Plan, Flex, and Visit


By Becky Gilbert

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, I was a young seminary student called into youth ministry.  Thinking back to the many days I spent in the classroom, listening intently to older and wiser professors giving practical concrete advice about ministry, I can remember hearing things like plan, plan and over plan and then plan again, be flexible, never take your youth to a venue you or someone you trust have not visited. Even 20+ years later, I still hear these things in my mind from time to time. While I learned many other things, these things stick in my mind. I also recollect thinking, to myself, Wow, this is such common sense stuff; who wouldn’t have a back-up plan or realize that youth ministry requires flexibility, and I would NEVER take youth to a venue I had not visited.

Haha. I am laughing because: youth ministry.

Most of us who enter ministry do so with the best of intentions; but budgets are tight, time is even tighter. And the next thing we know we are heading off on a mission trip scheduled to stay all week in a church that may or may not have been infested with roaches.

It started with an idea that my friend Sheri and I had been praying over. We were both serving small churches that were looking for ways for our youth group to serve others through a summer mission trip. We heard of a church, in a town in the Midwest that was inviting volunteers to lead Backyard Bible Clubs in apartment complexes near their church.  My friend and I were excited about this opportunity, the town was only a few hours from us, both of our youth groups were excited about working with children, so we accepted the invitation. The church that invited us already had a group staying in their building so we had to find somewhere to stay. The youth leaders gave us names of area churches that might be open to housing a group. So, we called around and found one who said, yes, we love to host groups! The facility was described to us in detail and it sounded awesome. Sheri and I planned to go out to the church and look around so we would know what we needed to bring with us and where we were staying inside the church. However, life got in the way and we were not able to make the trip. No worries, we thought, it’s a church–how bad could it be?

When we pulled up in the church van several of the youth said, “This is where we are staying?” With that look that says, are you kidding me, right now? I have to admit, the outside of the church did not match the description.  Sheri and I may have given some words of encouragement and asked the group to stay in the van with the other adults while we went to find our hosts. Our hosts were very gracious; but as they took us further and further into the church to show us where we would stay I began to get a very uneasy feeling. They showed us three or four bathrooms that were out of order. The showers that they said we could use were dirty and only worked sometimes. When we mentioned that we were told that they had showers the hosts said, “Yeah they always tell people that.”  As we turned on the light in the room where we were supposed to sleep, the sound of scurrying feet was very obvious. The roaches and rats were both running for cover. There were so many bugs in the kitchen that we were afraid to leave our food in there. We thanked the hosts and walked back to the vans both of us trying to figure out what to do next. We had several conversations trying to figure out where to go, but we stayed there overnight because we had no other choice. Two of the adults on the trip went to a store and got some cleaning supplies and bug spray. The church had this old bowling alley in the basement and the youth were so excited about bowling that they did not seem to mind the other stuff. We were thankful that the youth were busy with the bowling and unaware of the high stress level for Sheri and I as the other adult leaders were very upset about having to stay in the church. I am pretty sure neither Sheri or I slept that night.

The next morning, we went to our Backyard Bible Club and had a great morning!  Lunch was provided by the church that invited us to lead the club. And as we spoke with the church leaders at lunch about our living situation, they shared with us that one of the other churches had to cancel so they had room for us to stay.

After our day was over, we returned to the other church, thanked them for their hospitality and went to the other church.  We ended up having a great week!

Some of you might be reading this nodding along and saying yep, been there, made the t-shirt. Some of you are newer to this and haven’t lead trips and activities as a youth pastor, leader or volunteer. Plan, plan, over plan and plan again. Visit your venues and be flexible.

I have learned so much in the last 20 years about traveling with groups and planning mission and other trips. How could the story of my ministry almost-fail have been different if I had followed the advice that I had been given?

Plan, plan, over-plan and plan again. No thought had been given to Plan B. It never occurred to us to have extra money for a hotel, just in case.  Thinking about cleaning the place we were staying before we ‘moved in’ was not on our radar. Calling the church the day before to check in and be sure no major changes had taken place in the church or to check that showers and bathrooms were still in working order – nope, didn’t do it. Plan your trip and all that you want to do but plan for the unexpected things too.

Visit your venue. If it is at all possible, go to the place you will stay and see it. If you are going out of town, state or country, work with a reputable ministry group that can help you with local logistics.

Most of all BE FLEXIBLE! No matter how much we plan sometimes things change and we have to go with it. Remember that the youth we are leading are looking to us to lead the trip but they are also watching how we handle the changes.