Step 5: The Leadership Retreat

Crupress Archive

The logic here is pretty straight-forward. You need to gather your leaders together to pray, plan, and divide up the work of the ministry before the school year starts. So you would want to first pull together your staff, interns, volunteers, and any other non-student laborer committed to serving the ministry.

Next you want to gather together your leadership students and bring them in on the praying and planning as well as the labor that needs to be done.

What follows is an article on running a Student Leadership Retreat. There are some good ideas here but do keep in mind as you read that the campus serving as an example has a very large ministry and a student leadership retreat for a ministry of 30 is not going to look the same as for a ministry of 600.


Have you ever attended a retreat designed for leaders (either as staff or a student) that just didn’t seem worth your time? You gave up your weekend, paid the registration fee, and heard a bunch of information that you never thought about again once you got in your car for the drive home. Given our mission, we can’t afford to have ineffective times with our leaders. If only half of our leaders value the time enough to show up, or if once they get back on campus they never think about all you discussed during the retreat, we need to rethink our methodology.

The future of our movements depends on the leaders we have today. Certainly, we need to be concerned about attracting new students who will be our leaders tomorrow, but, if we don’t develop those we have now, more will never come tomorrow. Our student leaders need to value their walk with God; be willing to take steps of faith; develop practical skills in evangelism, discipleship and small group leadership; and also be aligned to the mission/vision/values of what we are trusting God to do on campus. In order to accomplish all of this, we need an effective Leadership Retreat, but, more than that, we need to see this retreat as one spoke in the wheel of the leadership development of our student leaders.

As the movement on our campus has grown, we have had less and less direct staff to student contact in the area of leadership development. We found ourselves depending on one weekend each September to provide all the character development, ministry training, and practical skills that they would need to lead throughout the year. Practically speaking, it didn’t work. While they definitely got lots of information, it was rare to hear students refer to the information that was covered once we were back on campus.

So, with all of this in mind, we pursued a more comprehensive development plan for our student leaders. Instead of depending on one weekend a year, we broke our retreat into two separate one-night retreats – one in the Fall for all those who will be leading that school year, and one in early April – for all those who desire to lead the next school year. We went to only one night, because to our students, it didn’t feel like such a large commitment – we start after dinner on Friday night, ending by 5pm on Saturday (this also keeps costs down – only one night of lodging, and two meals on Saturday).

We also added what we call Frontlines – a required near monthly gathering of current small group leaders for a time of encouragement, community and direction from the staff team. While there, we have them fill out a monthly report to help us understand how they are and how we can help. These meetings, of course, are not the only ways for student leaders to be developed (we also use the weekly meeting, small groups, discipleship, etc.), but this is where we are most intentional.

Our two one-night Leadership Retreats each year both take a different flavor. The retreat in the fall is oriented towards practical leadership skills primarily – there is a felt need in their life at this time, as leadership is starting in a matter of days for them, and they want help. We take some time to remind them of why we are so intentionally reaching out to freshmen, why we are concerned with spiritual multiplication, and also the importance of their own spiritual development. After we briefly discuss these topics, we dive into things that will help them right away – small group leadership skills, small group materials we suggest, evangelism and discipleship training.

For the development of small group leadership skills, we break them into groups and assign each person in the group a mock role – leader, the excessive talker, the quiet one, the inquisitive one, etc. We give the leader 5 minutes to prepare a lesson, and then they have a mock small group time. The students tend to learn a lot as they observe, and then during a debrief time afterwards.

Whatever materials you choose to promote on your campus, we have found it helpful to deliver the goods in small quantities. So, at the retreat, we will outline where we’d like them to go with their group this year, but only give them practicals for the next month or so. Then, at Frontlines we give them another month’s worth of stuff. We have found that students want ownership over the material – they want to decide what their groups need. If we tell them what to do each and every week, they feel that it is very impersonal and that they are being used to accomplish Cru’s purposes. But, if we can suggest doing two things during the next month (and the why’s behind it), leaving two other weeks for them to do what they choose, they seem to respond much more to our leadership.

