4 Lessons from my Retreat Disaster

It’s a youth pastor’s nightmare.

Your retreat speaker cancels at the last minute and despite your own bronchitis, you still have to be the speaker and worship leader. I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy and yet… there I was. This was just one of the things that went terribly wrong on my first retreat…

Kind to one Cruel to All

All of their parents were working over the Christmas break and so I planned all fall for a three day retreat from the 27th to the 29th of December. I was exhausted from my own sickness and the busy Christmas season but still had to pull 4 messages together for my little group. For me, that meant an all-nighter before the retreat.

The group was small. I had no adult leaders. I had no drivers. The plan was to pack the students and their gear into the church van and drive north to Circle Square Ranch.

It snowed heavily all day. I was anxious about the drive up North. I hoped for an hour to nap before the students arrived at the church. This didn’t happen. Although the departure time was 6 pm, two families dropped off their kids at 4 pm. I guess I could have ignored them and hid in my office but I felt I should hang out with them. That meant trudging through the parking lot and buying them dinner at Burger King.

We came back to the church and waited for the rest of the students to arrive. All of them were there before 5:30. At 6 pm the phone rang in the church foyer. Jane sounded desperate; “My parents still aren’t home. They must be stuck in the snow storm please wait until I can get there!”

All the other students were anxious to go. At 6:30 she called again to say that her parents just got in the door and they would be driving her soon. She arrived at the church at 7:15 –The students were upset with me for waiting for her. I don’t think I ever waited more than 15 minutes for a student after that.

Lesson 1. Stick to your plan.

Wipe Out and Snow Job

It was a white knuckle drive up the highway to the camp. We passed dozens of cars in the ditch and kept going. The snowflakes seemed to be coming directly at the windshield. All I could see of the car ahead was its snow covered tail lights. The drive dragged on and on for hours. Suddenly I was at my exit but the exit lane hadn’t been plowed. I tried to slow as much as possible without getting hit then tried to make a 90degree turn. The van wouldn’t turn and plowed into the snow bank.

I was frightened that we would get hit blocking the exit. I jumped out of the driver’s seat and began to attack the snow bank with a small aluminum shovel. I had lung burn from shovelling so hard and began to feel a little light headed. Three of the students jumped out and tried to push as I backed out of the snow bank. Finally it popped loose and we headed toward the camp.

My back was tied in knots by the time we pulled up at the buildings. Before I could come to a stop the boys jumped out the sliding door. I sat for a second to take a deep breath and thank God we didn’t end up in the ditch. When I stepped out of the van. I was blinded by a huge lump of snow right in my face! The boys yelled “SNOW JOB!” I tried to shout NO!! when one of them shoved a handful of snow down my throat! I couldn’t breath and my glasses had been ripped off my face. Other hands smashed snow down my shirt.

I began to choke and cough pushing the students away from me. Everything inside of me wanted to bury those boys in the snow!

Instead I pulled my self together, opened the back doors and started throwing the packs on to the front steps. I couldn’t control my cough and my throat was burning.

Lesson 2. Have someone to watch your back. Never run an activity without another adult.

Snow Blindness

We had some kind of of  short session that evening where I explained my hopes for the weekend. I desperately needed sleep –I was exhausted to tears but the boys wouldn’t sleep. Finally after they were all down I had a fitful sleep half imagining that they would attack me in before I woke up.

The blizzard continued so we weren’t able to do the horse ride or any of the outdoor activities that we had planned.

By evening the wind had died down but the snow still hadn’t let up. We had planned a hay ride. It had to be pulled by a tractor because they didn’t want to put the horses out. Our small group bundled up and huddled tight on the wagon as it lurched into the woods.

Ten minutes into the ride. I was having a deep conversation with one of the girls about why I believe in God. My glasses were pulled off my face by one of the boys. He said “Now I look like Ron. Turn with me in your Bibles to….” I tried to ignore Dennis and get back into the conversation.

The moment was lost. Students were now trying to push Dennis off of the wagon. We both got thrown off. Dennis was face down in the snow. I pulled him up and we ran in the knee deep snow to catch up with the wagon. No one shouted to the driver to slow down for us. It was too much fun watching us pant like dogs.

Back at the retreat center I asked Dennis for my glasses. He said, “I have them somewhere give me a minute.” He went through all the pockets in his parka and pants. “I must have lost them on the sleigh ride,”he confessed. I needed the glasses for driving and pretty much everything else. I had no back up pair or contacts. There was no point checking the trail. They were gone.

Lesson 3. Don’t lend your stuff to a student.  and Don’t allow students to push students wearing your glasses off of a hay ride.

Last Night

I thought of ways that we could get back to the city with me driving blind. I didn’t have any of the parents’ numbers with me and I didn’t know my lead pastor’s home phone number. Miraculously, I had written Scott a camp counselors number in my bible that summer. I knew that he lived in the town closest to the ranch! I gave him a call and he told me that he would get a ride out to the ranch and be able to drive us back to the city.

With that taken care of, I now focused on the evening session. It seemed for once I was getting through and when I invited each student to find a place in the room to pray, they actually prayed!! Some were even crying! I went around to each one to pray for them individually. I had no idea that they had so much pain in their young lives. Each of them connected with God in a deep personal way.

Lesson 4. Never give up. –Despite difficulties, retreats provide unique opportunities for students to encounter God and for leaders to develop closer relationships with students. 


It has been 32 years since that first disastrous retreat. I continued to journey with those students for the first ten years of my ministry and saw the ups and downs of their teen years. I am friends with most of them on Face Book and think of them quite often. They hold a special place in my heart.

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Ron Powell


Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email ron.powell@vanguardcollege.com


  1. David Powellsays:

    Great Story Ron! Working with kids has a lot of ups and downs….sometimes it feels like more downs than anything else, but in the end i think it’s all worth it!

    • Thanks Dave,
      You are so right. I guess even the bad times don’t seem so bad when I look back on it. It was worth it all!

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