Running From and Journeying Toward


“I need to tell you what happened to me last summer.”
“I have so much anxiety about starting my senior year.”
“Can we talk about the boys who ask me for pictures?”
“If I don’t have Cross Country I don’t have anything.  I feel so much pressure to improve my time.”
“Do you ever have doubts?  Because most of the time I don’t believe this Jesus stuff.”

While I’ve talked with countless high school students in our student room, outside of our sanctuary on Sunday morning, and at coffee shops or high schools in our town, the most vulnerable conversations I’ve had with young people have taken place when we were far from home.  Students opened their hearts to me with these comments on a hiking trail, making breakfast at a campsite, at the top of a sledding hill, and in a dorm room just before “lights out”.  And as you can imagine, these comments led to further conversations, prayers, and action.

In my nearly 10 years of youth ministry experience, I’m more convinced than ever that retreats have the possibility of being an unparalleled catalyst for transformation in the lives of our young people.

On The Run

We’re all running from someone or something.  To be human is to struggle and to experience conflict, and we’re all on the run from challenging people or circumstances.  There is no population in our society that understands this better then today’s North American teenagers.

Whether it’s the pressure to perform in the classroom or the athletic field, expectations regarding post-high school plans, coping with a bully or social anxiety, or balancing all of the demands for their time, energy, and money, our high school students live historically challenging lives.[i]  My relationships with high school students have only continued to confirm this reality, and the high school students I know are desperate for an escape.  We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that our young people make seemingly irrational decisions or turn to risk behaviors with peers as a temporary refuge from their daily lives.

However, I suspect the reason we’re all in Youth Ministry is because we believe the Church has the responsibility and the potential to be an alternative refuge in the lives of our young people.  Whether it’s the physical space of our church campuses or the relational spaces that are created between students and peers and students and adult mentors, youth ministers and youth ministry are voices of advocacy in creating this refuge.  The camps and retreats that we lead for our young people have the possibility of being the refuge our young people are desperately looking for.

An Alternative to Refuge

Because of this, I’ve been committed to creating a refuge with my students around two words:




These two words are likely familiar to anyone who was raised in a religious context. In fact, they’re probably so familiar that they may have lost their meaning.  I’ve learned to reclaim these words as verbs that are vital to these experiences with my students.

I now create space at the beginning of each retreat for my students to ask and answer these two questions as a group:

Retreat = What are you running from? What do you need to run from?

Pilgrimage = What are you journeying to or toward? What do you need to journey to or toward?

It should be no surprise that our students can actually articulate what it is that they need to leave behind at home, whether it be abuse, habits, addiction, pain, or troubled relationships, if they’re honest, they know they’re “running” or “retreating” from something.  And it should also be no surprise that our students can actually articulate what it is they need to journey to while on an adventure, whether it be wholeness, a fresh start, new friendships, a positive environment, or “God”.

In short, in order to help create a helpful refuge for our young, we must reclaim retreating and pilgrimaging as verbs.[ii]

Creating Space

I would never want to minimize all of the good that can take place within relationships or during weekly youth ministry programming, but in order for young people to be able articulate what they’re running from and need to run toward, they need helping creating the space for them to do the running and gain some perspective.  As adults, we often take for granted our ability to go for a drive, take a few days off work, or get away for a weekend.  Teenagers often don’t have the ability to create this space for themselves.  Our Churches have the unique opportunity to provide space from life at home and daily routines through the retreats we offer.

So as we engage the young people we care about so much, may we continue to create the space they need to continue to learn and grow.  May we say to them, “run with us” or “run toward us” as you run from all that is painful in your life.  And may our retreats be the refuge our young people need as they navigate a difficult and challenging existence.

[i] For more on this, see:  Clark, Chap.  Hurt 2.0:  Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers.  Baker Academic:  2011.
[ii] For more on “retreating and pilgrimaging” in the context of adventures, see my article in the March 2015 issue of Youth Worker Journal.


How Do We Create Adventures with Students?

An article written for Youth Worker magazine:

1) With, not For. Notice that you’re not creating an adventure for your students—you’re creating one with your students. Invite them into the process of creating the adventure, and you also must be committed to being a co-adventuring participant.

2) Plan ahead, but not too much. If you’re going on a camping trip, make sure you’ve been to the camp or campground and visited the area on your own ahead of time. From there, you can take calculated risks that won’t involve putting you or your group in a bad situation. You can take students down a trail you’ve never hiked before, as long as it’s not the first time you’ve ever been in the same country as the trail you’re hiking.

3) “Where there’s a fence, there’s a way around it.” When I was studying in Israel, one of my professors voiced this infamous line when our class unexpectedly came upon a fence with a sign that said, “Danger: Mines Ahead,” while hiking on a trail near Galilee. Unexpected problems are opportunities for more adventure, not obstacles that should derail your adventure.

4) Don’t adventure alone. Make sure you have the support of parents, senior leadership and your volunteers as you plan an adventure that involves any type of risk or danger.

5) Tell them the truth. Talk to students as if you believe they can handle what lies ahead (even if you don’t). I once started a morning hike that involved walking near 100-foot cliffs that dropped directly into Lake Superior with the words, “Everything we’re going to do today is 100 percent safe; but if you don’t do what I say, it’s possible you could die.”

Why I Hope My Students Believe Bigfoot Exists

On the last night of the first summer camping trip I ever led, our group was huddled around a campfire laughing at the inside jokes and funny stories that had unfolded during our time together. A student subtly tugged on the hood of my sweatshirt and quietly asked me a question:

Student: Wait. Are you serious? You’re telling me you actually believe Bigfoot exists?

Me: Wait. Are you serious? You’re telling me you actually believe a guy named Jesus was murdered and then came back from the dead?

Student: Wait. What?

Maybe a little context will help.

Nearly 10 years ago, I inherited a high school ministry that had experienced four different high school pastors in the previous four years. Although there was a remarkable group of volunteers involved in the ministry and solid traditions and programs were in place, the ministry was craving a more consistent and clear vision from leadership. Although I initially focused my energy on building relationships with students and volunteers and sought ways to improve our weekly program, I knew that eventually I would need to rethink our annual camps and retreats…

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Two Questions that Change the World: Moses, Jesus and our Students’ Search for Identity

We make choices every day that have small and large impacts on the world around us. Most of us, if we’re honest, live lives that lack critical thinking or space for helpful reflection. We live lives that are trapped in the day-to-day rhythms and routines. We do good. We do evil. We do small tasks. We do large tasks. We speak kind words. We speak meaningless words. We spend money. We spend time. Yet most of us don’t have any idea why we are who we are and why we’re becoming the kind of people we’re becoming.

As the ancient philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Here’s the reality of Socrates’ statement: An intentional life doesn’t happen by accident. There is no greater example of this reality than the life of the average adolescent. The high demands placed on our young people, along with the around-the-clock schedules imposed on them, make it nearly impossible for an adolescent to live any other way than reactively. When you ask a young person why he or she has made certain decisions, they likely will respond immediately with, “I don’t know.” Adults often are able to interpret this as a dismissive or disrespectful response when, in fact, it could be one of the most honest statements our students ever make…


Read the full article here: