7 Ways to Prepare Leaders for Trips

Whenever you go on student ministry trips, you are probably taking leaders with you. Whether it’s one or two or maybe thirty, having leaders on a trip is essential. They help make sure everything goes as it should, they invest in your students, and they are the people who allow the trip to actually happen.

But if we don’t prepare them well for the trip, we will actually be hindering them and ourselves. We are the ones with all the details and knowledge of where we are going because we have been in contact with the host location. What we need to be doing as ministry leaders is preparing our leaders well so they can truly succeed and have the greatest impact in the lives of our students.

Today I want to share with you some ideas and tips on how to best prepare your leaders for upcoming trips.

1. Prepare and communicate in advance.

One of the best things you can do for your leaders is be prepared and communicate to them well in advance. The more they know ahead of time the better suited they will be to fully contribute and care for students. Make sure to communicate dates and times, location of the trips, what they should bring, and what you’re bringing like supplies, games, snacks, Bibles and pens, fidgets, devotionals for students who follow Jesus, and even things like power strips.

2. Have a leader meeting before you go.

One of the best things you can do for your leaders to help prepare them is to have a meeting before the trip. Being able to walk through who is going, room assignments, the schedule, expectations, and allow time for questions will help your leaders feel more at ease about the trip and will give them confidence as they go.

3. Prepare a leader packet.

Preparing a packet for your leaders gives them not just information but helps them to know what is happening and what is expected of them. When you put together a packet, include things like a site map, packing list, sleeping arrangements, small group assignments, schedule, questions for small group time, contact info for the camp, and all the leaders’ contact info so everyone has it.

4. Set up a group text for your leaders.

This is one of my favorite things about going on trips. We always set up a group chat to share information and pictures throughout the trip. There are lots of gifs and jokes between leaders, but also moments where we share prayer requests and praises. It also allows for information to get out quickly and everyone to see what is happening throughout the time at camp.

5. Go over expectations.

Sometimes on trips we just need leaders to hang with their students because the location handles everything else. Other times leaders need to be more hands-on and have various roles. The clearer you can outline those expectations and share them with your team, the better prepared they will be to lead and shepherd your students.

6. Find ways to bless them.

Whether it’s a personalized card, a leader gift bag, or a Starbucks gift card, something to encourage them and let them know they are loved and valued is wonderful thing to do for your leaders. By blessing your leaders you are showing them how much they mean to you, the ministry, and your students. This is a tangible and intentional opportunity for your leaders to know they are seen and valued.

7. Spend time praying together.

When you prepare your leaders ahead of time, spend some time praying for them, your students and families, and the trip. These moments allow you and your team to intentionally pray for all aspects of the trip and to pray specifically for the students who are going. God moves powerfully through prayer and by praying before the trip we are intentionally asking God to do big things in the lives of our students. By praying for God to work in the lives of students, it allows us to see how He intentionally and divinely moves in the lives of our people and the change that comes about.

How do you best prepare your team for trips? What are your best practices for doing this?

The Week Before a Trip

When this post goes live we are t-minus five days until we depart for our winter retreat. Every year we take our students to a camp in our area for a winter weekend filled with solid teaching, worship, small groups and discipleship, lots of fun, community, and hopefully a little bit of snow.

But let’s be honest: the week or two before a trip can usually be pretty stressful and busy. There’s all the trip details, making sure everyone is paid up, communication, packing for yourself, making sure your students bring what they need, regular work commitments, and all the other pieces that we know will pop up at the least opportune time. So the question is, “How do we manage and prepare well during those weeks?”

On today’s post I want to share a few tips for how to not only prepare well but manage your time and details to succeed during the prep week and your time leading up to camp.

Have someone else handle speaking.

The week of and perhaps the week before a trip, I would highly recommend having someone else speak at your gatherings. For most of us, the primary amount of our hours are focused on preparing messages for our students, and by recruiting someone else to speak you are giving yourself flexibility and opportunity to focus your time in other places. Whether it’s a youth leader, another staff member, a student, or a guest speaker, having someone else speak frees you up to focus on the trip. It gives you all the time you’d focus on study, prep, and speaking to now focus on making sure everything is handled before you depart for your trip.

Try to keep your schedule as open as possible.

The week before I go on a trip I try to not schedule any meetings or additional work items if at all possible. I will always have various meetings I have to attend, but I try to not add more to my plate. The more we add to our schedules, the more we will feel overwhelmed and behind. So try to keep your schedule open and make the most of the time you have to prepare for the trip and handle what needs to be done.

Over-communicate to families.

No matter what, you will always have people who miss or don’t pay attention to communications you send out. But trying to get ahead of those moments and doing all you can to clearly and concisely communicate will help immensely. I try to schedule and send all of my communications at least a week before parents would ask for them. For example, if I know parents will want a packing list two weeks before we leave, I try to send it three weeks and again two weeks before we go. That way there is a greater chance for them to not only see it but also to have a reminder sent in case they forget.

Have a planning meeting with leaders.

If you have ever served as a volunteer in student ministries, you probably know what it feels like to not have all your questions answered or what it feels like to be unsure about what to expect. The more we can help to prepare our leaders and give them the information they need, the better prepared they will be to lead and disciple your students. So find time before you go to help prepare your leaders mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Remember that these meetings don’t need to be very long and should also be about spiritually preparing and not just information dissemination. So spend time praying together for one another, the trip, and your students.

Create a personal packing list and a ministry packing list.

We have recently written about what to pack for trips as a leader. This is a really helpful resource for both ministry leaders and their team of volunteers. It may be helpful to have a concisely written packing list for your leaders at your planning meeting. On top of your ministry packing list, also think through what you will need personally. For me I always make sure to have different types of cold medicines and throat drops, braces for my ankles that tend to roll, spare clothes, some protein bars, and some extra games and snacks for my cabin. Think through what you’d like to bring and make sure you have your list ready for when you need to pack.

