Cliff Notes Jesus

Have you ever read a book and just fallen in love with a character?

Did you ever come across people talking or writing about that character and what they say just completely over-simplifies the character and fails to do the character justice?

That’s how I feel about Jesus quite often, except he’s not just a character in a book – he’s a person.

As a young adult, I went through the RCIA process to receive Confirmation. I was still filled with doubt and misunderstanding, but an openness and desire for Truth that was met with compassion and equal openness to my seeking. When I read the Gospel of St. Luke, then the Acts of the Apostles, and then the remaining Gospels in order (and so on), I encountered Jesus for what felt like the first time.

Growing up, I got the “God is love” message and “the Catholic Church is just full of outdated and irrelevant rules with no basis” message. So what I came to believe was that it really didn’t matter much what I did as long as I was a “good person”. Jesus was kind and forgiving and accepting of all and the Catholic Church was full of a bunch of man-made rules that didn’t seem to matter. Plus, if I did something wrong, God was just going to forgive me anyway, right?

As I devoured St. Luke’s Gospel, I encountered the Jesus who loves compassionately and also leaves no one unchanged or stuck in their sin. I saw love in action that says “I forgive you” and “sin no more”. My life was radically changed from that time on.

Too often, Christians and secular individuals alike talk about what Jesus would or wouldn’t do as if he were just a static moral code source (or a benevolent and wise teacher). They use him to justify their opinion about a political or social matter like a college student referencing a thesaurus to find the right words to support their opinion argument premise.

To be certain, we can and should turn to Jesus in scripture and in prayer to guide and accompany us in this life, particularly as we search for what is True and Just in the world. Jesus is the Word, but he is the Word made flesh. Rather than a fixed document to cite in a persuasive essay, the Word is living and dynamic and complex.

Complexity doesn’t mean unknowable nor does it mean inconsistent nor relative.

It means that Jesus is both loving and steadfast in Truth. It means he cuts through the false piety of the Pharisees and demonstrates a deeply held personal prayer life plus a commitment to communal faith expressions (aka organized religion). It means Jesus welcomes back the sinner when they are ready to accept God’s mercy, which includes turning one’s back on sin and changing how one lives their life. It also means that following Jesus is as much about giving up sin and deepening a personal relationship with God as it is about living the beatitudes, the corporal works of mercy, and proactively participating in the building of the Kingdom of God for the common good.

The world will tell you life is “either-or” – either you are this or your are that. If you aren’t for us, you’re against us. The Catholic faith, on the other hand, is a faith of “both-and” because Jesus, in all his complexity and simplicity, is “both-and”. We both love people and challenge them to be who God created them to be. We both have a prayerful and personal relationship with God and we recognize our commitment to the community we are a part of and actively build the Kingdom through serving others.

So I invite you to start with The Gospel According to St. Luke or whichever Gospel might be your favorite, and reconnect with the complex Jesus. Don’t just rely on someone else’s Cliff Notes version.


Going Deeper in Prayer & Spirituality with Middle Schoolers

This past weekend, I had the privilege of presenting at the National Conference on Catholic Youth Ministry (NCCYM) in San Jose, CA. I shared ideas and facilitated conversation about how we can lead our middle school youth deeper in their prayer and spiritual lives. It’s such an important conversation, I wanted to share just a few of the main ideas I presented and leave some space to continue the conversation here.

What exactly is “deeper”?

The first thing to establish for yourself is what do you picture or envision when you think of “deeper” in terms of middle schoolers’ prayer and spiritual lives. Having a clear understanding allows you to do a few things:

  1. Make sure it isn’t too specific – allowing room for the uniqueness of each middle schoolers’ personal relationship with Jesus. After all, no two relationships look exactly alike.
  2. Compare your vision with where your middle schoolers are at. This allows you to see where they are already strong and what areas need more formation and development.
  3. Allows you to communicate clearly with other leaders so everyone is on the same page about the path your team needs to lay out for your middle schoolers.

