I spent 15 years as a youth minister taking teenagers and young adults on retreats, conferences, mission trips, and summer camps. I'm also the product of those experiences - my earliest memory of encounter with Jesus was as a teenager at a World Youth Day Mass. My inital conversion happened during adoration as a young adult at a summer conference. The experience of retreating from routine and entering into a pocket in time that's totally focused on faith and genuine fellowship with other Christians can be powerful and life changing.
It is not good for man to be alone.
However, these experiences cannot and do not stand on their own. God calls us to community and companionship. He has created us for relationship and communion. When these on fire young people return from their camp, retreat, or conference, they need more. They need you. They need your ongoing & intentional accompaniment to help fan the flame of their encounter experience (sometimes referred to as a "retreat high") into the lasting transformation of conversion!
They need you if you’re a chaperone, youth minister, catechist, teacher, or Core member. They need you if you’re a parent, grandparent, godparent, or sibling. They need you if they’re a part of your parish or school community.
In The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila says,
It is very important for us to associate with others who are walkign in the right way--not only those who are where we are in the journey, but also those who have gone father. Those who have drawn close to God have the ability to bring us closer to him, for in a sense they take us with them.
Encounter is not the same thing as conversion!
They may come home on fire and excited but not actually be ready to make changes to their lives (yet). Chances are, they don’t need your knowledge of theology or lectures on prayer or morality (yet). They may not be ready for a Bible Study, apologetics lesson, or catechesis class (yet).
They need your witness of faith. They are hungering for someone to pray with them, for someone to listen to them, for someone to share how Jesus is a friend and companion.
So, how can you do the work of accompaniment? Remember that it's not about what you know, it's about who you know and how you love.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul gives us an example of what it means to accompany someone - to walk in love with them closer to Jesus,
Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children, we felt so devoted and protective towards you, and had come to love you so much, that we were eager to hand over ot you not aalonly the Good News but our whole lives as well.
1 Thessalonians 2:7-8
Give Your Full Attention - For As Long As It Takes
Now that I have teenagers of my own, I have come to realize just how easy it is to let my focus shift when I'm asking about how the week at camp or weekend retreat was. While I desperately want to hear about their encounter and conversion moments, I am often not as interested in giving my full attention to them when they want to share the inside jokes (most of which I don't understand) or social interactions they experienced. I've found myself asking, "How was your week?" in the van on the way home before we have to run to the next event or errand - which doesn't really give them the time and space needed to answer.
It's also true that it can take some processing time for them to unpack what the experience meant to them, how they saw God working, or what they got from it. Especially if they're tired, they may be overwhelmed with everything and haven't had a chance to really digest the experience yet. If you genuinely open the door to conversation and ask them to share, only to get a one word answer (or even a grunt), give it some time. Give them some time and space and then ask again!
Accompaniment After Retreats
If you know a teen or young adult who attended a summer camp, mission trip, church conference, or retreat, don't wait for them to come to you - reach out to them. Ask them about the experience. Open your heart to them, give them your full attention, ask them to share with you, and allow yourself to see the power of the Holy Spirit working in the joy, passion, peace, and/or enthusiasm they bring home.
Here are a few questions to help get your first conversation with them started:
- What one thing do you most want to remember from your experience?
- How did you see, hear, or feel God while you were there? Do you feel like God did anything in your heart?
- Tell me about the team you worked with / the people you met. Who did you connect with?
- What were you expecting before you went? How were you surprised?
- What is best about being home? What is most difficult?
- How can I pray for you and your new friends?
- What is God teaching you as you get back into your normal routines? Is there anything you feel like you want to change?
- What, if anything, that you heard or experienced made a significant difference in your life?
- How can I help you keep the (passion, fire, enthusiasm, joy, light etc) that I see this experience helped you find?