Schedule time off before and after the trip.

This is something I have been making sure that I do more often. Depending on what needs to be done, I try to take an extra day off the week before a trip to spend with Elise and mentally and spiritually prepare myself for the trip. After I get back I try to take a day off to catch my breath, decompress, and heal (for me that means going to the chiropractor and getting extra rest). These aren’t just meant to be comp days but days to decompress and refresh so I am able to minister and care for my people without leading out of emptiness or depletion.

Make a list of what needs to be done and when.

I love making lists and crossing things off as I complete them. And when it comes to trips, I make lists of what needs to be done leading up to our departure. Typically I make two lists for trips. The first one is focused on the big things that need to be done from the very beginning of scheduling the trip. This includes announcing the trip, payment deadlines and reminders, parent and family communications, departure information, and packing lists. The second list is one that is focused on the week or two before the trip. This has to do with leader meetings, social media reminders, final communications to families, texting groups for leaders, sign in procedures, packing for myself and the ministry, and anything else that needs to be accomplished.

What does the week before a trip look like for you? How do you prepare for your trips?

Tips for Hosting a Scavenger Hunt

We start off each semester at our ministry with a kickoff. Our fall kickoff is usually some type of outdoor event but when we kick off our spring semester in January we are typically indoors. The past couple of years we have started doing scavenger hunts for our students and each year we have seen them grow and evolve. Our students have a ton of fun with these scavenger hunts and whenever we advertise them students come out in droves.

Today I want to share some ideas and tips for how to run a successful scavenger hunt that your students will love to attend and participate in.

Go digital if possible.

If you have been involved in student ministry for a little while you have probably participated in a scavenger hunt, and maybe even had the unlucky job of keeping score with paper and pencils. For many of us who have kept score the old fashioned way, we know the frustration and stress that comes with cataloging scores, keeping track of challenges, and trying to keep everything above board.

A few years back I began searching for a digital resource to help with scavenger hunts. Many ministries utilize social media to track submissions from students but if things aren’t tagged correctly or if internet can’t be accessed then this presents its own problems. In my digging online I found a platform for running a scavenger hunt called Scavr. Scavr is a digital scavenger hunt that you host, build, manage, and track directly from your computer, while your students/teams download the app and utilize its features to engage in the hunt.

Whoever is hosting the game purchases a level of game play–free to $149–that works best for their group (the enhanced option works best for our group and costs $79). Then they can begin creating challenges including passwords–think any type of trivia, riddles, or questions that require an answer–QR codes that you can print out and are scanned by teams, picture and video submissions, and geolocation tags. Once you build the game you send instructions to your groups who login on the app and follow a direct link to your game.

Whenever you start it your teams will be able to compete as long as it is open. You will be able to track and approve submissions as needed and push answers through if they aren’t accepted. Each group will see all the challenges and a live leader board. Then at the end you can stop the game and see the final scores and download all videos and photos. Essentially everything on the front end is done for you so you can have more freedom and flexibility during the hunt.

Utilize a variety of clues.

Whether you are using a digital scavenger hunt or you decide to go old school and use pen and paper, having a variety of clues and challenges will ensure a more complete and fun game for your students. There are trivia clues that span all different types of topics. There could be photos that needed to be taken at specific locations or with specific people or there could be clues that relate to your ministry, Bible trivia, and whatever else you can imagine. We have taken close up photos of items and challenged teams to find that item. We have asked random trivia about our staff team that had students racing to us to find out answers. We had specific locations with specific tasks to be done. And we asked a range of riddles and SAT prep-style questions. The more clues you use the better because the broader the range of challenges, the more involved your whole group will be.

Have a prize worth winning.

Typically we have offered pizza, specialty donuts, or huge bags of candy from Costco. But we noticed that this year the students weren’t as excited about our prizes so we switched things up and began to offer new prizes we never had before. I love to bake and students know that, so we offered free baked goods for small groups made by me. That was a huge success and now I owe three small groups some type of baked item of their choosing this year. We also decided to offer Chickfila for a prize to the winning team this year. We priced out the cost of some nugget trays and large fries and it actually wasn’t that bad. When we announced that prize our group went wild and it was so much fun to see the excitement level go up.

When it comes to offering prizes they don’t need to be huge or monetarily based, but they should be special and unique. So think outside the box and look to offer a prize that is unique and appealing to your ministry. Maybe you have a local creamery your students love so you provide an ice cream party for the winners. Or maybe it’s something special made by leaders or parents. Maybe it’s a percentage off of a camp or retreat. Perhaps you have a wall of fame in your youth room and the winning group is forever enshrined there. Perhaps it’s a unique trophy that is passed between winning teams. Whatever it is, the more you talk it up and the more unique it is, the more your students will love participating.

Consider your environment(s).

When it comes to hosting a scavenger hunt that your students will love, you need to be aware of what you have at your disposal in terms of environment. If you are only able to host the hunt on your church’s property, consider all the different ways your students can interact and engage with it. Utilize clues to things that your students would know and be familiar with. Find creative ways to have them interact with your church like a photo with the senior pastor or in the church library. Consider having them take a photo or complete a task at a specific location at the church like having them all play Gagaball outside or inside a specific classroom or with a certain item on the church property. Things like this will have your students moving all over your campus and also engaging with the church in ways that they may not have before.

If you’re able to do things outside of your campus, make sure that if you utilize private properties or businesses you have permission to do so. Also consider if you’re able to go offsite what ways you can have your students engage with and potentially even serve the community through this activity.

