Oct 29, 2018


Making the Most of Trips, Retreats, and Conferences

Erica Young Reitz provides four keys to helping collegiate leaders make the most of trips, retreats, and conferences.

Well-executed student experiences are like a good flight: strong launch, good ride, and great landing. Most of us have been on a plane where the take-off got delayed or the flight or landing was bumpy, and it’s the worst. The same can happen when it comes to student trips and conferences—and I’m not referring to the actual transportation there and back. If we want to help students make the most of the transformational opportunities we offer, we need to give our best to these three keys: inviting, preparing and debriefing.

Invite: Get Beyond “It’s Awesome, and You Need to Sign-Up”
If I’m honest, my favorite line for getting students to register for an experience is, “It’s awesome and you need to come.” When we’re in a trusted relationship with a student, this is not necessarily a bad recruitment strategy because, well, it often works. However, if we want to multiply our invitational efforts and extend them to students who are newer to our group or who may be more cautious about spending a week(end) away from campus, we need to do better.

Our promotion and invitation should tell the story of what’s most important about the opportunity. Borrowing from Seth Godin, we may ask ourselves, “What’s our purple cow?” In the sea of competing good opportunities, what makes our offering unique? Why should a student choose to spend time and money on this experience versus another? Instead of telling students, “It’s awesome,” or, “It will change your life,” let’s show them how and explain why.

It can be helpful to capture the experience into a one-liner that communicates the essence of it. If we’re relying on students to invite their peers (as we should!), they need to know exactly what to say and what they’re inviting students into. For example, last year I had a student who was already registered for CCO’s Jubilee conference ask, “How would you describe Jubilee to someone who doesn’t know what it is?” We need to be ready with a one sentence answer: “It’s 3000+ college students coming together to think about the public implications of their personal faith – how they will work out their faith in their everyday lives.” Let’s invite well and equip our students to do the same.

Prepare: Show Students What to Expect and How to Make the Most of It
Our invitation strategy sets the foundation for our preparation; how we’ve invited and what students think they’ve been invited to will affect their experience at the event. We’ve heard it said that the greatest source of disappointment is unmet expectation; therefore, it’s crucial to help students know what to expect before they get there.

If you’re not already in the habit, plan to host a pre-meeting. We gather in advance to go over our expectations of the students and what the students can count on from us and the conference/trip. Setting expectations should involve the big picture (e.g. “The weekend pace may make you feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose.” Or, “You will likely hear from a speaker you will disagree with or dislike.”) as well as the details (e.g. “You can count on a rest stop in Ebensburg, and we’ll be hopefully be back to campus by 6pm.”).

No two students’ experiences will be alike, but there are generalizable practices that every student can apply to make the most of any opportunity. Again, we can offer big picture suggestions, like the importance of staying open-minded, pacing themselves, meeting new people/networking, or reaching out if they need to process something they’ve heard. Or, we can share tips that involve the details, like working ahead on course assignments so they’re more present during the trip/conference, getting a good night’s rest before the event (and trying to get some sleep during it), or taking notes during teaching sessions.

Debrief: Live the Experience, Don’t Leave it Behind
If we’ve invited, prepared and we’ve made the most of the actual event, we will likely be wiped out when it’s over, but let’s not forget to land the plane for students. There are many ways to help students integrate and live out their experience beyond it. The first step: we must commit to debriefing and not moving on to the next thing.
We often ask our students, “What, so what, now what?” What happened over the week(end), why does it matter, and what (one or two things) are you going to do about it? Similar to a pre-meeting, we also host a post-meeting or landing party. This is a time for students to reflect and share about what God has done and how we want to live differently because of it. Or, it can be a time of reconnection and celebration. For example, after a spring break to Louisiana one year, our team gathered shortly after the trip to share a Southern home-cooked meal, pictures, stories…and lots of laughter. One student even made a playlist for the trip that would continue to remind us of the experience we shared.

Regardless of what you do to debrief, make sure you decide in advance how you will follow-up in timely way, and that you set your date for group reflection (if you’re not going to do it at your regular fellowship meeting). Whether it’s in a large group setting, one-on-one or students sharing with other students, let’s commit to living out our learning, not leaving it behind.

Keep Making the PB&Js
Transformational opportunities change students because of Jesus. Let’s never forget that HE is always the one doing the work. Author Donald Miller reminds us that God wants us to stay focused on our small part; he said something like “we should keep making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and let God run the cosmos.” The effort we put into our invitation, preparation and debrief is like making those sandwiches. Let’s choose to make the best darn PB&J’s we can, offer them up to the Creator in faith, and watch as he transforms student lives!

  • What are some of your best strategies for inviting?
  • How do you prepare students to make the most an experience?
  • What do you do to follow-up and help debrief afterwards?

about the author

Erica Young Reitz

After 14 years of college ministry experience working for the CCO, Erica is now teaching and consulting. Her passion for equipping graduating seniors to prepare for life after college continues. Erica is available to speak and consult – she loves connecting with students and 20-somethings as well as with practitioners who work with them. Currently, she serves as an adjunct faculty for Geneva College’s Master’s in Higher Education Program. She is the author of After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationship and Faith (InterVarsity Press). www.aftercollegetransition.com