Four Focus Areas

Now that you have your vision of what a “deeper prayer and spiritual life” looks like, here are four areas to focus on when forming the prayer and spiritual lives of your middle schoolers:

  1. Understanding
  2. Meaningfulness/Relevance
  3. Frequency or Repetition
  4. Quality


The basic premise is – are we assuming our middle schoolers understand that prayer is relationship with God, understand how to encounter Jesus in the prayers we explain, understand the rich Catholic Tradition to prayers? (Most middle schoolers’ minds are blown when you show them the Rosary is found in scripture). There’s much more to say about what to do and how we can get this principle wrong, but it boils down to checking for actual understanding in the minds and hearts of our middle schoolers.


Put yourself in your middle schoolers’ shoes and ask, “why does this matter to me? How does this matter to me? Why should I care? How does this affect me?” Answer those questions and you’ll be able to help your middle schoolers find meaningfulness and relevance to prayer for them personally. The big key here again is, don’t assume. Double-check that you’re using relevant metaphors, analogies, and explanations that can connect prayer to what’s going on in their life – especially if they don’t find a connection between God and what’s going on.

Frequency or Repetition

Is prayer something you just tack on to a gathering or class or is conversing with God woven throughout your shared time with the middle schoolers? Are the middle schoolers only encountering certain prayers (like Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary, Lectio Divina, etc.) once or twice a year or do you provide a variety of prayer experiences multiple times? As with any skill, learning how to converse with God through various methods (read: various types of prayers) requires practice and repetition.


Again, is prayer something you just tack on to a gathering or class? Is it treated like an item on the checklist of ministry? Modeling good prayer by having a strong prayer and spiritual life is one of the keys to this principle. And don’t forget environment! Set the mood and ambience with the proper environment for the prayer time; use the senses and imagination; anticipate and eliminate (as best as possible) potential distractions.

There’s obviously much more we can discuss on the subject, and much like an iceberg, this is just the tip. So let’s keep chatting!

You can comment here or find me on Twitter @LindseyAWest.

Bullying, Catechesis, Church, Culture, Development, Evangelization, Faith Formation, Human Dignity, Leadership, Love, Mentoring, Ministry, Modern Bullying, Personal Growth, Reflection, Role modeling, Teens, Youth Ministry

Open Letter to a Former Teen on the Autism Spectrum

Dear Former Teen,

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I let you down when I was your youth minister. Your mom told me you have Asperger’s* and gave me a heads up of some of the behaviors I might see. I was secretly a little apprehensive, but wanted you to have a place within the youth ministry. I thought I was being inclusive by making sure you weren’t picked on when you’d flap your hands or for not making it a big deal when you’d say or do something a little “strange”. I tried to get you involved with your peers, but I didn’t understand how. How could I, when I didn’t take the time or initiative to understand?

Passive acceptance (or tolerance) of “different” behaviors is not true acceptance and understanding. I tried to make sure you didn’t feel ostracized, to help you fit within the youth group, but I should have done more to welcome you into the group and modeled for the rest of our youth ministry what it means to truly know and love a person who is different (not less).

Now that I have a child of my own on the autism spectrum, I realize that I should have sat down and talked with your mom the moment she told me you have Asperger’s, to learn more about her experience, your experience, and to actively learn how I could support you. I should have taken the initiative to learn more about the autism spectrum in general, and specifically learned more about how the autism spectrum affects you. I should have done more to help you adapt to youth group, but even more importantly, I should have figured out how to adapt youth ministry to you. I should have figured out ways to make sure youth ministry was accommodating, so that I could give you a break or understand sensory overload and adjust our activities and settings so it wasn’t so overwhelming. I should have jumped more into your interests so I could connect better with you. If I had taken the time to learn what the autism spectrum truly is and how it can affect the way someone sees and experiences the world, maybe I could have done a better job of helping you feel like you belonged and helping your spiritual growth.

I’m sorry, former teen, that I failed to meet you where you were at. I’m sorry I really only met neurotypical teens where they were at instead of learning to see things from a different perspective, your perspective.

Now I know. And I’m still learning. And I hope and pray that more of us in youth ministry will do better. To take the initiative to read, discuss, learn, and understand so we can better love and serve teens (and Core Members, and parents, and everyone that comes into contact with our ministry) on the autism spectrum. To not only learn to help teens on the spectrum adapt to youth ministry, but to adapt youth ministry for teens on the spectrum.

I’m sorry, former teen. I pray that you’re doing well and that your life is filled with people who truly see you and love you for who you are. Pray for me and others who serve within the Church, that we can learn to be more inclusive – not just tolerant, but truly welcome and work within our ministry to serve the needs of everyone, not matter how they experience the world around them.

