Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry, edited by Will Penner.
by Hank Hilliard
It was a fragile situation that was teetering on the verge of chaos. More than 100 young people had descended upon the church gymnasium preparing to depart on our annual youth retreat to Florida. In tow were another 200 or so parents and siblings.
Families were paying last minute balances, stacking up their bags, and filling out forms that were supposed to have been turned in weeks before. Parents were busy offering the adult volunteers and me words of encouragement, giving their kids last minute instructions, and discussing plans with one another about how they would spend the five days with their kids out of the house.
Older youth were attacking me with questions about which bus they were on and whom they would be rooming with while the younger youth were so consumed with excitement and anticipation that they were just running around the gym. Many preparations still lay ahead, and we only had about 45 minutes until we were scheduled to board the buses.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see my associate, Steve, looking very anxious. He said in a very serious tone, “I need to talk to you.” I knew it was important because at our adult meeting only an hour before we had agreed that we would not pull one another from our assigned tasks unless something important came up that we could not handle on our own.
We walked into the hallway and around a corner to escape the noise and have some semblance of privacy. Steve leaned in and said in a very serious tone, “Austin is drunk.”
Austin was a rising senior who had been an active member of our youth ministry since eighth grade. He was a good kid, but he made an abundance of bad decisions. Austin worked hard to be tough and cared a little too much about being cool. He was one of those teenagers who drive youth pastors crazy: a young man with unmatched potential; a natural leader, but either did not recognize this gift or just did not care to use this gift to be a positive influence on others. To make things more difficult, Austin’s parents were on the verge of divorce.
My immediate reaction was anger. I thought, How could he do this to me? Surely he knows this is putting me in a terrible position. I wanted to send him home. Actually, I was so mad I didn’t even want to look at him or talk to him. I wanted Steve to send him home.
My face was flushed, and my mind was racing trying to process this information and figure out some way to even begin to make a decision. Steve was not only my associate but also a long-time friend. As if reading my mind he continued, “I know you want to send him home, but I think we should talk about this before you make a decision.”
My mind screamed, Discuss this? Discuss what? He is drunk. Get that disrespectful, self-centered kid out of here. Fortunately I had yet to open my mouth. Finally, I asked Steve to tell me what happened and how he found out Austin was drunk.
Steve explained that he greeted Austin in the parking lot. Austin gave him a head nod and stumbled past him into the hallway outside the gymnasium. He saw Austin stumble over to some friends, put his arms around them, and begin laughing and joking. Steve was suspicious and approached Austin. He got close enough to realize that Austin smelled of alcohol, so he pulled Austin aside privately and confronted him. Austin confessed that he had been drinking, at which point Steve sent Austin into my office with two other adult volunteers waiting for me to arrive to talk with him.
Steve and I walked down the hall towards the office. My mind was in overdrive, and my heart pounded with anxiousness and anger. Susan, a volunteer who was sitting with Austin, saw us approaching and came into the hall just outside the door. Susan was a veteran volunteer with one son in the youth ministry and another who had graduated the youth ministry and was now a volunteer himself. She was also a close friend of Austin’s mom. Before I could even say a word Susan said, “I think you should let him go on the trip.”
I shook my head. “How can I let a drunk kid go on a retreat?” I thought about the consequences: the loss of authority and respect, complaints from second-guessing parents, an early morning appointment with my senior pastor.
I asked Steve what he thought. Steve said, “I think we should let him go too.”
Now I felt ganged up on. Easy for you to say, I thought, I am the one in charge, and I’ll be the one to catch the blame if something goes wrong. But all I could say was, “Okay.” Then I told them I needed to talk to Austin alone.
I entered the office and sat to talk with Austin, while Steve and Susan took over my duties of greeting people and organizing the check-in process. I was angry, and I let Austin know it. I don’t really remember what I said, but I am sure if I wrote it down that it would not read like a Hallmark greeting card. When I was done with my rant, I asked him for an explanation. Austin said his dad had brought home some new brand of beer he was excited about and he wanted Austin to drink it with him.
My anger towards Austin lifted a bit as it shifted full-force towards his father. I told Austin to stay put. I walked to an empty part of the parking lot and called his dad. I reported the situation and told him of Austin’s claim that he was the one responsible for giving him the beer. The father confirmed that it was true. No remorse. Clueless to how wrong this was on so many levels.
Austin’s mom was serving as a cook on the retreat. She was already at the beach with the other cooks preparing for us to arrive in a few hours. I called her. She had not heard any of this yet, so I filled her in. I informed her I was trying to decide what to do with Austin and had about ten minutes before I had to go inside and give my send-off speech to the parents and get everyone loaded on the buses. She began crying and pled with me, “Please, let him come on the trip. Please do not make him go home to his father. Austin needs this trip. Austin needs you and the youth group. I will do anything.”