Set up rules and boundaries.

Rules and boundaries are really important for this type of activity because it makes sure everyone can have an equal opportunity to win and participate, and provides safety for the competitors and protection for the site/building. Some rules we always incorporate include areas that are off limits, keeping teams together at all times, not allowing the internet to help solve riddles or questions, being respectful of the property and people on it, how points are scored and recorded, and a time limit for the game. Whenever we have rules for a larger competition, we try to keep the rules short and sweet so they are understood but also not overwhelming or hindering of the game play and fun.

Have you ever run a scavenger hunt before? What are some pointers you’d share?

Ideas for Student Meals

For many youth groups, winter retreats are just around the corner and summer trips are fast approaching, which means planning has begun or will begin shortly. Part of planning for these trips may include meal planning and thinking through how to offer food that is affordable and tasty. Still other youth ministries offer meals weekly to their students as a way of blessing them and their communities.

But have you noticed how we can easily default to the same meals over and over? Perhaps you have run out of ideas about what you can offer to your students. I know I have been there many times. I’ve wondered what to offer for trips that wouldn’t drastically raise the overall price. I’ve defaulted to pizza way too often! And let’s be honest: the easy option can feel like the best option because it’s less work and simpler.

Today, I want to share with you some fun and affordable meal ideas that you can utilize on trips and in your ministry whenever they are needed.

Breakfast options.

  • Cereal bar. This is a fun and easy one. Grab a bunch of cereals from your local store and have them set out for your students. They don’t need to be name brand, there are a ton of store brands that taste just as good, but I’d recommend a broad variety so students have different options. Don’t forget that some students are lactose-free, so consider grabbing a milk alternative or two.
  • Pancakes. This is a really cheap option for breakfast. You can grab a large bag of pancake mix from your Costco or Sam’s that only requires water and mix it up to make a hearty breakfast that is fairly cheap. If you’re looking for your pancakes to have a little more taste and to be a little fluffier, grab a bottle of Sprite or 7up and substitute that for the water. Trust me on this one; these are sure to be winners with your students. Don’t forget some butter and syrup to top off this breakfast (check out Aldi for cheap butter and syrups).
  • Eggs and bacon. These are breakfast staples and honestly, it makes morning a little more bearable when you wake up to fresh bacon. Aldi has great prices on eggs, but you may also be able to purchase eggs in bulk at Sam’s or Costco at a comparable price. The same can be said of bacon, so make sure to compare prices. If you live in a community that harvests their own hogs, try connecting with a local farmer or butcher to check out their prices on bacon. You can also see if there are any local people who raise chickens for eggs who could help you out with a deal. A quick tip on making eggs, always go scrambled and add in milk or water to give your them more body and to help with making them go a little farther.
  • Breakfast sandwiches. This is one of those breakfasts I always look forward to. Maybe it’s because I grew up in New Jersey and breakfast sandwiches were a way of life (don’t get me started on pork roll, egg, and cheese on an everything bagel), but these are a great last day breakfast. You get to look at your inventory of leftovers and utilize them in a way that students and leaders will enjoy. Cook up the last of your eggs, heat up or cook all of the leftover meat, grab some American cheese slices, toast up some English muffins or bagels, slather butter on the toast and voila, you have a gooey and delicious breakfast sandwich.
  • Baked oatmeal. I will be honest, I only got into this recently because I was trying to find a healthy breakfast alternative. I realize that most baked oatmeals are anything but healthy, but I did find one that is a little healthier because it substituted all the dairy with applesauce and reduced the sugar drastically. But all that to say, baked oatmeal is a fantastic alternative to regular oatmeal and is something that can be prepped the night before and thrown into the oven in the morning. If you are looking for some recipes, especially some that offer you different flavor options, check out this list at AllRecipies.com.

Lunch and dinner options.

  • Walking tacos. This is something I had not heard of until I moved to the Midwest, and honestly this is an amazing option for meals. Essentially you take a snack sized bag of your favorite chips (Doritos, Fritos, Lays, or really any type of chip will do), add in all of the ingredients that go with tacos (meat, cheese, lettuce, salsa, etc.), and grab a fork to dig in. These are totally customizable by each student, quick to prepare, and also an easy cleanup option.
  • Spaghetti and meatballs. This is such an easy option for a meal and it is incredibly filling. Purchase a bunch of spaghetti and sauce, throw some meatballs in for added flavor, and you have a meal that will have your students ready for bed due to all the carbs! I would encourage you to consider making your own sauce if possible, or doctoring the store bought sauce to make it a little more tasty and special for your students. You can also up the ante by purchasing garlic bread or bread sticks, and by offering Parmesan cheese for students who like that on their pasta.
  • Grilled cheese and tomato soup. This is something that is pure nostalgia for most of us, and I would say the same is true for your students. Bring along a couple of griddles or utilize a flattop and get ready to toast up a lot of bread. A couple of ideas for this include having multiple types of cheese and breads, and making sure you have crackers and other toppings for your soup. Keep in mind you may have students with gluten or dairy allergies, so if you are able, try to have some options available, but understand that these items may not cook up in the same fashion.
  • Soup bar. Depending on the time of year, soup is the way to go! It offers not only warmth and a full belly, but is also fairly easy to put together. My recommendation would be to grab a bunch of crock pots and take them with you if you are going on a trip or have them ready to go in your kitchen space. Ask some parents to prepare their favorite soups ahead of time or grab a bunch of different pre-made options from your local supermarket or Costco, and start them in the morning. Periodically stir them and when dinner time arrives put out crackers, salt and pepper, shredded cheese, and other toppings for a night that will leave students feeling full and satisfied.
  • Sandwich bar. This doesn’t just have to be peanut butter and jelly or lunch meats, but could be a whole themed meal time. You could do different types of sandwich options including various nut butters and jellies, lunch meats and cheeses, BLTs, meatballs, Sloppy Joes, and chicken, tuna, or egg salad. Add in all the condiments and various toppings and you have yourself a DIY sandwich bar that offers your students any type of sandwich they could imagine.
  • Pizza. I know, I know. I said pizza is something we default to. But hear me out on this one. If you are doing pizza all the time, then skip this option. But if you don’t do pizza all the time or want to do something different than your normal pizza options, then jump right in to this one. I’d suggest that you get a bunch of take and bake pizzas from Costco, Aldi, or your local supermarket and do a pizza buffet. Having multiple options and types of toppings gives your students variety and a choice of what they’d like to have. This can turn a boring pizza night into a really fun buffet. I’d also encourage you to consider adding in a dessert pizza, which could be cookie pizza, cinnamon sugar pull apart pizzas (think cooked or baked in a skillet), or even a brownie pizza to round out the evening.
  • Hamburgers and hotdogs. Who doesn’t love a grilled hotdog or hamburger? They always make a great meal. And it gives students something to not only look forward to because they can customize them, but the smell of the grill is enough to entice anyone for dinner that night. I would encourage you to make sure to season your burger patties and have all the accompaniments for the hotdogs and hamburgers. If you’re able to and it is cost efficient, consider purchasing some local hotdogs because that will add to the flavor and uniqueness of your gathering.
  • Crock pot meals. This is a fun and easy option. There are so many crock pot recipes out there that the options are almost limitless. I’d encourage you to find some quick and easy crock pot meals that you can set and forget about and to ask your church families if they’d consider providing some meals for you. This can lead to all types of fun and unique meals and can make this mealtime one that students will look forward to.

