Managers love to make money, but they like hosting groups better if they know a few days ahead of time. Using Google Maps, you can also search for restaurant options along your planned route.
I also build in some memory makers by finding interesting local places to eat to bring the trip out of the “interstate” zone. I try to check with church members at my destination for discounts on hotels, rentals, and places to visit; and I am often surprised by who wants to help me host a successful trip. And if I find myself in a tight spot, it’s a good idea to ask the manager for help. Often they can be very resourceful if they know why I suddenly brought forty kids into their store.
Planning pit stops helps all the drivers know where to go (pun intended). Before cell phones, we did this all the time; but in recent years we say, “I will call/text you when it is time to stop.” Then we find out that someone’s cell phone doesn’t get coverage, and one van is in another state before lunch. You can also utilize a Group messaging app and invite all your adult leaders to join the group (in advance of the trip, don’t wait until you’re already on the road!).
Plan for the unexpected
I find it annoying that a computer will say, “An unexpected error has occurred.” Of course it is unexpected. What error is ever planned? But in youth ministry, we have to plan for errors. Flexibility is our friend.
Developing ways to compensate for possible delays in the scheduled trip can be useful. For instance, the farther from home, the more I pad the cost per kid. Sometimes we just need to have an emergency stash of cash to turn a mountain into a molehill: snow chains, vehicle breakdowns, free ice cream as the tire gets changed, extra meals on the road, etc. Sometimes a little “grease” for the squeaky wheels makes the trip bearable instead of a complete bummer. Adaptability is key when things inevitably go wrong.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to adults in your congregation during your planning process. You’ll likely find some who have experience (personal or professional) with some of the aspects of your youth special event or trip: lodging, transportation, budgeting, meals, fun activities, etc. Reach out to them for advice on the unexpected. Give them a copy of your plan or itinerary and allow them to help catch the holes and make it better.
Work as a team
Giving away jobs to people who will do them with great passion magnifies our impact. Why should I carry all the money, find the restaurants, organized the rental vans, count the heads after every stop, set up rooming assignments, play “cop” during curfew hours, and lead all the devotionals? Handing out jobs creates shared authority and ministry. Jesus had a dozen disciples, yet many youth ministers try to survive on two volunteers.
The truth is that adults often want to help where there is a need, rather than watching one person run the show. Sharing lists of kids, maps of locations, phone numbers, and schedules allows other leaders to truly help us lead, not just chaperone. If I had brought a team of leaders during that snowstorm, I would not have had to carry the entire load of luggage by myself to the lodge, leaving me exhausted and moody. Additionally, you probably have tasks on your list that some of your youth could take responsibility for too!
Steer the van
In a crisis situation, we as leaders have an important tool to use to our advantage—our attitudes. One reason the group was having a miserable time was because I was having a miserable time. This is not insignificant. I could have done more to support my boss, the lead youth minister, rather than moping around about the luggage and the cold.
Colossians 3:1 encourages us to set our sights on Heaven, but I was only seeing the dirty snow and sour faces of the kids. In a poem titled “Attitude” by Charles Swindoll, I found a great insight: “ I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” As ministry leaders we need to realize that our attitudes steer the group in a particular direction.
If we only had a new church bus
It seems to be a common sentiment among smaller churches that all trips would be better if only we had a big church bus. We watch those giant, window-tinted monsters roll into the parking area with the church logo emblazoned on the side and feel envy—Christian envy, of course. More often, I get stuck with a caravan of mismatched rental cars, vans, and a few personal vehicles. In recent years, some state legislators and insurance agencies are rejecting the classic 15-passenger van design. Others celebrate their usefulness if driven safely, and many colleges, churches, and major rental carriers still use these large vans.
Several years ago, I was at a church that bought a 40-passenger bus. They had several reasons, but the youth ministry was a primary concern. I was excited initially about having a small army of drivers who would chauffeur me around so I could interact with kids instead of focusing on the road. But there are many hidden costs to owning such a large investment.
First, since the youth used it most often, it was my burden to keep it spotless at all times. I usually cleaned the bus once a week, and as far as I know, I was the only one to wash it off. Usually it was covered in leaves, sap, and dirt because it was parked under low hanging trees. Second, my volunteer pool dried up, so I had to get a CDL license myself. This resulted in another hidden cost: I no longer “needed” as many chaperones, so many of my volunteers stopped coming to trips. And finally, I discovered the yearly upkeep and repairs cost more than van rentals had in previous years.
Besides, once it broke down, the entire group was still stuck on the side of the road. A church bus can be a great blessing when the church embraces it as a ministry for the wider congregation. But it can also be a curse, especially if seen as a new responsibility for the youth minister.
So, do you research when it comes to transportation!
The holiness of traveling
Abraham walked most of his life; Moses traveled across the wilderness twice; David fled from King Saul; and Elisha traveled to a foreign land to avoid famine. Even Jesus walked the length of Israel teaching people. And yet, he still took time to have special retreats for prayer (Mark 1:35), to be with the apostles alone (Matthew 16:13), or to reveal his glory to a select few (Mark 9:2).
Trips put us in a place apart; we get away from distractions, and we see new horizons in the world and our faith. Going on a (well planned) trip can be one of the best prescriptions for youth ministry health and group bonding. Given 36 hours or more away from the cell phone, Internet, and social media specifically, many young people find that their prayers feel richer, their faith deeper, and their vision of God more personal. This is why trips are such a common part of our programming each year.
Questions to Consider
What provisions have I made to handle the “unexpected errors?”
What jobs am I delegating to other adults and/or youth in shared leadership? What additional jobs can I delegate?
Is my attitude set correctly? How do I expect the group to react if things don’t go according to plan?
Am I grateful for the means of travel at my disposal, or am I constantly pining about how much better it would be “if only…”?
Am I clear about the reason for the trip? What is the focus? How will this improve the youth ministry: fellowship, spiritual, team building, etc.? How will I try to make room for the Holy in this experience?