Last week, we took our youth group on a two-night retreat in the southwestern mountains of Virginia. We believe that it is very important for adults as well as youth to do retreats. (You can read Fr. Mark's paper on youth ministry if you want more on the why/how of youth retreats.)
Below are some insights I gained from this past trip.
1. Set expectations well -- Kids are coming to a retreat with many different expectations. I have been on other church or youth retreats which consist of 90% play and entertainment in order to justify a short spiritual talk. I told my kids that we would not be doing this, and that I would be working them hard! Two weeks before the retreat, we started talking about the schedule and the purposes of the retreat.
2. Plan accordingly -- There are many things to consider when planning your retreat besides the logistics of food and lodging. Most important is understanding the age and maturity of your group. The amount of devotions vs. free time is very important to balance. If the kids are younger, you need to keep sessions to 45 minutes and include movement. There should be at least an hour of free time between sessions. If the kids are older, you can extend each session to around an hour, and breaks should be at least a half an hour. Devotions should not just be lecture. It is important that each session blends lecture, discussion, group activities, and individual reflection.
3. Teach meaningful content -- Adults often have low expectations of what kids are capable of understanding. Yes, how you teach must be age appropriate, but if what you teach does not engage and challenge you or other adults, then it won't challenge the youth. Avoid condescension. If you underestimate youth, your content will bore them, and they will not respect you as a spiritual leader -- because you aren't respecting them.
4. Go with the flow -- Whenever you are working with youth, you need to be flexible and willing to change plans. I had to cut a whole session because half of our group arrived late. In addition, I could tell the kids were tired of reading, so I replaced an individual reading session with a group activity. And if conversation is fruitful, continue it -- even if it ruins the schedule!
5. Follow up with parents -- Our work with the youth is an important piece of spiritual formation in the life of a child. However, effective work with the youth includes the parents (and schools as well, if possible!) and requires a youth leader to communicate with parents. Below is an example of a follow-up email I sent to parents. In it, you can get a better sense of the content of our retreat, as well as how we encourage communication between the parish and the home.
First, let me thank all of you for supporting the youth group in the last year. As we have started more events and teaching, it has been wonderful to have you all volunteer, give of your time and money, and help me in so many ways. Thanks to Kurt, the youth group really starting taking shape last year. And for last week, I would especially like to thank [specific parents] for coming on the retreat to help chaperone. I could not have pulled it off without your help!
Second, it is my hope that my work with the youth continues at home. Though the kids might push against having conversations on these spiritual topics with you all, it is imperative that we all work together to encourage their spiritual growth. To that end, I want to let you all know what we are talking about as a youth group, both at the retreat and at Agape classes. From time to time, I will send out updates to help guide your conversations at home.
I am teaching the youth about prayer this whole semester. To do so, we are looking at prayer in the Gospel of Luke (he highlights the role of prayer more than any other Gospel). For the first few weeks at Agape, we looked at how Luke presents prayer. In chapters 1-3, prayer is centered around the Temple, but after Jesus is baptized (and he is praying at the baptism), Luke centers prayer in the person of Jesus.
Jesus is the great exemplar of prayer. During His busy ministry, He always departs from the crowds to pray, and He prays before major decisions/events in His life. His prayer becomes a constant conversation with His Father. This is exactly what is expected of us as well: that our lives become a constant conversation with God the Father through Jesus Christ.
Jesus also teaches us how to pray, and so our whole retreat was about the Lord's Prayer. We only got half-way through the prayer, because we looked at each and every phrase. In brief, we learned:
Prayer is an act, done anytime/anywhere, in co-operation with God's will.
We should seek to follow His will, not demand a magician to work for us.
We only know His will through Jesus, His son.
Our goal in life is to realize our positions as sons and daughters of God.
According to Jesus' own parables, the Kingdom of God is small and seemingly fragile, but it will transform the whole world. We need to seek the Kingdom in prayer.
For the next few weeks, we will continue to look at the Lord's Prayer in many different ways. My goal is that the kids will understand the Lord's Prayer in a deeper way, start praying it personally, and work on aligning their lives to God's will.
I hope this gives you all a better picture of what we are doing and encourages more conversations in your home. You can support your child by helping them find time each day for private prayer or even doing Morning/Evening Prayer as a family. If you have additional ideas, please let me know!