Snack and dessert options.

When it comes to snacks, there are a ton of ideas to consider. There’s fruit, granola bars, snack bags of chips, snack mix, ice cream, puppy chow, cereal, popcorn, cookies and brownies, and even leftovers. Anything can be a snack or dessert for a hungry student, just make sure they know when and where they will be available.

A few things to consider.

Remember the students and leaders who have dietary restrictions. This is a pretty big deal especially if you’re planning a trip or retreat because there will be multiple meals. Start by including a question on your signup form asking if people have allergies or dietary restrictions. Then connect individually with that family to see how you can help meet that need. This will require extra work on your part but it will mean the world to those students who are often forgotten.

Always over-estimate on food. I learned this early on in my youth ministry career. Students can put away food like it’s going out of style and like they haven’t eaten all week. So always have extra food on hand to make sure your students are well fed. If there are leftovers or extras, you can always freeze them, use them at your next gathering, or even give them away to some of your leaders (especially your college students).

Don’t forget coffee, tea, and hot cocoa. Typically I reserve the coffee for my leaders because they are doing so much on trips already. Having some hot coffee for them each morning goes a long way. Make sure to have good coffee (go beyond Folgers or instant) and some fun creamers. The tea and hot cocoa can be for anyone and can be nice to have during those winter camps where it’s freezing outside. Having these drinks available make your trips and gatherings just a little sweeter and more special.

How to Make Leader Parties Special

This is typically the time of year that many of us are hosting parties of various kinds and undoubtedly will host a party for our leaders. Our leaders are amazing, and without them our ministries wouldn’t be able to happen. Regardless of our ministry budget, how many leaders we have, or even what our options may be, showing love and care is vital to help our leaders know that we value them.

Today, I want to share a few ways you can host a party for your leaders that is meaningful and special, even if resources are not ideal. The ideas below are low- to no-cost and meant to hopefully provide a spark of creativity and insight as you seek to encourage your leaders.

Utilize families.

One of the blessings of student ministry is that we get to partner with families. We are able to walk with, encourage, and be for our families in all moments. Families see this and most are aware of how important our leaders are because they see the evidence in the lives of their students. So consider asking families to help with putting on a leader party.

You may have a couple of parents or families who love to host and put together parties who will run the whole thing for you. Or there may be a family who would love to offer their home as a place for you to gather offsite that feels more special and intimate. You can also create a Sign Up Genius form where families could sign up to bring food for either a meal or a dessert buffet. Another fun and really special idea would be asking families to bless their student’s small group leader with a gift, a meal, or card shower to make your leader party even more special. Imagine if you could give each leader a special gift from the families in the church and consider how seen, loved, and known they will feel.

Utilize students.

What if you encouraged your students to bless your leaders whenever you have a party for them? If you have a Christmas party for your leaders, have your students write Christmas cards or bake for them. Maybe even have your students bring a gift for their leaders. Even a small card or gift will do wonderful things in encouraging your leaders. If it’s an “end of the year” party, maybe have your students gather around their leaders and pray over them.

Any time you have a gathering for leaders, you could have students write thank you notes to them. A handwritten note acknowledging what you thought no one saw or understood brings such a sense of joy, peace, and accomplishment. You could also have your students be the hosts and waiters at your parties if applicable. Having students bring out the food and serve leaders or even greet them and say thank you is a really fun way to encourage leaders. These are a few ways you could utilize your students to make your leader parties special and meaningful.

Have food and drinks.

Refreshments don’t need to be extravagant or expensive. You could make a quick and tasty punch from items found at Aldi or Dollar Tree with orange juice, cranberry juice, ginger ale, and sherbet, and you wouldn’t break the bank. Tasty snacks can also be purchased at these stores and by putting them in a bowl or on a platter, you have made the gathering a lot more inviting and intentional.

If purchasing items is off the table (food pun intended), consider making the gathering a potluck and create a theme to make it more fun. Do a baked potato bar and have everyone bring their favorite toppings. Host a brunch and ask everyone to bring their favorite breakfast dish to share.

Provide a gift.

This can be a tough thing to do depending on your budget, but even small gifts mean a lot. You could find things on Etsy or at places like 5 Below that may not cost a lot but can be meaningful or funny or relatable to your team. You may not be able to purchase gifts, but you may be able to make something special for your leaders. I love to make candles as a hobby, and I have a ton of supplies at home where I could make a votive for each leader with minimal cost. Elise is a gifted artist, and loves to create all types of things that leaders would love.

For those type of things to be able to happen, you need to be thinking intentionally before the party because otherwise you will be stressed for time and it may not happen. Even a nice handwritten card encouraging your leaders and speaking about the ways you have seen them step up would be a wonderful gift to receive as everyone loves encouragement and a handwritten card. Often times the smallest gifts are the most meaningful because they show thoughtfulness and intentionality.

Take time to encourage them.

I try to be very intentional about encouragement because our leaders need to know how important they are and how thankful we are for them. Student ministry is hard! And there are times we may want to quit, and we are paid. Think about our volunteers who show up and probably don’t see much return on their investments, and yet they keep coming back and taking more and more upon their shoulders. They are awesome individuals, and taking the time to recognize them and encourage them is not only welcomed but I would assert it is necessary. So at your gatherings carve out time to intentionally speak into their lives, to highlight God moments you have seen, to laugh with them, and to honor them. Don’t throw it at the back end of a meeting but be intentional with where it is placed to show your leaders how important and valuable they are.

Shape the environment.

This is super important and should not be something we push to the side or forget about. I know for many of us, we have less than ideal locations for hosting a party. Perhaps you have a small church where the options are slim-to-none for hosting, except for the gym/Awana Room/fellowship hall/storage area. Maybe you are a church that is all multi-purpose so you don’t have a space to call your own and shape fully to your desire. Or maybe you are a church plant and you don’t even have a space because you rent a building only on Sundays.

I get it, shaping the environment can be hard sometimes, but I don’t think that should cause us to not try. Wherever you end up hosting, whether the Awana Room, your youth room, or at your own home, look to shape the environment to make it warm, welcoming, festive, and fun. Think about playing music for the party. If it’s Christmastime, play Christmas music. If it’s an “end of year” celebration, play throwback tunes for your leaders. Think about decorations. Are there ways you could make the time together feel special? Add tablecloths to the old wooden tables, hang Christmas lights or put up a Christmas tree, or rearrange the furniture to make it feel more welcoming or like a living room space. These things, while they may seem small, show intentionality and communicate that your leaders matter. So don’t think about what you don’t have, consider what you can do to make the setting special for your people.

How to Pick a Retreat Destination

With the fall semester just beginning for many of us, you may not be thinking about trips just yet. Or perhaps you have a fall retreat coming up and you’re starting to prepare all the information and building out schedules and details. Regardless of where you are in the planning stages, it is important to think critically about where you are going and why you are going there.

Those of us who serve in student ministry know how important trips and retreats are in the lives of students. These moments help our students grow and mature in their faith as they are able to hyper-focus on spiritual disciplines, rhythms, formation, and transformation in a condensed but intentional time. Because of that reality, we must be intentional in choosing the locations for these trips so as to best care for and minister to our students. Today I’m sharing some practical things to look for in the places you plan to take your students so they can have the best possible experience.

Find a place that matches and supports your vision.

Whenever our ministry is assessing where we will be taking our students we look to see if it supports our vision of disciple-making. That means we want a place that has longer small group times, opportunities for service, challenging and deep messages, as well as fun and engaging activities. What you want for your group may not be what we look for, but what matters is that your values and vision are complimented and supported through the elements offered by the camp or retreat center.

Choose a location that is cost-effective.

We all serve in areas that can vary widely from a socioeconomic perspective. This means what some students can afford in one area is not necessarily the same in another. That doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice on the quality or benefits of the retreat site, but instead look for one that is affordable and cost-effective.

The truth is students don’t need all the bells and whistles to make camp enjoyable and memorable. They instead need one they can attend, where they can build meaningful relationships, have fun doing a variety of things, and make lasting memories. So think about where you are going, if it is financially accessible for your students, and how you may be able to assist those who cannot afford to go.

Pick a place that has good activities.

Activities perhaps aren’t always the focus when we choose a retreat destination, but should receive more attention. I am not saying they should be the determining factor in where you take your group, but they should play a role in your decision.

I have been to many beautiful and cost-effective camps that had very few on-site activities. This was always a little disappointing to our groups; they hoped camps would offer different aspects than normal youth group gatherings. It is also important to make sure that the activities are age appropriate. It is possible to have an amazing camp and facilities but the activities may be designed more for elementary day camps and not youth groups. So consider where you are going, and what activities they offer in which your group will enjoy participating.

Find an experience your students will remember.

What makes camps and retreats memorable? The camp we take our students to in the winter isn’t the most beautiful or top of the line. But for our group, it doesn’t need to be. They offer all the things we are looking for: quality speakers, intentional small group times, fantastic activities, and really good meals. What makes this retreat so memorable for our students are the sessions, small group time, the activities like tubing runs (including one onto a lake and nighttime), the camp director who engages with each student, and the team-building competitions.

Whatever makes a trip memorable for your students, find a place that will compliment those things. But always use discernment with this as well. Just because a student remembers a joke the speaker told, or the pranks they pulled, or a random camp romance, doesn’t mean you should choose that location again. Find memories that are valuable, meaningful, formational, and contribute ultimately toward your vision for your students.

Choose a place that will best help your students grow.

