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Raise the bar then lower it if absolutely necessary in Covid times

Could it be time to organise your next youth residential?

OK, so the title of this blog doesn't quite fit with the title of my book, but it still follows the theme. We are called to keep the young people we care for safe and we will all, I'm sure, follow the local rules surrounding Covid carefully. At the same time, we don't have to give way to fear. We can enjoy exploring what we can still do in the new norm (as people are calling this time in the UK, as we learn to live with Covid), including taking our youth groups away again if our local rules allow us. You might not be able to plan time away because of local restrictions, but there are still things to learn.

We've just come back from our own youth group residential. We nearly didn't go and frankly, it would have definitely been easier to run it online like we did last year.

Hope in a shifting environment

Our first idea was a week 'away' in the church. Young people said they would come to a home event, but most would prefer to go offsite and many parents were desperate for their children to go away. That would be a challenge. The rules in the UK earlier in the summer allowed residential group sizes to be up to 30, and looking at our numbers from two years ago, we expected to take two groups. If both groups were at the same venue, they could never meet and they'd need separate overall leaders, leadership teams, accommodation and meal times. More challenging still, activities in the same place would have to be at different times. Imagine planning that? It was like one of those logic problems that I couldn't do when I was a child (and still can't!). We could have cancelled but pushed forward because we were desperate to make it work.

We were already quite far on in our process when it became clear that, because our residential was in late August, we could have the young people in one group. We were well behind on our planning because the rules had regularly changed. We had to write a Covid action plan and include Covid on risk assessments. Some parents even asked to see risk assessments which has never happened before. They were nervous and so were young people and leaders.

Noone caught Covid, but it was hard work

We ended up taking 48 young people away, some of whom had no previous link to the group. God showed up, noone caught Covid, young people grew in their gifts, we worshipped together and we responded to excellent Bible teaching. We had a load of fun (I could get dressed up for Hunt the Leader again (see photo)!) and we built a stronger Christian community. One young person wrote afterwards:

"It is an experience I will never forget. It gave me the chance to connect with other Christians around the same age as me and delve deeper into my faith."

It was really costly personally. I've never woken up worrying before, but that happened as my mind started racing at unearthly hours on tweaks to further lower the chance of anyone catching Covid. It was the most stretching thing I have ever done as a Christian leader.

A vision for residentials

We pushed through because residentials have historically been one of the key times of spiritual growth for young people I've led. I too made my first commitment to follow Christ on a residential. If you read my book, there's a chapter on residentials and a huge number of the stories told in the book are linked to residentials. We were desperate to go, if we could do it safely, but it was hard.

My friend Andy Williamson (Director of Gaines Manor) wrote down 10 reasons you should be planning your next youth residential in countries not in lockdown:

  1. You’re allowed to (certainly in the UK as I write this but check your local guidelines). Everyone has worked hard over the last eighteen months to make things as normal as possible, while things remain not normal. Zoom is great but it’s not the same as meeting in person. Meeting in person is great but it’s not the same as time away. Make the most of the chance, if you’ve got it.

  2. They’re a great chance to focus on Jesus without the distractions. Residentials offer a unique time in the life of a youth group. They’re a chance to escape and not be focussed on everyday life.

  3. You have more time. Residentials give you more contact time than weeks and weeks of regular meetings. A weekend gives nearly a term's worth of contact time and a weeklong trip gives over a years’ worth.

  4. You have more unstructured time. Online ministry has to be structured and can end up feeling intense. You don't have the chance to eat cake, run around or have free-flowing chat. Socially-distanced ministry is, well, distanced. Time away allows time and space for social time, friendly chats, sport - all of those unstructured things where so much ministry is done.

  5. This is the first chance you’ve had in a long time. No one would have imagined that 2020 would turn out the way it did. As we begin to see the chance of getting back to normal, take this opportunity to seize the unique opportunities residentials give you.

  6. Parents need a break. They really do!

  7. Young people need something to look forward to. The last twelve months have been pretty demoralising for most people and certainly for teenagers. Give them something to look forward to that excites them.

  8. Your group needs to spend time together. Humans are made for community. Seeing people on Zoom and at a distance doesn’t cut it.

  9. You need to rebuild your community. It’s been nearly impossible to maintain relationships over the last year. Intentionally setting time aside to spend together physically will help you to rebuild after the last year and a bit. Even our ability to just have conversations will be a bit rusty. Get away and provide space to rebuild.

  10. We don't know what's going to happen next. Take the opportunity now, while you can, while keeping safe, to go away.

Andy Williamson is Director of Gaines Manor in Worcestershire,

If you're not in lockdown and don't already have a date in your diary for the next youth residential, plan it now. If Covid is stopping that at the moment, where could you be raising the bar, even with your current limitations, even though it might take a huge amount of hard work like planning a residential did? Here's my overriding big idea:

Raise the bar, then lower it if absolutely necessary. Don't settle for never raising the bar, even if it's hard work.


Find out more about planning residentials in Dave's book: 'Raising the Bar: Nearly everything you need to know about Christian youth ministry'. Buy the book here.

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Get more ideas and support for your youth ministry with my book: "RAISING THE BAR: Nearly Everything You Need to Know about Christian Youth Ministry."

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