Your Sister in Christ.


*Note: Asperger’s is no longer an official diagnosis and has been assumed under one, broad, general diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), so I have referred to autism spectrum throughout the blog post. I chose the phrasing “autism spectrum” to reflect the current verbiage in use, while still wishing to honor those who identify with any of the various names the various points of the spectrum have been labeled throughout the years (Autism, Asperger’s, PDD-NOS, etc.).


Pope BXVI Abdicates: An Opportunity for Evangelization & Catechesis

Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would abdicate as Pope effective February 28th, 2013 – the first time a pope has freely done so in over 700 years. If you’ve been on retreat or pilgrimage that has taken you away from most media outlets, check out the Pope BXVI’s declaratio here – Declaratio February 11th, 2013.


This is a “high profile” moment in the Church which means it’s a great opportunity to evangelize and catechize not only your teens (who are probably facing questions at school if their friends know they are Catholic) and teens who aren’t a part of your ministry yet. They key in this fast-paced, hyper digital age is to come up with a game plan and implement it while our limited attention spans are still captivated by this historical moment. I’m blessed to be a part of The Best Youth Ministry Podcast Ever…Maybe, and we addressed this topic in our latest episode. Take a listen here (Pope Resigns: Ideas for Your Youth Ministry) and read some of the ideas below:

  • Use some of your gathered youth ministry sessions to talk about the Chair of St. Peter and various other aspects that the Pope’s abdication brings up.
    • If you can’t do several sessions, have at least one gathered youth night about the basics and then offer a series during the next several weeks that go into more depth for those teens who are interested.
  • Basic night about the foundation and history of the Pope in the Catholic faith – Use scripture, the Catechism, talks, activities, discussion groups to talk about St. Peter as the first Pope, the succession of Popes, and give a little Church history. You can think of this is a fun apologetics session about the Office of the Bishop of Rome.
  • Address the history of the conclave
    • The media has already made a big deal about the “secrecy factor” of the conclave – let’s demystify and de-stigmatize the role of secrecy in the election of the Pope. Check out this resource for more information: History of the Papal Conclave
    • Activity Idea: Hold a mock conclave about something silly like which music superstar should be chosen to represent the teens’ generation of music.
  • Have a session or two about discernment – not only the role discernment and the Holy Spirit plays in the election of the new Pope, but also how discernment and the Holy Spirit are relevant to the lives of your youth.
    • Have them practice some different types of discernment prayers and meditations
    • Use scripture and the Saints to study how the Holy Spirit has moved through the lives of Christians whom have gone before us.
  • Study the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI – look at his encyclicals, letters, and books.
    • Study Deus Caritas Est or read BXVI’s book on Jesus, etc.
  • Gather your youth to pray for the Cardinals as they discern the next Pope and to pray for Pope Benedict and/or challenge your youth to pray daily or weekly on their own until the new Pope has been elected.

These are just some ideas. What would you do or what are you doing with your youth?



Getting Back to Great: 3 Things You Can Do Now

Yesterday I posted about “good enough” vs. “great” in youth ministry (you can read that post here: Is Your Ministry Great or Just “Good Enough”). It’s easy to get complacent with “good enough”, but we are made for greatness and our ministry deserves greatness. So how do we get back to greatness if we’re stuck in “good enough”? Here are three ideas for getting back to great:

Pray Every Day (and frequent the Sacraments). Sounds simple enough, but make sure your prayer life is on track so that your own relationship with God is great, not just good enough. Plus, prayer and the Sacraments allow the Holy Spirit to inspire us and our ministry.

Brainstorm. You can use Thoughtboxes, Evernote, Wunderlist, Apple Notes, or whatever website or phone app you prefer to jot down ideas when you come across them. Sit down at least once a week and be intentional with brainstorming ideas for youth group meetings, prayer experiences, socials and relational ministry, etc. Follow websites, friend other youth ministers, and check social media for great ideas that other Youth Ministries are doing. Sit down regularly with your Core Team and/or other youth ministers in your area to brainstorm ideas. Bring in new Core Members or Youth Ministers from other denominations to shake up the ideas in your brainstorming.