What is the purpose of going to a retreat or camp for your group? Whenever I take students on a trip, I don’t want them to just go on a vacation. I truly want it to be spiritually formational for them and to see them wrestle and grow in their relationships with Jesus. I know there are many camps that host amazing experiences students love but ultimately are summer hangouts with Jesus sprinkled in. I have nothing against those camps, but when I think about what my position entails and what I am called to do, I need to make sure these trips are helping me meet my goal and objectives.

My position states I am to help students grow and mature in their relationship with Jesus and anything we do in our ministry should be focused on that purpose. So when I am considering where to take students, I must be thinking in that way in order to achieve what I was hired to do. Whenever I look at camps or retreat centers, I look for places that will help students grow in their relationship with Jesus, and still have fun and creative aspects they will enjoy.

Find a site that enables you and your leaders to engage with students.

Sometimes you may find a retreat center that requires you and your team to handle all the details. You need to be the speaker or you need to book one. Your team has to handle the worship leading, meal prep, activity coordination, and all the other details. While that isn’t inherently a bad thing–especially if you are equipped to do it–it may not be the most ideal situation for you and your team to engage with the students.

So consider the requirements that extend to you and your team, and ask if they are the best way for you to minister to and care for your students. If not, you may want to look for a camp that takes care of the details and enables you to spend the trip simply being present with your students.

Key Things to Look for in a Summer Camp

Many of us have already thought through our summer programming, and have possibly identified a camp to which you’re taking students. Perhaps it’s a camp you have gone to for ages. Maybe it’s a denominational camp and the expectation is you go every year. Maybe it’s a local camp that has various activities your students look forward to and tell countless stories about.

While you’re thinking through the camp you attend, let me ask you a question: does that camp meet the needs of your students? Does it meet the spiritual needs? Does it meet their relational and emotional needs? Do your students come away feeling challenged, encouraged, and more spiritually mature?

Camps and retreats are some of the most important and developmental times in the lives of students. But if am being honest, I think it is easy to just go to a camp because we have done it forever and it’s easy to keep doing the same thing over and over. We default to doing what we have always done and we don’t pause to think through the rationale about why we do it. At its base reasoning, we should pick a camp that mirrors or encourages the vision and purpose of our ministry. From there we can build outward and upward as we seek to leverage its resources to help our students grow and mature.

Today, I want to share with you a few ways I try to find the best camp for my students in order to help them grow as disciples of Jesus. These aren’t the only ways I try to find a camp, but they serve as a starting point for choosing the best camp possible for our students.

Find a camp that matches your vision.

Our student ministry vision is all about forming disciples who make disciples, and equipping them to do so beyond high school. We want students who know Jesus, are growing in their relationship with Him, and are looking to lead others in the same way during their time in youth group and beyond. So for us that means finding a camp that has a similar heart and vision so it helps to cement what we have been teaching them.

Find a camp your students will enjoy.

It isn’t about finding a camp with all the bells and whistles, but finding a camp that has items all your students will find engaging. It is easy to do a sports themed camp or an outdoor camp, but what about your students who are more artistic or inclined to not compete in sports? Finding a camp that has a good balance and activities that fit a broad range of interests is beneficial as it will encourage more students to attend.

Find a camp that is fun, missional, and discipleship focused.

This may sound like a tall order, but I would actually assert that there are more and more camps leaning in this direction. When looking for a camp experience it is important to find one that has fun aspects to it, but that cannot be the sole focus. As youth workers we have an obligation to help our students develop in their relationship with Jesus.

Many camps focus on the fun element with a little Jesus sprinkled in. That cannot be our focus because while yes, youth group is to be fun, the primary reason we exist is to help our students know and pursue Jesus. That means we should find camps that do likewise. So look for camps that have longer small group times. Find places that include service and missional elements, even if it’s simply cleaning up the camp. While students may not find those activities “fun,” they are teachable moments that help you to show them what it looks like to live as disciple-makers and serve their communities.

Find a camp that is affordable to everyone.

In every youth group I’ve worked in there has never been just one socioeconomic category. We’ve had students from all different financial categories and that means that not everyone can afford trips, especially ones that cost a higher amount. Let me encourage you to not simply choose a camp that has a lower price at the cost of sacrificing various aspects that other camps offer. Instead look for camps that offer a reduced rate as needed or have a more affordable option for everyone. If you are not able to go to a more affordable camp consider offering scholarships, a reduced rate, or designating funds for students into your budget.

What do you look for in a camp?

Caring for Students with Special Needs

Over the past five years or so, I have become much more aware of how many people struggle with connecting with a “regular student ministry program” due to some type of disability or having special needs. Our church is actually the first church that I have worked at that has an entire program for children and students with disabilities or special needs, and it’s one of the coolest things I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.

Now that is not to say that I am an expert in this area at all. In fact, part of the reason I chose to write about this is because if you are like me, you may find yourself ill-equipped to handle this type of program. I know I am not trained well in this area, but I have been striving to learn and grow.

My desire today is simply to provide you with some ideas and advice, as well as point you to some resources to help you grow personally and minister to people in your church and community who are often forgotten about and marginalized. The more we work at making our ministries and churches accessible to everyone, the more likelihood there is of reaching people for the kingdom of heaven.

Get to know your people.

This is the best place to start. If you notice that there are students with special needs or families who have students with special needs, go and talk to them. Reach out and connect. Get to know them. Encourage them and let them know that they are welcomed, valued, and loved. People and families with special needs individuals often feel forgotten and ostracized because of the differences that exist. By reaching out to them and caring for them, you are creating a place of refuge and love. So ask questions. Listen well. Get to know them. Hear their stories and tensions they have. Then use what you learn to help create a place where their student(s) can come, participate, be loved, and know more about Jesus.

