Saturday, January 11, 2014

7 Tips for Youth Trips

Me napping in Nashville- 1999 Mission Trip
The following is a Vintage Post originally published September 24, 2011.

Trips were always among my favorite things about being in student ministry, and I led a bunch of them over my 28 years of service- by my best estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of 100! There were more than a dozen trips to NYC; nearly 20 trips to Myrtle Beach; 10 or so ski trips; international trips to Mexico and the Bahamas; and various trips to DC, Nashville, Chicago, Spartanburg, Walt Disney World and Dungannon. There were also retreats, concerts and Night of Joy/Rock the Universe, as well as various day trips. We traveled a lot, and my former students tell me those trips were among the best things they have ever experienced. Over those years I compiled a lot of miles in vans and learned a lot of tips to help keep me sane! Today I share 7 of my worst kept secrets with you. Not included is the important but obvious tip, "Never pass up an opportunity to take a nap!" I hope you enjoy this list...

1)  Know Your Purpose - Every trip should have a main purpose; if not, I'm not sure why you would be taking it. And whatever that main purpose is, build the trip around it. Mission trips are obvious, but most every other trip you need to advertise and schedule to fit your purpose. When we went to Myrtle Beach, our purpose was fellowship, and we said so. It would have been unfair and purpose-defeating to schedule 6 hours of study or service each day. But there was nothing wrong with a house meeting, devo and worship at the end of each day to remind them why our group exists in the first place- that was a part of the fellowship. Don't try to pull a bait & switch on your students.  Know your purpose.
Me expressing my expectations at
Myrtle Beach, 2004
2)  Express Expectations - I have known some excellent, effective youth pastors who never took a trip without passing out a 3 page list of rules for the event. That was never my style. Instead, I was a big believer in shared expectations. I would always sit my groups down on the first night and tell them what a privilege it was to be on that particular trip. I would remind them that they were representing their church, and that the name was on the side of the van. I would encourage them to remember that they were representing Jesus, and that their actions reflected on our Savior. And finally, I would share with them the knowledge that their behavior would determine whether future groups would ever get to enjoy the hotel, campground, restaurant or conference center that they were currently enjoying. I am a firm believer that expecting teenagers to do the right thing is a far better deterrent than giving them a list of things you think they will do wrong.
3)  Music - If you are taking a van, make sure you have a system in place for controlling the music the driver has to listen to. In the old days, the co-pilot (usually another adult) controlled the radio. Once cassette players and then CD players became a factor, I always had a rule that anyone could pass up music to be played, but they were limited to 3 songs. This meant if they passed up something awful (like, for instance, rap!) we knew it would be over fairly quickly. Now, with I-pods, I think it is important to schedule some "group music" time, letting kids pass up their MP3 players and using the 3 song rule. Every trip needs a soundtrack. In any case, make sure you bring plenty of music you like so you can educate them in the good stuff. And always- ALWAYS! - begin a trip with Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. Don't ask why.  Just do it!
Sometimes culture is overrated...
4)  Cultural Experiences - In my experience, many of the students I worked with over the years were traveling with me to places they would have never gotten to visit without our ministry. It is important to remember that fact, and to make sure the kids get a cultural education while there. Eat at local restaurants, not fast food chains. Visit parts of the city where they will encounter the poor and homeless and feel a little threatened. Take time to see the sights they have read about and studied but never been to. Minister to the whole person, and the things you teach them about faith will seem much more relevant and real.
5)  Outside the Lines - This is a bit controversial, and is one you can only do if you have already built great relationships with the students you serve- but it is soooo worth it! Take your group and intentionally do something you previously told them not to do. Break a rule! For instance, at the beach we always said don't go in the ocean after dark. Take them all swimming at midnight. In New York we would sometimes hike to Times Square at 2 AM, or turn left coming out of the Milford Plaza (a real no-no!) just so they could see some real NYC night life. Extend curfew on the last night of a retreat and order pizza. Don't be reckless, but show them you know how to get a little crazy. And make sure everyone is invited to join in. These types of things will change the way they see you and provide your group with stories they will never forget.
They don't seem to be suffering too much at
the seafood buffet!
6)  Do Something Just For You  - Not a big deal on a weekend trip, but if you're going to be gone for a while you need to schedule something just for you. When we would go to Myrtle Beach, for example, I would always plan a group meal at one of the all-you-can-eat Calabash style seafood buffets. I didn't care if the youth liked seafood or not. That was my reward for sleeping in a house with 45 teenagers for a week. If your spouse travels with you, plan a time for just the two of you to get away, and maybe take a carriage ride through Central Park. Youth trips should be all about the students for the most part, but doing something for yourself helps preserve your sanity- and that's good for your youth too!
7)  Be Relentless/The Trust Factor  - A mom from one of my groups, who took several trips with us a chaperon, once wrote that she was amazed at the trust I gave my students. She was also amazed at the way they responded to being trusted and loved. That was very cool to hear. She then went on to write about the other part of the story, which is that "with Carl there is no unplanned moment. The opportunities for mischief are few and far between." Both of these things are true. I trusted them unless one of them they showed me they didn't deserve it, and I always kept them busy. Even during free times I kept them focused on The Next Big Thing. The one catch to this theory is that you have to match their energy and enthusiasm, because you have to model what you want them to do.  

