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We know the many benefits of taking young people away, but how do we achieve the best results? We spoke to youth and children’s workers to hear their thoughts…
What are the benefits of a weekend away?
Alan Gault: It gives you a lump of time with young people. I find that really valuable for relationships. Plus they’re reasonably safe ways for them to step out and take some risks, which helps their development.
Em Rogerson: When I was a young person I had a great youth group and they used to take us away twice a year. Those were our real mountaintop experiences and they sustained me through the year. So having experienced it myself, that’s why I do them.
Jen Forbes-John: For my kids it’s also to give them a break from their everyday life. When you’re 13 or 14 you don’t often get that independence, so letting them do their own thing for a little bit is important.
Alex Taylor: There’s something about taking people out of their everyday situations that frees them up to think about things they would never otherwise have thought about. Particularly with faith, they are able to take risks without the pressures of what parents, siblings or friends think of them.
Alan: A few years ago we did a night walk in a wood in Kent and some of the young people were petrified. We had an interesting chat around safety and fear. They walk the streets of East London. To them that is fine, but they couldn’t see what was behind that tree. It was an interesting perspective change for them.
Dean Pusey: I became a Christian as a result of being taken away myself. That’s probably your most important evangelistic time. It creates community, which is so different from what you can set up anywhere else. We can do more in that time than in six to eight sessions.
Quality time only happens with quantity time
What makes a good weekend away?
Laity Watters: I think free time is great. It builds such strong relationships between the young people. When they entertain themselves they grow together. If we’re always just building relationships with them one-on-one they don’t have room for community with those who are just one or two steps ahead or behind them, or right next to them. I think it’s great that they get to meet and talk together.
Dean: If your youth work is about young people, how about getting young people involved in the co-creation of it? That is the more exciting element of the best weekends I see.
Alan: Let them have the space to be rebels. My best memories of weekends away were when we thought we were breaking the rules. It’s about having somewhere that’s not so rigid that they can’t sneak out in a safe way, hang out on the stairs and raid the snack cupboard. Safe breaking of boundaries and rules is great because it breeds friendship. It’s hard to create that elsewhere. It’s about you and your team knowing when to let something go a little bit.
Jen: It does depend a lot on you as a leader knowing your youth as well. We took our kids away recently and we didn’t set a curfew. They had to be in their rooms, but as long as we were sleeping they could do what they liked. A lot of them pulled all-nighters, but they loved that. For them the all-nighter was a highlight. It depends on your style as a leader, but for me it’s about not being a parent.
Dean: Let them choose the community rules.
Em: This is very dull and practical, but I would want someone who can cook for us or be willing to drive the minibus or help with the washing up. Having a group of people who are willing to do that with a real ability to serve the young people and not force their strictness and rules on them is really important.
Dean: You need a dedicated listener who can just be a sponge. Sometimes when you’re doing activities there’s no room for that.
Alan: For me, that’s not something I can manage. Because the young people I’ve worked with just know who they’re going to talk to and who they’re not. It’s about getting enough leaders involved that each person has time to be reasonably free to talk to, and then letting things happen somewhat naturally. Paul Reed (a retired pastor from Belfast) used to talk about parents having quality time with kids and his point was that quality time only happens with quantity time. I’ve taken that with me into ministry.
I think things that are worth it always involve a risk
Dean: Being aware of young people with additional needs, and doing things for the whole group that one young person specifically benefits from. We need to ask ourselves in our planning, can they engage?
Alan: A big part of it is planning in advance, particularly for autistic young people. They might want to see a plan well in advance, not the night before we’re going when the details are still being figured out.
Dean: Choose your venue wisely. Make sure it’s affordable, particularly for young people who can’t afford the best places, but make sure it’s comfortable. So don’t go for the bottom of the barrel, but get people to help you pay for it.
Alex: It’s great to have some experimental Bible engagement so you can model different ways of engaging with the Bible, and explore and express spirituality in a way that may not be available at home. That’s particularly true for those with additional needs. I’m a big advocate of Godly Play, and I think adapting the model slightly is great for young people and adults.
How can a weekend away creatively engage young people in the Bible?
Em: We run a creative arts holiday and run a weekend as a reunion for that. We’ve done all kinds of things with film, drama, singing and just getting people up on their feet in various different ways. We’ve done a Passover meal. There are lots of resources online, and sharing ideas is a good way to do it.
Alex: The more people you get involved in the planning, the more diverse that engagement becomes. As holiday organisers we try to delegate our way out of doing anything, so then you’re growing leadership and creating diversity of engagement.
Dean: Doing Communion, and getting the priest to do it. The priest was actually going to go home, but I asked him to do the Lord’s Supper with the young people. And he said he was so glad he did because it enriched his faith as well. It was a moment of bringing the sacrament to life.
Have you taken any risks that really paid off or completely flunked?
Alex: I think the risk of delegation is a big one. You give things over to people and help them as much as you need to. Sometimes that works amazingly. People fly and grow. Other times you sit there and think: “I’m going to have to pick up the pieces at the end of this.” But that’s part of leadership, and part of development and growth.