Equip and keep your team in the know.

If you have volunteers it is key to help them know and understand that there are students who have special needs. You don’t need to go into all the personal details for each student, but allowing your team to know that you do have students with special needs better prepares them to engage in different ways. It also helpful to share with your team different methods for calming students down, helping them engage, and how to communicate with them. Much of this information can be gleaned from parents and that goes back to our first point about getting to know the individuals and their families. This better equips you and your team to care for and minister to them. Also consider bringing in people to help train your team or giving them additional resources. Reaching out to local schools and organizations will provide you with a wealth of knowledge and allow you to consider bringing someone in to train your team.

No two people are ever the same.

This is a really key thing to remember. When you meet a student who has special needs, you have only met one student with special needs. No two people are exactly alike. No two situations (even with the same individual) will be exactly the same. No response will ever work the same for two different people. Each of these individuals is just that: an individual. Someone crafted in the image of God who longs to be loved and to belong. And our role is to care for them as an individual, to see them as God does, and to not assume things about them.

Make your place safe and welcoming.

Over the past few years I have come to realize how important space, lighting, sound, and programming is to people who have special needs. If you have students with autism, find out how lights, sounds, games, scheduling or lack thereof affect them. I found out that to many harsh lights or loud noises cause over-stimulation and that in turn makes the students and their families not want to participate. Another thing that people don’t always realize is that scheduling is huge for some people who have special needs. Having a system, a flow, structure, or a schedule helps them and their families prepare. So even if you could simply send a note to families a day or so ahead of time explaining the event and its schedule, you will make your program all the more inviting.

Another great thing to evaluate is this: is your venue handicap accessible? A great way of discerning this is by asking if people in a wheel chair can access and participate in all aspects of your program. If they cannot, it isn’t hard to believe that people with other special needs can most likely not participate as well. You are measuring whether or not your program is open and welcoming to all.

Purchase some sensory equipment.

This was one of the best things I have done for our ministry in a long time. You can literally find hundreds of options on Amazon simply by searching “fidget toys box,” and you can find ones that fit your ministry context best. This is a really good option that can be used in a variety of contexts. Putting sensory items out in your rooms or area of ministry affords students a new way to engage. It gives them something to play with which in turn allows them to focus. It helps students with anxiety to relieve some of their anxiousness. It gives people something to engage with. I would highly recommend getting some of these for everyone in student ministry.

Utilize resources and seek to grow your own knowledge.

There are some really good resources out there and some really not good resources when it comes to this topic and ministering to people with special needs. During my time in ministry I have found two really helpful resources that I want to share with you. Dr. Lamar Hardwick is a phenomenal resource I just recently came upon after hearing him speak on a podcast. His book is a great resource that I would highly recommend as he offers great insight and perspective as he himself falls into the category of special needs.

Another fantastic resource is Ability Ministry. They have helpful articles, resources, and curriculum designed for ministering to people with special needs. This has been revolutionary in helping our team minister to our students with special needs and we have seen amazing results. Our students who struggled to connect to the Bible our now memorizing it, they are serving as greeters on Sunday mornings, and actively participating in the program. I would highly suggest utilizing both of these resources and reading up on how you can better minister to, serve, and love your people who have special needs.

Packing List Essentials for Youth Leaders

Perhaps you are like me and you’re preparing for winter camp in a few short weeks. Or maybe you’re really proactive, ahead of the curve, and you’re already planning for your summer trip. Before camp, youth leaders typically have things ready like student waivers, transportation, food, essentials for games, and teaching, and it feels like everything is ready to go. But have you ever arrived at your destination and wished you had brought something you hadn’t? We’ve all been there.

Today I want to provide you with a list of easily-missed items that will help you be better prepared and equipped for whatever trip you go on.

A phone charger and extra battery packs.

Have you ever forgotten one of these before? No, just me? It’s the worst feeling because you are limited on what you’re able to do. When we take students on a trip, we don’t allow them to bring electronics. So our staff becomes the default communication for families and leaders. We share photos, information, and texts to stay up to date and it drains your phone so fast. Couple that with posting to our social media accounts for families to get updates and my phone is practically dead by lunch time. So always bring a wall charger for your room and a couple back-up battery packs or remote chargers for when you’re on the go. And of course, don’t forget the cord!

A good first aid kit.

A basic first aid kit is fine but it is often not what we need. I have found that creating your own first aid bag is the way to go. Due to the size of our program, we actually have three first aid bags that we take on trips. Our first aid kits have come in handy so many times, and I have found it’s better to be prepared and not need the kits than unprepared and need something you don’t have.

Our kits are stocked with the essentials like:

  • bandages of different sizes
  • gauze
  • sutures
  • Neosporin
  • splints
  • triangle bandages
  • tweezers
  • feminine products
  • bee sting kits
  • electrolyte tablets
  • candy (should someone need a sugar boost)
  • cough drops
  • a multitool
  • a sling
  • butterfly bandages
  • antiseptics
  • Tums
  • dry mix packages of Gatorade or Propel
  • mosquito repellent
  • aloe
  • sunscreen
  • ice packs
  • various medicines like Advil, Tylenol, and Benadryl

These are just some of the items I’ve been thankful to have at various camps. Some camps provide nurses and first aid, but others require you to be that person for your group. So whatever you can pack in your first aid kit will help you be prepared for whatever comes your way.

A flashlight.

If you have ever had a student not be in their bunk at lights-out or had to walk outside to the restroom during a winter camp at night, you know that a flashlight is your best friend. I would highly encourage you to have at least two LED flashlights you can utilize for whatever situation in which you may find yourself. A quick tip if you’re taking a long trip: turn one of the batteries around (i.e. flip the positive and negative ends) and this will stop your batteries from getting drained.