Melbourne Beach, 1996.  Every group photo
captures a unique moment in our lives.  
So why do I think these suggestions are worth sharing? Because in 28 years of youth ministry, I cannot think of a single trip I look back on and wish we had not taken. I never sent a student home from a trip- and only 1 time did I even think about it. We never went anyplace that didn't invite us to return. In fact, my groups were allowed to rent the fabulous Betsy B for years after the realty company quit renting it to youth groups. The Milford Plaza Hotel in NYC once went 10 years without ever raising our room rates. We were loved everywhere we went. And perhaps most importantly, we always found a way to get done whatever it was we went to do, and to do it in the name of Jesus. Did we have issues and misadventures? Absolutely! But so does life. Trips can be the lifeblood of the youth group experience. I hope these tips will help your next trip be as sensational as the hundreds I was blessed to enjoy.

Because of Jesus,


  1. Anonymous9/24/2011

    A great list, with lots to think about. It sounds like you invested so much in your students and those trips that they worked hard not to disappoint you. That is an amazing thing. Hope you have a wonderful weekend. - Chris Cooper

  2. Awesome blog!!! I really liked it and they were very good tips, since we are going to be looking at taking trips next Spring.

  3. Anonymous9/24/2011

    #5 is simply brilliant. No wonder your students loved you so much. I will be giving this list to our current youth pastor. He will be shocked. He is the guy you mentioned with the 3 page list of rules! - Kelly Harper, Wisconsin

  4. Thanks for the kind words. And Kelly, encourage your youth pastor to make a rule banning lists of rules. He won't, but it will be fun to see his face! :)

  5. Great tips bro! Love #3, it's my personal policy that no event goes by without us breaking out into Bohemian Rhapsody. In fact, it happens every Friday night, one way or another ;)

  6. Anonymous9/25/2011

    Ok Carl,
    Do you NOT watch shark week. Swimming in the ocean at night! I am fine with the turn left, but never, never swim in an ocean at night!!!!

  7. Lisa, I have seen people get mugged turning left coming out of the Milford. I have yet to be attacked by a shark. Jellyfish, yes. Sharks, no. Just for that, I am not taking you back to NYC! :)

  8. Upon further review, perhaps I was too harsh on Lisa. I can see her point now- better to meet a mugger than a shark. Her ban is rescinded; she may go back to NYC someday.

  9. Anonymous9/26/2011

    Thank you Carl,
    But you should know by now that I am always right :D lol


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