After I got off the phone with Austin’s mom, I pulled together Steve and Susan. Since they were both so involved, I felt I needed to consult with them before I decided. Not surprisingly they both still felt he should be allowed to go on the trip. Grudgingly, I consented.
I returned to the office to find Austin where I had left him. I told him that I wanted to send him home but that I was not going to because Steve and Susan had fought for him and won me over. I told him that he could get on the bus if he agreed to the following conditions. He would be sent home immediately if I heard him or any of his buddies joking about this or if any middle school kids began talking about how cool he was. (That last part doesn’t really make sense to me now, but I did say it.) I added that in addition to following all the usual trip rules that he would be required to be five minutes early to every meal, program, and activity and that he better be in his bed at lights-out. I closed by saying, “It’s your decision. Agree to those conditions, and you can get on the bus. If you don’t think you can do that, stay here.” I got up and walked inside to make my send-off speech.
After my speech, some final announcements, and a send off prayer, we all climbed aboard the buses. Austin quietly and inconspicuously picked up his bag and boarded the bus. As the buses pulled out of the parking lot, I called Austin’s mom to let her know her son was coming with us.
This was one of the toughest situations I have dealt with in ministry. A serious decision, a short window of time, and a gym full of more than 100 youth and adult leaders and their families feverishly preparing to depart for a five-day trip to the beach. It was a perfect storm.
In looking back at this situation more than five years later I have learned a few things. Some of the things I did were positive:
- I did not act until I had all the vital information. My first reaction was to blow up at Austin and tell him to never come back. All I knew was that he was drunk and I felt hurt and angry. If I had done this, I would have pushed Austin away and probably hurt his mother and Steve and Susan who were all stakeholders in what happened to Austin and deserved to have some say in the outcome. Speaking with Austin and both of his parents first was a huge help in making a well-informed decision.
- I sought the opinions of others. Although the ultimate decision rested on my shoulders, I brought others in to help make the decision. In this case, I actually went along with Steve and Susan even though I disagreed with it. I realize now that the reason I wanted to send Austin home had very little to do with Austin and much more to do with myself. I thought allowing him to go would undermine my authority and make me vulnerable to attack.
- I trusted my other leaders. Susan and Steve were both very steadfast in their belief that Austin should go on the trip. I listened to their reasons with an open mind.
I did not handle this situation perfectly, though. If I could go back in time, I would do some things differently:
- I would involve the senior pastor. My pastor had empowered me to make many decisions, and I feel confident this was a situation when he would let me make the call and support my decision. However, pastors do not like surprises. I am sure that rumors circulated around the church while we were gone, and one phone call could have set off a chain of events that could have blown up in my face. Fortunately my pastor was on vacation at the time, and no one called him. When we got back from the trip, I sent him an email letting him know what happened and that everything turned out okay. I never heard anything from him or anyone else in the church about it. Miraculously it all passed calmly and quietly, but that easily could have not been the case.
- I would have kept my emotions in check when first talking with Austin. I tore into him pretty good, and I could have really damaged my relationship with him. Once again, fortunately Austin either had a thick enough skin or a big enough heart to not check out of our relationship.
The Rest of the Story
Like a good family comedy, everything worked out fine. We had an amazing retreat, and Austin lived up to our agreement. Austin’s mother was relieved to have her son with her. Years later, Austin called me from college. I had sent him a birthday card, and he called to thank me. During that call, he said something that I will never forget. He said, “Hank, you were the only adult in my life who didn’t want something from me. You just wanted to be my friend.” I realized then that many adults had probably given up on Austin. If I had sent him home that night he probably would have felt like I, and the other leaders at the church had, too.
Austin graduated from college with honors and is now serving his country in the Marine Corps. Although his parents did finally divorce, Austin remains close to both of them, especially his mother. Every now and then, I get a Facebook message from Austin just checking in to see how I am doing, and I remember why God dragged me into this crazy calling of youth ministry.
Questions to Consider
Am I “slow to anger,” or do I have a tendency to fly off the handle? In what ways can I avoid making rash decisions, even when the decision-making window is very short?
In order to be more likely to make wise choices, who are in my “multitude of counselors” with whom to discuss difficult decisions?
Who are all of the key leaders in my church who need to be notified in case of difficult decisions (immediate supervisor, senior pastor, lay leader, personnel, committee chair, etc.), and what are the media through which—and the processes by which—those people should be informed when making decisions on the run?
What responsibilities do I have in a situation like this beyond just whether or not the kid goes on the trip? What needs to happen between the church leadership and grossly inappropriate parental decisions, like Dad’s promotion of underage drinking?
Hank Hilliard is the Director of Youth Ministry at Franklin First United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn. Prior to his current position, he served as the Director of Young People’s Ministries Development for the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, where he helped local churches develop more effective youth and young adult ministries through speaking and teaching, producing original resources, and building networks of support throughout the Church. Before joining GBOD, Hank served for thirteen years as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn. Hank and his wife, Amy, have two sets of twins—Tanner and Kendall, and Connor and Will.