An alarm clock.

Some camps and retreat centers don’t always have outlets by your bed so you can plug in a phone charger which would allow you to use it as an alarm. So pick up a small battery-powered alarm clock which will help you and your students wake up on time. You can usually find these at a dollar store, Five Below, Walmart, or Target.

Instant coffee packs.

If you are like me and love a good cup of coffee, you have probably cried a few tears for what passes for coffee at camps. So do yourself a favor and seek out a good coffee brand that has instant coffee packets you can take along. Many stores and coffee companies have options available and trying them out ahead of time will help you survive the trip.

Personal snacks.

We often think about food for meals and perhaps special snacks for our leaders. But we don’t always think about ourselves. It is okay to treat yourself and I would encourage you to bring along some treats for yourself. There are moments on every trip when you just need a pick me up. So grab your favorite snacks and stuff them in your bag for when you need them.

A power strip.

Many times, the dorms you are in will have a limited number of power outlets. So bringing a power strip will allow multiple people to utilize one outlet and will hopefully keep more people happy throughout the trip as their devices will be charged.

Tea and throat drops.

Often times at camp you will find you are loosing your voice. Having some herbal teas and honey if you can bring it along, coupled with throat drops can be a life saver (pun intended). Make sure to pack enough for however long the trip is and perhaps some extra for your leaders.

What essentials do you pack for yourself on trips?

How to Make Music Work for Your Gathering

Music is such a key part of our lives. Think about how often you hear or listen to music. Sundays at church services. In your car while you drive. In a store as you shop. On a tv commercial. At a football game. At a friend’s home. Or at a social gathering. But I think we often forget to have music at our youth gatherings and various other church settings.

Music is so beneficial because it sets the tone of the venue, offers background noise, encourages engagement, and makes occasions more invitational. I didn’t always embrace this, especially early on in ministry, but I have found myself utilizing music all the time now and it has helped so much in student ministry. In this post, I hope to encourage you in how you choose and implement music, and to also offer tips and resources to do this successfully.

Think through these four key areas:

1. Ambiance and environment.

Whenever you choose music, think about what you are trying to accomplish in the environment and what tone you want to have. For instance, if you have a gym night and you play folk music, you probably won’t have a ton of energy. Or if you want a coffee shop vibe and you decide to blast For King and Country, it probably won’t embody the setting you are seeking to cultivate. Thinking about the setting, tone, and desired outcome will help you cultivate the ambiance and environment you desire.

2. Energy for the venue.

I referenced in the previous point that setting the tone is key, and that is true in multiple ways. The music you play sets the tone of the energy for the venue. If you want people to be loud and engage in active games, you will want to have more upbeat music that will energize your audience. If you are going for a relaxing vibe, you want to have softer or acoustic music which will allow for more conversation and thoughtful engagement. The music you choose will convey the energy you are looking to achieve, so make sure to think through this piece as you choose what to play.

3. Target audience.

One of the big things we should be considering is our audience. I can sometimes get lost in creating a playlist for my students and throw in songs I grew up with in youth group. But if I am being honest, my students don’t care about those songs. They may resonate with a few of them but not all of them. This is a reminder to know who you are trying to reach and directing all elements of what you are doing toward them. As you think about what music or playlist to utilize, remember to think about who you are reaching. Include songs they know, artists they are familiar with, and tunes they can sing along or engage with.

4. The message you want to send.

Think through who your audience is and what message you want communicated to them through the music you are playing. For instance, on Sunday mornings I tend to utilize worship music because our programming is oriented toward students who are already following Jesus and who we are seeking to equip to be disciple-makers. But on youth group nights, our music is a blend of current and past upbeat Christian and clean secular music. Since we are seeking to pull in people who don’t know Jesus, our music could go from Lecrae, to Ok Go, to Crowder, to Justin Timberlake, to Hillsong, or to The Greatest Showman. This way everyone has something they may be familiar with, and it allows us to introduce people to various Christian artists. All of the music is filtered so there is no profanity, drug or alcohol references, references to vulgarity, violence, or derogatory language.

As you considered these key aspects, let me offer you few tips and resources to help you truly utilize music to the best possible outcome. These tips are meant to help your group grow, succeed, and meet the mission of reaching students for Jesus.

Invest in a good sound system.

I am not talking about built-in house speakers and a switcher with a great bass. If you have that, fantastic, make sure to use it. But if you don’t have that at your disposal, consider investing in a good quality Bluetooth speaker or computer speakers so you play music for the entire space you are in.

Utilize students to help with music.

If you have students who are musically inclined, consider utilizing them in various ways. They can lead worship, you could have a house band playing at youth group, they could pick your playlists, and they can help with the audio/visual elements. When students are involved and excited to be on the team, it generates an excitement and interest among their peers to also be involved. These opportunities for students to lead outward will not only generate excitement but it will also give them ownership of the ministry which will help it succeed.

Utilize apps and the internet.

There are many free music resources that you can use depending on your level of comfortability and time that you can afford to it. You could use YouTube and just look for playlists. You could utilize Pandora’s free option, but you will have to deal with ads and those can sometimes be uncomfortable or inappropriate for the setting. You could also utilize Spotify, which is my personal favorite. You could create your own playlists, or simply put on various albums, artists, or playlists that you find on it. Spotify also doesn’t use ads like Pandora, and they have various levels of subscription that are worth looking into if you have the budget for it.

A quick tip if you don’t have the budget to get a paid Spotify subscription: You can utilize the non-paid option on multiple computers as long as you keep the offline feature turned on. Simply download the playlist ahead of time, then switch to offline and voilà you can use the playlist in a few different locations.

Here are a few playlists that I utilize and the settings I use them in: