The power of pause: Why youth pastors need retreats

Rachel Dodd Image Rachel Dodd | Jun 7, 2023

Youth ministry leaders. Youth Pastors, Directors of Youth Ministry, and Student Ministry Leads. NextGen Pastors, Directors of Family Ministry, and Campus Life Directors—

If you lead a ministry that disciples and serves teenagers in any capacity, can I invite you to pause your scrolling for just a moment? Maybe close your planning calendar, put up an “out to lunch” sign on your office door, and let someone else handle the cleanup from last weekend’s youth activities—because this is important:

You need to take a retreat.

Right now you're probably wrapping up a month of graduations, confirmations, and end-of-school-year events. Before that you were laser-focused on the long haul of the Lent and Easter season, after barely catching your breath from Advent and Christmas. And when those came along, you were still in the whirlwind back-to-school season: welcoming new students, reminding parents (again) to check their emails, equipping volunteers, and organizing fundraisers. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve been running almost nonstop since last August.

I know you’re busy—and the year isn’t done yet! There are at least two months of camps, mission trips, and summer activities ahead, and those won’t run themselves.

But this is REALLY important.

If you’re a youth ministry leader, you need to take a retreat

Here’s why: a 2023 survey on youth worker wellbeing conducted by the Youth Cartel reveals that 41% of youth workers are either considering stepping out of ministry or have done so in the past two years. Let’s pause to let that sink in for a moment: almost 1 of every 2 called, equipped, and gifted youth leaders is questioning whether they’re able to sustain the ministry pace or expectations.

These last few years in ministry have been exceptionally hard! Many of us made it through the challenges of pandemic ministry only to find students are struggling emotionally and spiritually, committed church members are dwindling, and our budgets (if we had them to begin with!) are now stretched thin. Regardless of how much you care about young people, you might be wondering how long you’ll be able to keep up with this pace, too.

So in case no one has said this to you lately, please allow me to: your work matters.

Youth leaders, your work matters

If you feel even the slightest sense that God is calling you to keep going in ministry, then now is the time to think about how you refresh and sustain yourself as you go from one busy season to the next.

Yes, the time you devote to your students’ discipleship is important. As is training volunteers, communicating with parents, and thoughtfully planning programs and events. But consider this ministry example we're given: Before Jesus chose his disciples, he went away to pray. Before he fed a crowd of 5,000+, he took time to be alone (and probably grieve the loss of his cousin). And then he took a little more personal time before walking on water. Notice that Jesus often made time to retreat from the company of others and pray BEFORE big ministry moments. His example suggests that personal retreat isn’t only something we should do to recharge when we’re tired. Time spent simply dwelling in God’s love for us is also a vital step in our preparation for the ministry that lies ahead.

Friends, if we plan to stick with youth ministry for the long haul, we need to make time to retreat and remember that God is at work in us—not just in the teenagers we serve.

4 truths to remind yourself as you plan a spiritual retreat

While the word “retreat” may conjure up a range of images from expensive resorts to action-packed youth group weekends away, a spiritual retreat is simply a time of rest and prayer in a quiet place. You don’t have to break the bank or go very far to create a rhythm of retreat in your life. So if doubt starts to creep in as you plan, remind yourself of these truths:

You deserve a retreat even if you don’t feel like you do

I think that as youth leaders, we want so much to model Christ’s servant-like nature for our students and their families that we sometimes lose sight of how the Bible instructs us to honor and nurture our own spiritual wellbeing. In a 2022 Barna survey, 57% of pastors said they feel like their own spiritual formation often takes a back seat to their other pastoral responsibilities. It also found that pastors who’ve recently considered quitting are more likely to agree their spiritual formation has taken a back seat, more likely to say they often feel depressed, and least likely to say they prioritize their self-care. So perhaps the most vitalizing first step you need might be to convince yourself—repeatedly—that you’re worth it. Because you are.

