The first retreat I ever led was about authentic relationships. I spent HOURS prepping every aspect of this retreat – including hours on a retreat booklet for participants. The retreat booklet contained cartoons, quotes, the Bible passages we were using, and journaling prompts.

For the next six years in youth ministry, I produced similar booklets for every retreat I led.

I thought that’s what youth pastors did. For something to be considered a retreat, I was convinced it had to have a corresponding booklet that teens could take home, treasure, and keep as a remembrance.

Eventually, I started noticing that when I’d do my final cabin walk-through to make sure no one had forgotten anything, I’d find a stack of retreat booklets in the trash.

Apparently, my teens didn’t treasure them quite as much as I did.

I brushed it off, thinking that if even one teen looked at the retreat booklet again, the time and effort I’d spent making it was worth it.

But then I started noticing the volume of retreat booklets I’d find in the vans after we returned home, discarded and forgotten.

Once, a teen even asked me why I “wasted so much paper” creating such “silly booklets”. She accused me of hating the environment and then said, “It’s not like anyone ever looks at these again.”

That’s when I vowed never to create another retreat booklet.

In the seven years since, I haven’t. And you know what?

No one has missed them.

Don’t believe me? 

Try it and see. 

To be clear, I’m not opposed to giving teens a spiritual souvenir from their retreat. I just think we should utilize ones that don’t take us hours to prepare. 

So instead of creating retreat books, ask teens to bring a journal from home. Throughout the weekend, give them prompts to answer in their journals. When teens answer prompts in a journal they’re actively using, they’re far more likely to look back at their retreat entries after returning home.

If your teens don’t have journals, go to the dollar store and grab a pack of tiny notebooks. Hand those out at the retreat and encourage teens to use them to take notes, journal, and answer prompts. For an almost negligible cost, you can save yourself HOURS of prep work… Hours you can use on far more important things like

  • Praying for your retreat.
  • Studying the scripture passage you’re exploring.
  • Equipping your adult and student leaders for their roles during the retreat.
  • Practicing your teaching.
  • Resting so that you go into the retreat with energy.
  • Or using just a fraction of the time you would have spent creating, copying, and collating your retreat books to come up with a symbol for teens to create during the retreat that connects to your theme and just might be cool enough to get shelf-space in a student’s bedroom back at home.

For example, during our recent retreat on Revelation, during our first session, we talked about the tree of life (mentioned in Jesus’ letter to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2). As a symbol of this tree of life, each teen got a small clay pot (also from the dollar store). Throughout our weekend, teens wrote their answers to various prompts on their pot. During our last session, we talked about the tree of life’s place in New Jerusalem. Afterward, teens pondered what life might be like in the New Jerusalem. They also wrestled with how they might make that a reality in their community today. Small group leaders then went around to each teen and prayed a blessing over them. As part of this blessing, teens planted seeds in their clay pot. Teens then took their pots home with them as a reminder of our retreat. 

Unlike earlier retreats, during my final cabin walk-through, I didn’t find a single pot… Nor did I find any forgotten in cars.

Of course, I know some of these pots will end up forgotten in a box of sentimental trash. Yet, I also know that tangible symbols are far more effective remembrances than retreat books ever will be. Just ask my former students.

In the weeks leading up to my retreat, I met with four different college students who were home on winter break. Each asked about the winter retreat and about what it’s symbol would be. They then recounted the different symbols we had during each of their four winter retreats and using them, reflected on each retreat’s theme and impact.

Like you, I want teens to grow in their relationships with God and each other during retreats.

But I also want us to be honest about what helps teens do that.

Let’s spend our time on the things that actually help teens grow in their faith rather than wasting our time on things that eventually end up in the trash.