Don’t be Afraid to Fail. Not every idea is going to work out and your youth won’t always be ready for how deep you want to try to take them (though most of the time, they will rise to the challenge). We can’t let our own fear of failure stop us from challenging our youth to go deeper or trying new ideas in ministry, though. So many times we think that we have failed if our young people aren’t levitating or singing praises of that really cool new game or prayer experience after we’ve tried something new. That’s not the point, though. God asks that we sow the seeds so that He can water and reap the good fruits. We don’t change hearts or lives – God is the only one who can do that. If we never challenge our middle schoolers and teens to take their faith to the next level or if we never shake up the comfort level within our ministry, our youth and our ministry won’t stay great for long. We’re not talking about changing for the sake of change, we’re talking about intentional and prayer-driven change.

These are just three ideas for how to get back to great. What would you add to the list?


Is Your Ministry Great or Just “Good Enough”?


I was at a youth a ministry conference last week and I really wanted to be able to tweet about it more or have more enthusiasm and excitement to share about it. When I look at the tweets, instagram, and facebook posts I made, they were mostly about the really fun youth ministers and musicians I was with. It’s such a huge blessing to know and have met some really amazing people and don’t get me wrong, the conference wasn’t bad – it was good enough.

My experience got me thinking, though. There were thousands of youth ministers at this conference and we all had buy-in so the conference could get away with “good enough” and still satisfy most everyone there. How often do we get that way in our own ministries? We get teens who have “bought-in” or Core Members who have “bought-in” to the vision, to their faith, and so we begin to give them youth nights, socials, and even relational ministry that is “good enough”.

The problem is that “good enough” ISN’T “good enough”. It isn’t good enough to inspire young people to step out in faith and open themselves to the risk of God beautifully wrecking their lives and rebuilding it for His glory. It isn’t good enough to keep stretching our young people already a part of our ministries so that they’re always in awe of God’s work in their lives. It isn’t good enough for our Core Members who give so much of themselves for God’s kingdom and our youth ministries. It isn’t good enough for us. Our teens, our Core Members, WE all deserve greatness, not “good enough”. As our Holy Family, Pope Benedict XVI said, we “are made for greatness.”

If you’re stuck in the “good enough” spot right now, know that you are in my prayers and please pray for and with me that we may bring back greatness to all that we do.

So how are you bringing greatness to your ministry?


8 Components of Awesome Retreats: Engaging Talks

If you’re just jumping into this blog series about retreats, I highly recommend starting at the beginning with 3 Core Concepts of Great Retreats. As we explore each of the 8 components in detail, be sure to take a look at the entire list. As each of the 8 components are expanded upon, they will be linked on the original list of the 8 Components of Awesome Retreats.

This is probably the hardest posts in this series for me to write; not because it’s difficult to come up with things to share about engaging talks, but because there’s a whole academic discipline devoted to communicating well so there’s A LOT that won’t get covered here. Overall, speaking well, speaking persuasively are great skills to have so I recommend taking a speaking class to anyone interested in improving their talks.

In the meantime here are some tips on giving engaging talks:

Don’t speak at or about teens – speak TO them and with them: Try to use examples that are relevant (e.g. Bieber is so 2 years ago, it’s all about One Direction now with the girls). Don’t belittle teens or go into the whole “in my day” spiel. You CAN tell them you’ve been in similar situations or circumstances and share how God impacted your life and helped you through whatever those situations or circumstances were. In fact, that leads me to the next point…

Be authentic and personal: when appropriate, share relevant aspects of your life as they relate to God and the message you’re trying to share. If you get caught up too much in the details or focus too much on yourself, rather than what God has done in your life, you may or may not start to lose the teens’ interest (depending on how good of a story-teller you are), but you will probably have less of an impact with your talk; God is the one who changes lives and we always want our messages to point to Him. The next point…

Be clear about your point: What is your talk? Is it a witness/testimony? Is it a teaching on doctrine? Is it a teaching on morality? Is it meant to encourage? Is the talk meant to challenge? Is it focused on preparing teens for an experience? It’s important to understand the nature of your talk if you’re going to be effective. Let’s break it down some more:

If your talk is a straightforward witness/testimony, spend maybe 20-30% talking about the pre-God-experience, 40-50% talking about the encounter with God, and spend the rest of the talk sharing about life with God after the life-changing encounter. Don’t get too bogged down with the bad; set the stage for the big life-transformation reveal, but get to the good stuff soon so the focus can be on God’s awesomeness rather than your your past.

Maybe you’re being called in to help your youth understand a doctrine or teaching of the faith. These are the more “educational” teachings and they can be boring because sometimes we barely understand the teaching enough ourselves to be able to make it interesting and relatable. So after you’ve done your research and studying up on the particular teaching you’re speaking about, start thinking of analogies and metaphors you can use that are relevant to a teen that would help build that bridge (aka translate) the teaching. Jesus did this all the time – we call them parables.

Do you remember doing those 5 paragraph essays in school? You have your thesis, you have at least 3 supporting arguments which you further defend with proofs, and then your conclusion. Some of the best talks that teach, encourage, challenge, etc follow this same principle. People are better able to follow you and meet you at your main point if you spell out your point in a way that is clear, well-supported, and with each support building upon each other.

Energy. Teens will feed off whatever you give them. If you give a nervous, distracted presence, you probably won’t engage the group as well. If you’re loud and bouncing all over the place, the teens might have a hard time following you. If you are well-prepared, focused on the teens (also known as reading the audience), giving your full attention to them, the teens will also give you their full attention (usually). You can be energetic or soft-spoken and calm, but if you give your full presence to the teens, follow some of the other practices for giving good talks, you will have those teens engaged.

Other tips include enunciating, use of appropriate humor to break the ice, trying to cut back on like uhm uh filler words, practicing your talk in front of a mirror, utilizing appropriate hand gestures for emphasis throughout your talk, take a few steps towards different areas of the room to indicate transitions or even just to get teens’ eyes moving so they stay focused, and my favorite tip – be interactive for at least part of your talk if possible; nothing gets teens’ engaged like soliciting their experience or answers.

Happy planning and be sure to check out the other 7 components of awesome retreats.


8 Components of Awesome Retreats: Good Music

If you’re just jumping into this blog series about retreats, I highly recommend starting at the beginning with 3 Core Concepts of Great Retreats. As we explore each of the 8 components in detail, be sure to take a look at the entire list. As each of the 8 components are expanded upon, they will be linked on the original list of the 8 Components of Awesome Retreats.

I’m probably preaching to the choir on this one (get it? choir?), but music is so, so key (see what I did there, too?) to youth ministry and retreats are no exception. Granted, I do know a good youth minister embarking on a silent retreat with teens, which is awesome, but this post is talking about your typical retreat structure and format which is different from a “silent retreat”. Whenever I’m talking with people about youth ministry and they’re preaching a model of fun without substance, I like to remind them that movie studios spend millions on just a single film to make it look and sound awesome and be an experience that people can get lost in so unless they have some crazy, unheard of, ginormous budget, chances are they won’t even get close to being as entertaining as what the entertainment *industry* can offer. However, music is one of those areas where we do have a fighting chance at “competing” with the secular grabs for the hearts and minds of our youth. So what do I mean by “Good Music”. Here are 4 things to keep in mind as Youth Coordinators (and even worship leaders) to help your Retreat Music make a difference in your retreat:

  1. The music teens listen to is super polished and highly produced so take the time to find people that can help your worship team sound more polished and invest in equipment or find someone willing to donate the equipment to help your worship team achieve a polished sound. Our Protestant brothers and sister tend to have this one down.
  2. Related to the point above, as a musician, invest in your craft. I’ll never forget when I was serving as a worship leader on a retreat and the keynote speaker at the event, who was also a musician, spoke about how God had given him music as a gift and had given him these talents and he realized that he needed to up the ante and invest is high quality equipment as a way of giving glory to God and trusting God in his music ministry. If God has called me to use my gifts and talents for His service, I need to step out in faith and invest in equipment that’s going to help God’s message and love in the music I play and the worship I lead sound as good as possible. So, for any musicians reading this, I’m challenging you to pray about it – don’t just geek out over gear, but look at what you have and if you’re giving your best in your ministry for God’s glory.
  3. Thoughtfulness and prayerfulness are two significant aspects of your music leader that can make a retreat awesome or okay. If a leader is thoughtful and prayerful in which songs they pick that relate to scripture at Mass, key themes or concepts or teachings throughout the various movements of the retreat, etc – the music goes from being filler to actually saying something that matters to the retreat and something that matters is usually going to be better than something that doesn’t matter.
  4. The music teens listen to is super polished and highly produced…so much so that it tends to be more about a good beat than anything of substance. Having someone that knows how to pray music and to lead others into worship is going to be more effective and amazing than even the best sounding band that’s just “performing”. It’s not just about finding talented musicians to serve on your retreat, it’s about finding people that have been gifted with a prayerfulness and mindfulness of the Sacred and the community they are leading in worship.