You can retreat even if your schedule seems full

In the 16th century, Ignatius Loyola’s military career plans were disrupted by a cannonball to the leg. Although the many isolated months of recovery that followed were not by choice, God used that time to get Ignatius’ attention—leading him to seek and explore solitude throughout the rest of his life. Eventually Ignatius compiled his learnings for the community he founded (the Jesuits) in the form of a 30-day silent retreat. Yet even for a group of monks, Ignatius recognized that it wasn’t always realistic to withdraw from life and community for a full month. This led him to create his “Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life,” a guide many still use today, that helps people focus just one hour a day in deep prayer and Scripture reflection. (A quick online search for the phrase will pull up a multitude of resources and groups available for those who’d like to try Ignatius’ approach.)

Hopefully it won’t take a cannonball to make us see that there is time in our day, month, or year to refocus on relationship with God. There’s no right or wrong amount of time—and your rhythm will change in different seasons of life and ministry. But I guarantee this: when you intentionally show up to spend time with God, God is ready to spend time with you.

You can take a retreat even if your budget is limited

If you work in youth ministry, there’s a good chance your salary just makes ends meet. For those who have the funds to take an occasional solitary trip to a place that nurtures quiet and reflection, give yourself permission to do that! But if you don’t, it’s time to do some research:

  • Google camps and retreat centers in your area to see if any offer a free or discounted stay for active ministry leaders. (And if their website doesn’t say so, it never hurts to ask!)
  • Check whether your denomination or network has a program or a fund offering respite for ministry leaders.
  • Or see if there’s someone in your church who has a vacation home or travel trailer and might find it meaningful to support your ministry by sharing that blessing with you.

And if being away from home is a challenge, try taking a look around your own neighborhood with fresh eyes:

  • Can you take a weekly prayer walk or find a quiet coffee shop?
  • Is there a local church that would let you use their chapel or prayer garden for an hour or two?
  • Or if sitting still is not your style, could a run, a bike ride, or a swim become a sacred space?

Let’s be honest: as amazing as a week of solitude in a remote resort would be (and if someone ever offers you that, please accept!), it’s unlikely to become your norm. You need rhythms that remind you that God is present in your ordinary, everyday cares and concerns. So as you plan, consider what building blocks you want to construct for your lifelong practice of retreat.

When you prioritize retreat in your life, others will too

As I write this, I’m a full-time FYI team member, a seminary student, and a committed church youth ministry volunteer. I’m also a mother of two—which means that when I finally accepted that I should (and could) carve out time away from my responsibilities in order to develop a regular rhythm of retreat, parental guilt still hovered. Then one evening as I headed out to my porch for some end-of-day quiet and reflection (which was all I could manage at the time), my 8-year-old followed me—not to disrupt my time, but because she wanted some solitude too. And after I was finally able to take a full weekend of personal retreat, my husband asked if we could find the time for him take one too. The answer, of course, was an easy “yes.”

Imagine what ripples might happen in your life and ministry if you were to prioritize a healthy rhythm of retreat:

  • What legacy might you model for your students and volunteers?
  • How might relationships at work change if you floated the idea of every staff member being given time (and maybe even a space) to retreat and reconnect with God?
  • Could your church elders or board of directors set your community up for long-term sustainability by incorporating this value into staffing policies and organizational practice?

If it’s not already a conversation in your community, perhaps change might begin with you.

Tweet this: Personal retreat isn’t only something we should do to recharge when we’re tired. It's also a vital step in our preparation for the ministry that lies ahead. Youth leaders, if you haven't taken a retreat this year—it's time.

Need some more ideas for your personal retreat time? Here are some helpful resources:

7 practical self-care takeaways from season 4 of the FYI podcast

Relational capacity and ministry burnout

4 healing steps for leaders of color serving in white spaces

5 practices to help you prioritize peace in the busiest time of year

4 ways to tap into the power of gratitude

Sustainable practices

Learning the unforced rhythms of grace

Rachel Dodd Image
Rachel Dodd

Rachel Dodd is a spiritual director, writer, and Managing Editor at the Fuller Youth Institute. She has a BA in Church Music and Youth Ministry from Point Loma Nazarene University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently finishing a DMin in Spiritual Formation and Direction. Having served students and families in the UK and US for over 20 years, Rachel loves writing to share stories and equip those following their own calling in ministry. She and her husband, Carl, now live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and have two daughters. Connect with Rachel at

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