When the falling snow absorbs much of the surrounding ambient noise, you have some space and time to think. As I crunched through the new snow on my way from my cabin over to main meeting area for this weekend retreat, I began counting up the number of days I have spent in camp ministry over the past 15 years. Between the weekend retreats and multiple weeks of regular camp during the summers, my best estimate is that I have spent over 700 days at camp as a speaker.
I would not claim that I have seen it all. However, I have seen the good, the bad, and the absolutely ludicrous. I would not use the term “expert” to describe what I have experienced but I think the past years allows me to say something constructive about taking your group on a retreat.
Taking students, in particular, away for a weekend or an entire week of camp can be a transformational experience. I still remember one of the high school camp experiences I had. God absolutely used that in my life. Your students can be effected very positively or they can come home and never want to go back.
There are a few suggestions I would make when thinking about taking your students to camp. Let me add that these thoughts are for those times when you take your students to a camp that provides everything for you. Planning and executing your own retreat is a completely different animal.
- Select a camp that is organized. Nothing can demoralize your students and leaders faster than going on a retreat where the camp staff appears as though they arrived mere seconds before you. If nobody knows what they are supposed to do or where they should go they will have a hard time attaining a level of comfort that will allow them to learn, grow, and develop character.I accompanied a Bible college ministry team that was forced to deal with operational schizophrenia. The first camp we went to had a plan. The students and staff were directed well and there was always a back up plan when unpredictable things like the weather did not cooperate. The very next camp we went to was the complete opposite. The staff did not seem to be on the same wavelength either philosophically or logistically. We all burned a few extra brain cells and developed slight facial ticks just trying to figure out the basics of where, when, how, and why. We were frustrated and the campers were frustrated. Make sure your camp knows the answer or has a plan.
- Make sure you go to a place where the staff understands the difference between ownership and entitlement. Some camp organizations have a staff they recruit. The leadership casts vision as to what the experience can be and how different talents and gift mixes fit. They select the best and do not have any trouble saying ‘no’. Other camps have a staff that has secured a position simply because “their family has been involved there” since the earth was still hot. The results of this form of “soft recruiting” gets passed on to you and your group. The tendency is for the staff to be there for themselves and not the specific mission of ministering to guests.
- Find a camp that has good food. This is certainly not the most “spiritual” aspect of this list but if the food is atrocious there will be complaints and you will eventually lose momentum. Meal times are an excellent way to build relationships with your students. Don’t let poor food quality be a roadblock to discipleship.I was once at a large camp in Indiana. The organization that owns the property has poured millions into the facilities. It seemed they did not, however, invest in the food service. It was the worst food I have ever had at a camp! The group that rented the camp decided not to go back because the food was so bad. The camp lost revenue and, more importantly, the opportunity to minister to a large group of students.
- Select a camp that has a good balance between free time and organized group activities. If the camp you are going to provides the program for you, make sure they actually have a program. It is a good idea to have some planned activities that the staff has thought through and can execute well. You also will want to have some free time for your students to just spend time with leaders and their friends. Too much of either can be less than advantageous.
- Look for a camp that takes pride in its facilities. The camp you go to does not have to be like an all inclusive resort! However there should be evidence that the camp or retreat organization cares about their facilities and has made sure everything is in good repair and working. Inoperable toilets, leaky roofs, and an overall sloppy appearance suggests a lack of excellence and may really put off some of your students and youth leaders.
- Make sure the speaker knows the difference between amusement and entertainment. A speaker who just amuses your students and staff will simply keep them occupied for the 30 minutes he is to speak. Remember to amuse means to “not think”. A speaker who understands “entertainment”, on the other hand, knows that his job is to engage the mind of the listener. He will employ an appropriate use of story and illustration to help students understand. He will use the Bible as his text and will explain what is says and not moralize or create his own ideas that are merely based on some type of biblical truth. He will take the Bible seriously and authoritatively and assume that God will speak through His word. You can find speakers that have a great time explaining God’s word to your students and take it seriously too. The two do not and should not be mutually exclusive. Students want to be challenged in their thinking and worldview.Ask questions about the speaker/Bible teacher if you don’t know who he is. What kind of experience does he have? Where has he spoken before? What have other groups said about him?
Let me know if you need a suggestion for your next retreat. There are several great camps out there that are dying to be utilized for the Kingdom!