If I were writing this strictly to an audience of musicians for retreats, I’d probably expand on some ideas further, but what would YOU add to this list? Let’s discuss below.

Happy planning and be sure to check out the other 7 components of awesome retreats.


8 Components of Awesome Retreats: The Sacraments

If you’re just jumping into this blog series about retreats, I highly recommend starting at the beginning with 3 Core Concepts of Great Retreats. As we explore each of the 8 components in detail, be sure to take a look at the entire list. As each of the 8 components are expanded upon, they will be linked on the original list of the 8 Components of Awesome Retreats.

It’s a simple premise: we don’t change hearts, God does.

God works through His people and we are Christ’s hands and feet (on good days), but ultimately, ministry and the fruits of it are all gifts from God and He’s the one making things happen. So, if we really want to see the power of Christ to change hearts and minds, our best bet is to steep ourselves and our youth in the Sacraments – in God’s holy presence. There are only so many Sacraments one can participate in on a retreat and it’s not hard to guess which Sacraments I’m going to suggest every retreat have or consider celebrating. It’s about more than just celebrating Sacraments, though, it’s about HOW we celebrate them. Here’s how:

  • Mass – Just because we’re on retreat in the middle of nowhere does not mean we should abandon setting an environment and sacred space for the holy Mass. It also means we can’t abandon the best practices of really good youth-oriented/vibrant liturgies. Have amazing music for Mass, a relevant homily, and get teens involved.
  • Reconciliation – The very name of the Sacrament explains it all: sin is the baggage that keeps us from repairing and strengthening our relationship with God; get rid of the sin, open up new channels of God’s grace to touch your teens’ lives on the retreat and beyond. Give them some theology in a way that helps them understand that Reconciliation is a Sacrament of healing – healing our soul and heart because it reconciles us to God and His Church, the body of Christ. Dramas or skits are often really popular and effective ways of visually illustrating the theology of sin and reconciliation. I do believe it is possible to prepare and encourage youth to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation without performing a drama or skit, though. Set the tone and the atmosphere with your lighting, reflective music (if you use any), and what post-reconciliation activities you choose to help your youth process the forgiveness and healing they’ve just experienced (or maybe they need help processing the barriers that are keeping them from going to Reconciliation).
  • Eucharistic Adoration – It’s a form of prayer that dates way back in our Church history and it’s very simple. The Eucharist is the Source and Summit of our faith, it is the real, true presence of Christ. So, whether you are silently contemplating, singing praise and worship, or praying the Rosary or Chaplet of Divine Mercy, kneeling in the presence of our Lord in Adoration can be one of the most profound experiences for your youth. You can never go wrong with any form of worship or prayer involving the Eucharist, but there are less effective ways of guiding youth through Adoration. Reminding them of what we believe about the Eucharist, sharing your own belief about the Eucharist (it let’s the youth know that they aren’t crazy and alone if they choose to believe), giving some basic instruction and encouragement for what the flow of prayer will be so there’s no confusion or distraction of the unknown, and demystifying what isn’t a mystery so that the youth can experience what is truly the mystery of faith are all ways  to help your youth have a more meaningful experience and time of prayer.
  • Marriage/Holy Orders – Okay, your youth won’t actually experience these Sacraments in the sense that they won’t receive them, but they can experience them through those who have received these Sacraments. Have a married couple and/or a priest throughout your entire retreat to serve and to be present and the grace of their Sacraments will touch the lives of your youth, even if only to inspire them to begin discerning their own Vocation and how God is already at work in them.