Em: I think there’s a whole load of risk when you take a group of children away. Even if you know them quite well you have no idea what’s going to happen, or who’s going to fall out or fall off a bunk bed. It could be anything! But I think things that are worth it always involve a risk.
Alan: We did a series on relationships and it started to attract new young people to the group. We had a weekend planned as part of it. Some of these guys came and in many ways it was wonderful, but actually one young person in particular went too deep too soon. I didn’t realise it at the time but they over-shared and then we didn’t see them again for months. A couple of their friends also stopped coming. There’s something about managing that sharing. We want them to go to deep places but I should have been wiser.
How do we keep the momentum going after a weekend away?
Jen: The last time we went away we gave them a T-shirt and they wore it to church the next Sunday. We made videos of the highlights, and everyone got that feel-good vibe. It’s capturing the memory and making it almost bigger than it was. Creating a story from it, so it’s not just something that happened and then you suddenly move on to the next thing. Milk it!
Em: We have a big photo board at church so the wider church could also see what the young people got up to. For the young people, when they walk into church it’s there, but the other people can also see them. I’d also say, get people who aren’t going with you to pray. Let them understand that this is just as valuable as those who are serving there.
Let them have the space to be rebels
Laity: For our weekend away at my home church we do Easter Tuesday to Friday, and on Sunday they are all back in church again. We show a highlights video and then they all say what their favourite part was and what they learnt, and it makes the church aware that it’s happened and initiates conversations. We also have a reunion. We do ours with two other churches in the local area, which is great because it forms new friendships and bulks out the numbers. For one of our youth group nights everyone is invited to join. So everyone gets to see each other. It also means we get to follow up on what we were talking about in our theme.
Parents’ and carers’ point of view
Volunteer youth worker and mother Em Rogerson spoke to us about parents and carers, and how we need to remember those relationships in the planning and running of our residentials.
“It’s important to remember that children and young people don’t exist in a vacuum,” says Em. Whatever the make-up of their family, parents and carers are important influences on our residentials. “I don’t think you should always do what the parents want – that shouldn’t be the thing that is the deciding factor in what you do. However, on a weekend away, we only have the young people for two days. The parents and carers have to process the long-term impact (both positive and negative) of the residential. And they probably have to pack their kids off to school the very next morning.”
Em says that being a youth worker has shaped how she is as a parent and vice versa. “I would hope that my child would be given the space to be herself, to build friendships, to challenge her out of her comfort zone and to meet with God, but not to be pressured to do that.”
As we make decisions about what we’re going to do with children or young people on a residential, and we involve them in the planning, we need to keep the practical, longer-term impact of what we do in the back of our minds, and how that will affect parents and carers. Sometimes what we want to do, or what young people want to do, might not play out brilliantly with parents and carers when their kids get home.
“I’d want to know that my child would get some sleep. She really needs it and it can be difficult if she doesn’t get enough – not just for Monday when she’s back at school, but for days and days after that. So with my youth worker head on, I’d say: ‘Yes, you’re going to have loads of fun stay up as late as you want,’ but the reality is for my child, that’s not actually very helpful. It’s really unfair for her, and also her teachers!
“I’d hope that leaders would value young people as individuals as well as a whole group. Sometimes the whole group needs to take priority. For example, you need to make sure everyone eats at the same time, because that’s how the programme or the residential centre works. But you need to have leaders who see the individual members of the group and notice when they need some extra support. It’s all about balance, and to achieve that you need to have a wider age range of leaders on the team. Younger leaders bring a certain kind of dynamic and older leaders have a very different kind of role.”
It’s important not to make assumptions about the way children and young people have been brought up. This could be in terms of family make up or looked-after children, socio-economic background or differing parenting styles. “Unusually for a young person her age, my daughter doesn’t have a mobile phone; it’s important not to make assumptions about what young people have (or don’t have) or the way children live,” explains Em.
As Em says, what parents and carers think shouldn’t be the driving force behind your residential plans, but we shouldn’t forget them in the planning. This means considering both practical aspects (what happens if a child doesn’t get enough sleep?) and spiritual aspects (what happens if a child makes a decision to follow Jesus?) of your time away.
These thoughts and experiences have given us lots to think about, but we’d also love to know your thoughts. What have your weekends away been like? What have you found most helpful? Have you tried anything new? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jen Forbes-John is youth pastor at Skylark Church in Chelmsford, Essex.
Alan Gault is youth and student pastor at the Lighthouse church in London.
Em Rogerson is a volunteer youth worker in Cardiff and runs a Scripture Union residential holiday.
Dean Pusey is diocesan youth officer for St Albans, having previously worked in statutory and voluntary youth work.
Laity Watters is an intern at St Andrew’s Whitehall Park, having recently moved to London from Swansea.
Alex Taylor is resources editor for Premier Youth and Children’s Work, and youth and children’s training officer for the Diocese of London.