For the ministry skills, we break them into two groups – new and returning leaders. For the new leaders,we will do a simple training time using the Knowing God Personally. This helps them see that we value evangelism, and also helps them develop this skill. For the returning leaders, we focus our time on discipleship skills – how to discern the needs of their group members and how to address them on a personal level.

When compared to the retreat in the fall, the retreat in the spring looks very theoretical. We ask anyone that wants to lead during the next school year to attend, and we consider it a major alignment tool of our ministry. During this weekend, we basically run two simultaneous retreats – one for those who are new to leading, and one for those who are returning leaders.

For the new leaders, we really want them to know where we are going, why we are going there and then to buy into it themselves. So, we spend time talking with them about why we reach out to the Freshmen so intensely, what spiritual multiplication is and why it is important, and what the Fall will look like for the movement and them personally as a leader.

For our returning leaders, we want this to be a time of healing (all of these students have been leading all year by this point), as well as a time of vision for the future. We open up the discussion much more for these students – talking with them about what they learned during the year, what they would repeat and what they would change for the future. We also talk through what the schedule in the fall will look like, so they can be prepared, and feel like they are on the ‘inside track’ with the staff team. Later in the retreat, we take some time to touch on one or two of the various models (evangelism, growth, send, leadership, etc.). This past year we also had some graduating students come in to talk about “areas that easily entangle” – things that we have seen take student leaders out of leadership. This gives our seniors a way to share how they avoided these areas and let’s our returning leaders hear from some peers (and give the staff a break from speaking!).

We have all of our leaders at the spring retreat (both new and returning) fill out a required Small Group Leader Application. By doing this, it gives us a tool to evaluate those we don’t know too well, and making sure that they are qualified to lead. In the past six years, we have grown from a movement of about 80 (with maybe 20 leaders) to a little over 400 (with 100+ leaders), so we have found this very helpful in getting to know students.

We make both of these retreats required events for students who want to lead. We are very upfront about this, and will not allow students to lead if they don’t attend. We feel that this shows them that it is a commitment to be taken seriously. We may have fewer leaders as a result, but feel that they are of higher quality as a result. We do video tape each session and offer a make-up time, but this is for those who have prior commitments, not those that just want a weekend ‘off ’.

We also have them sign a commitment sheet at the end of their application, clearly laying out what we would expect of them during the school year – walking with God, sexual purity, attending Fall Retreat, actually going to all of their small group meetings, etc. This gives us a way to interact with the student later to see how it is going, and remove them from leadership if needed (although this is very rare).

Throughout both retreats, we desire excitement to be in the air. This happens as the speakers are expectant in faith, the students laugh and have fun, and the overall vision of not just reaching the campus, but reaching the world for Christ is upheld. We play games, stay up late talking, sing praise music, eat, and let those that went overseas on project share their stories with the group.

As we have implemented the idea of seeing our leadership retreats as one spoke in the wheel of leadership development, we have seen dramatic improvements in our ability to influence the students to lead along side us. Our retreats are more effective, because we are not trying to do everything in one weekend. Being able to offer input and give direction once each month has proved to be invaluable. Even though we end up giving them the same direction as before, it feels much more manageable, since it comes in small chunks. They actually listen to us! They appreciate the combination of freedom and direction. As a result of the changes we have made, I feel our effectiveness has been greatly increased, as has the size of our movement, the numbers going on project, internships and staff. Imagine what your campus could look like if your leaders had a constant dose of input and direction throughout the school year!

Where do you need to go from here? Take some time to evaluate your current situation, and dream about how it could improve. I think one of the keys to more effective ministry is better trained and aligned student leaders. How can you improve in both of these areas?

Discussion Questions

1. What is your current plan for the leadership development of your student leaders?
2. Do you tend to deliver content in smaller chunks or all at once? Do your students
respond and utilize that which you give them?
3. How could thinking with the entire year in mind improve your leadership retreat?

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