How to Prepare Adult Leaders for a Gospel-Centered Retreat
This article is the second in a two-part series on preparing for retreats. Read Part One on planning a retreatAs you navigate winter retreat season with all its logistics, we pray you will be encouraged to keep the gospel at the heart of all things!
Be sure to click here for a handout to guide you in preparing retreat policies.
It’s been said that you can see as much relational fruit from a weekend away with students as in a full six months of weekly programmed ministry. If this is true—and I believe wholeheartedly that it is—then one of the most mission-critical things you can do in your planning is to prepare your lay leaders well for this valuable time they’ll spend with students.
Roles and Responsibilities
Adult leaders generally want to know what’s expected of them. In my experience, if your leaders have a good understanding of the vision of the weekend and their part in it, it’s likely you will your time with students will be fruitful. This understanding starts with clearly defining the purpose of the weekend. You might say something like, “On this retreat, we want students to hear and experience the gospel of grace through each message and interaction. We also want them to grow in relationships with peers and leaders through unstructured time together.”
Then you’ll want to clearly define leaders’ role within that purpose. Express that a retreat provides a significant opportunity for students to “consider the outcome of [leaders’] lives and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). To facilitate this opportunity, I try to place each adult leader in the same cabin as the group of kids they’ll be leading in small group. Then I give them a roster of the specific students in their cabin/small group. Ideally, I ask a pair of leaders to be responsible for that group of students, spending time with them and shepherding them through the weekend. I try to be in touch face to face or over the phone about any special needs or circumstances in their group.
The remaining areas of preparation help to provide further clarity around what’s expected of leaders.
For every leader who is content to fly by the seat of his proverbial pants on a retreat, you’re likely to have one or more who wants a detailed outline of everything that will happen throughout the weekend. I’ve learned over the years that it’s best to prepare with the second type of leader in mind. If possible, meet with leaders a month or more before the weekend to give them a general overview of the schedule. This can be as simple as tacking on a few minutes after an all-purpose leaders’ meeting or gathering briefly after youth group to discuss logistics. Provide a packing list and briefly share some details about departure and transportation to camp. If your schedule isn’t finalized yet, provide a general overview of when main sessions, small group time, meals, and free time will take place throughout the weekend. Notify leaders of any paperwork you’ll need from them and provide a deadline.
As you send mass communications to parents about the weekend, make sure all your adult leaders are copied on your emails. This helps them stay in touch with details pertaining to your departure and return, as well as what’s expected of students on the trip. For example, you may have a policy that students are not allowed to bring their cell phones. Lay leaders will feel more comfortable helping you enforce this policy on the retreat if they know exactly what you’ve communicated to parents.
Safety and Boundaries
Traveling with students overnight heightens the need for thoughtful boundaries and safety guidelines. Make sure you always travel with a good first aid kit, and let leaders know what provisions have been made for any medical concerns. For example, your retreat center may have a medical person on staff, or you may travel with a nurse or EMT. When you arrive at camp, ask the staff to give your leaders a quick overview of any safety protocol.
You’ll also want to be very clear with your leaders about the physical and emotional boundaries they should have in place with students. Consider having each leader go through sexual abuse awareness training ahead of time for the safety of students as well as their own benefit. Then provide clear guidelines for leaders to follow. For example, ensure that there are two leaders in a cabin with students and that students are not hanging out in cabins unattended. Ask leaders to refrain from sitting on students’ beds and request that leaders be fully dressed (i.e. not just a towel) to and from the shower. Don’t ever assume that these guidelines will be intuitive for lay leaders—go the extra step to lay them out explicitly.
The Gospel at the Heart of All Things
A retreat is a significant opportunity for your students to be immersed in the gospel of grace for an entire weekend. Throughout the time away, you want them to hear and experience the truth of God’s incredible love for sinners, demonstrated in sending His own Son to live, die, and rise again in their place. This is the single most valuable thing you can emphasize with your leaders. Ask them to be prayerful and attentive to opportunities in which they might point students to the person and work of Christ.
If possible, provide small group discussion questions for your leaders well in advance so that they can begin preparing for this time with students. Depending on your retreat venue or speaker, you may not be in control of producing these questions. If that’s the case, you can urge lay leaders to think about how they will point to the doctrines of sin and grace in their small group times, how they’ll share from their own stories, and how they will remind students of what Christ has done. Encourage them to make themselves available for conversation and prayer outside of the designated small group times.
Do whatever you can to create a bit of margin in your own weekend by designating a strong co-leader for whichever small group you’ll be leading. This way you can make yourself available to troubleshoot small group or cabin issues with leaders who might need to process together. If a student shares a significant concern with another leader, you will also be more available to jump in and provide pastoral support.
In preparing your lay leadership team for time with students on a retreat, you are ultimately preparing for God to work in your students’ lives. As you take steps to be intentional and prayerful with your team, I pray that God will help you lead students to trust fully in Jesus.
Click here for a pdf of sample retreat policies that you may want to use or modify as you plan your next retreat.
 Kara E. Powell, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).
 and are both good options for online abuse awareness training.
 I’m borrowing this language from Rooted Chairman Cameron Cole’s chapter in . Consider asking your lay leaders to read this chapter as preparation for your next retreat!