Remember that faith is like a second language, especially the Sacraments in which we experience our transcendent God, and so we are trying to give a context to the experience of the Sacraments in a way that helps translate the beauty and mystery of our faith to our youth. Ultimately, it isn’t our talks or skits that wins hearts for God, it is God who draws hearts near to Him and so we’d be missing a huge opportunity for ongoing conversion if we didn’t make celebrating the Sacraments a significant foundation of our retreats (and ministry in general).

Happy planning and be sure to check out the other 7 components of awesome retreats.


8 Components of Awesome Retreats: Solid Small Group Leaders

If you’re just jumping into this blog series about retreats, I highly recommend starting at the beginning with 3 Core Concepts of Great Retreats. As we explore each of the 8 components in detail, be sure to take a look at the entire list. As each of the 8 components are expanded upon, they will be linked on the original list of the 8 Components of Awesome Retreats.

If done well, the time your youth spend in small groups will probably be one of the most impactful and effective components of your retreat. Small groups are where teens get to listen to their peers, think, digest, discuss, process, and share who they are. It’s a great time of growth, learning more about where your teens are coming from, finding areas of faith your teens are struggling in, and connecting with your teens on a deeper level. Small groups can make or break a retreat. No pressure.

If you haven’t already trained your core team about facilitating amazing small group sessions and/or you have new people you’ve brought on board just for this retreat, now is the time to provide some small group training. Here are some keys to helping your leaders facilitate amazing small groups:

  • Help them understand their role – they aren’t there to do more teaching, to chastise, to fix, or to play 20 Questions. Small group leaders have the challenging and rewarding task of facilitating a conversation. I like to use the analogy of a river rafting guide – they have an idea of the direction they want the conversation to go, but they let it also flow naturally, can sense and maneuver the conversation around obstacles or traps, can stimulate the others in the “raft” to action when needed, but also can trust on everyone else’s instinct and natural inclination to keep things moving forward.
  • Give them the tools they need – make sure that they have questions and activities for their small group time that give them enough of a structure to work with; it’s like making sure a river raft guide has a river, a raft, and oars. Go over the questions ahead of time, allow your leaders to ask questions about the content you’ve provided for small group time, and give your leaders the background they need to be able to understand the direction you want them to take the small group time. There are some best practices in small group dynamics and behavior management – teach them to your leaders. Here are some examples:
    • Make sure everyone is sitting at eye-level.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask questions that make sense and move the conversation forward even if it’s not a question you’ve been given to ask the students.
    • If you have a co-leader, sit across from them, rather than next to them.
    • Vary your approach: if it’s a quiet group, go around in a circle or call on youth by name; if it’s a talkative group, have people raise their hands or use a “talking stick” to ensure everyone gets a chance to hear and be heard.
  • Practice makes perfect – you probably don’t want to entrust your safety to a river raft guide that has never led a trip down a river or at least this particular river and similarly, it takes practice to facilitate amazing small group sessions. As part of your training, have your team practice different skills or best practices, make sure they’ve read through the small group material BEFORE the retreat, and be open to the suggestions your team has for making changes, especially as they practice asking and answering the questions or prompts for discussion time.

Aside from training, amazing small groups also depend to varying degrees upon the dynamics between co-leaders and youth. As you’re putting together small groups, think about the dynamics between your youth and what kind of leaders and facilitator styles they might respond best to, then match your leaders accordingly. If you have two or more facilitators per small group (I recommend having two per small group), take into account their personalities and how they work together as well. Letting the co-leaders know ahead of time who their small group partner is can help them plan ahead and determine a game plan for how they want to co-facilitate. You can also provide some guidance in having them take every-other question or one person taking the lead and the other supplementing, but be willing to work with your pairings.

I love leading retreats, but one of the things I miss is being a small group leader; that’s because I think it is so important for the retreat coordinator to be able to walk around see how the small group sessions are going so you can provide feedback and tips throughout the retreat to your leaders. For example, if you notice that one of your leaders is doing too much sharing and not enough listening to the teens, you can pull them aside at an appropriate time and affirm them for taking such an interest in the small group time while asking them to also listen more. Maybe you’ll even find out that they are talking so much because they are unsure of how to get their non-talkative group to open up which then turns into a great teaching moment as you help this leader try some of the skills and tactics for working with “quiet groups”.

Happy planning and be sure to check out the other 7 components of awesome retreats.