The Importance of Retreating


By Erin Betlej

It could have been the lack of sleep from the weekend—or rather the lack of good sleep—or maybe it was that I was three hours into a five hour drive in a bus with no radio and nine teenagers. But when I heard “Do you sleep on your side, stomach, or back?” “Do you have a hunch about how you will die?” “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as your dinner guest?” my ears perked up. No longer tethered to their phones with ear buds, they were talking to one another. They weren’t gossiping or complaining about school, but really trying to get to know one another in a new way. It was the perfect way to start our 2017 retreat season.

Now rewind almost 48 hours to the beginning of the weekend, which was our Student Leadership retreat. These nine students gathered and loaded onto the bus for the five-hour drive to Tennessee. Before we were out of the parking lot, each youth was engrossed in a book, a phone, or homework. The bus was silent. As the youth pastor I planned in advance and fervently prayed that the weekend for these young leaders would be one of spiritual growth and renewal. The spiritual growth I hoped for occurred in ways other than how I planned, but the “take-away” from the weekend were the deeper connections they created with one another. These nine youth cooked, played games, laughed, and shared. Throughout the weekend there were real, honest conversations about what’s next in college, the Women’s March, relationships, executive orders, and theology. On Saturday for almost five hours I heard deep belly laughs, compromising, and many cries of “I’m not Hitler” (if you have not played Secret Hitler, be sure to check it out!). After every session at the conference they were clamoring to share their opinion on what they heard. For two days they lived life together in an intentional community. This is why we retreat.

From January to May I will retreat with students four times for various reasons and to different places. In youth ministry, retreating is a season. It is a season that cannot and should not be missed. We youth workers need these intentional weekends apart engaging in a shared experience with our youth that breaks down barriers of distraction where friendships form based on more than simply affinity or proximity. We retreat to build trust with our youth. To listen to the stuff that’s going on in their lives that they might not share with a large group at youth group. Retreats create space for youth to step away from normal activities and not only examine themselves but examine their priorities. Youth workers have a unique opportunity to teach youth how to listen to God when there are no distractions, so that just maybe recognizing God’s voice is a little easier when they return to their daily routine.

It takes time and for many, the sacrifice of being away from family for the weekend, but don’t miss it. Do not miss the season of retreating with your youth. Was the Student Leadership retreat what I wanted it to be? Honestly, no it wasn’t—but I would say without doubt that it was a success. Community and true connection takes time. If you miss pouring into that part of ministry then everything else is much harder. It is from the depths of community we challenge, celebrate, and walk with our youth through life. The fruit of retreating is beautiful: don’t miss it.