Picture the perfect youth ministry retreat. The one where each and every scheduled event happens without a hitch. The one where everything goes exactly according to schedule, plan, and budget. The one where the youth pastor delivers flawless dissertations about the goodness of Christ, and the students hang off of each and every single word. The one where the little cherubs go to bed at reasonable hours, drifting off to sleep after having thought about how their lives could be more Christ-like when they got home.
Got that image in your head?
Good, because the retreat I just got back from was nothing like that.
Welcome to a recap of THE RETREAT WHERE NOTHING WENT RIGHT.
It all began in earnest on Friday afternoon. We as a church are strongly considering purchasing a new large capacity vehicle, because our current large capacity vehicle probably wouldn't make it as far as the local gas station without a good push. And so we rented large capacity vehicles, in fact I was careful to rent the kind we were thinking of buying, as this weekend would serve as a test drive of sorts. I chuckled to myself as I mused to our other leaders "Hey, I wonder if we'll get to see how it handles in the snow."
To answer my own question, the large capacity vehicle handles quite well in the snow. Unfortunately I do not. So while we arrived at our destination safely and in one piece, my heart took up permanent residence in my throat. We pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, where we had reserved two family suites and one extra room as overflow. The conversation went like this:
Me: We are here to check in to our rooms!
Employee: Ah, great to see you Mr. Freyer. We have you down for one family suite and one extra room.
Me: <blank stare>
Employee: Is that not right?
Me: Two family suites. We registered for two family suites.
Employee: Oh no! Our system isn't the best, sometimes it leaves a room off the reservation.
Employee (after reading the confirmation email that I had to call Ed in Texas to have forwarded to me which clearly and distinctly states we had two family suites): Oh...I hope we can keep you in there all weekend. We're totally booked.
To this particular employee at this particular hotel's great credit, she worked extra hard and ironed out all the details that could have been a total disaster. Eventually. We were still working on it Saturday morning. But we were here now. We got the kids settled into their rooms, played a few games, had a talk, and a great small group time. As my head hit the pillow, I thought to myself "At least we got all the trouble out of the way early."
While we were in the water park, one of our leaders blew out her knee such that it required pretty serious medical attention. A really good rule of thumb is that if you have an ambulance come visit you on a retreat you are having, it's not going well. As fate would have it, we were pretty near her hometown, so we were able to get her the medical attention she needed, surround her with family, and keep up with our leadership needs. Again I thought, this isn't the best, but at least we're prepared for what's been going on. What else could happen?
Towards the end of our day in the park, a student came over to me and told me that she was missing some money from her wallet. This happens constantly on trips like this. Kids walk through the snack bar line, intend to pull out $2, and then casually drop their life savings on the ground behind them. I was about to offer up a lecture about how being careful with our cash is an important thing, when another student came up complaining of missing money. And another. And another. Four kids with missing cash they were certain was in their wallets? Either we had the clumsiest youth group, or something was wrong. While my job description clearly states that I am the Associate Pastor for Youth, Contemporary Worship, and Media, I was now faced with the less-than-ideal situation of being the youth group's in house detective.
I asked around, offered a penalty-free return policy, and came just short of swinging a lamp from the ceiling. Eventually it started to look pretty much like no one in our group was responsible. We later wondered if while we were tending to the medical situation, when all our attention was on our hurting sister, some opportunist went through everybody's stuff. Who knows. Not a whole lot was taken, so I refunded the kids that were wronged and moved on with the weekend.
There were more issues, some of which probably shouldn't get air time in public. The whole weekend felt like me bouncing from one crisis to another, with no real time to be present and attentive to the students. It is not hard in those situations to view what's happened as a failure. It's hard to not carry the weight of the things that go wrong on your own shoulders when you're the leader. I mean to be sure they were elements that were beyond my control, but still...the buck stops here, right?
But then a wise leader on the trip with us put things in perspective for me. She noted that I had done some teaching about how Jesus invites us to forgive. On a normal retreat, this would have just been another one of my lectures that could easily be forgotten by lunchtime. But now we're staring in the face of having to forgive some faceless assailant who stole our cash. We even prayed for that person before we left at the end of the retreat, as Jesus asked to pray for our enemies. I gave a teaching about how Jesus is a healer, which again on it's own wouldn't have lasted the weekend in the student's collective memory. And then we all got to watch a group come together, a family spring to action, medical professionals do their work, all under the watchful eye of the savior. We got to watch staff people work ridiculously hard to offer us hospitality in the face of a difficult situation. We got to see new leaders step up to challenges not often faced on these kinds of retreats. I taught about being aware of Jesus at all times, and the challenging pieces of the weekend served to shine a bright light on all that he was doing.
In essence, we were given the gift of watching grace in real time.
To be clear, I would really REALLY rather not ever have to have a retreat like that again. I walked in the door of the house and basically collapsed for a nap, mostly from being over-stressed. But it's a pretty good reminder that Jesus is there for us in our brokenness. When things go wrong, He can make them right. When things are broken, He repairs. And when youth leaders are tired, he gives them comfy beds at home and a loving family to return to. Maybe this wasn't the picture perfect weekend for a youth group, but I bet we talk about it for a while. I bet we laugh (probably a little later down the road) at some of what happened. I bet we tell stories when we're on other retreats. I bet we remind each other of when we had each other's backs through the storms. And best of all, I bet Jesus comes up in those stories more than he would on a "normal" retreat.
I really REALLY don't want to have another retreat like that again. But I am glad I had this one.