By Karen Jones
I was just completing my first year at the large, affluent, urban church. As is often the case when following a much-loved former youth minister, I had experienced some resistance in being accepted by the older youth during that time.
The group had a tradition of attending a summer camp with several other churches from the region, so we continued that practice the first summer I was there. It was an eye-opening experience for the adult volunteers who went along as chaperones for the first time, as they encountered other adults who were teaching things that contradicted the church’s doctrine. I vividly remember coming across the father of one of our students one night, a deacon at our church, who was sitting alone on a bench in the middle of the college campus where we were staying. He was weeping openly as he lamented the fact that the church had been sending their youth there, year after year, without ever realizing how they were being indoctrinated.
We did not attend that camp the next year, much to the initial distress of those older youth. The fact that I was leading a break with tradition was an obstacle to overcome, so the pastor encouraged me to plan our own camp, one that would be so appealing to our students that they wouldn’t mind missing the old experience. So that is exactly what we did.
Our camp was held in the Rocky Mountains, and it included rafting, a high ropes course, and rappelling, in addition to other recreational opportunities and an all-star team of speakers and worship leaders. I covered all the bases in terms of informational meetings, medical releases, and parental permissions.
There was some concern about the behavior of a few of the senior high males, who sometimes crossed the line with their partying and risk-taking. In fact, some of the adult volunteers wondered whether or not we should allow them to attend. I didn’t want to exclude any students, however, on the basis of their past actions, and I thought their desire to attend the camp was a positive sign.
The camp would be a great opportunity to speak into their lives and perhaps help them rearrange their lives’ directions and priorities. I did, however, make it clear to everyone that there would be a zero-tolerance policy in terms of drug use, including alcohol. The parents actually signed a form that listed the rules, agreeing to pay for an airline ticket if their child had to be sent home for violating the zero-tolerance policy.
The students were in awe of the location of the camp and responded positively to worship. The “partiers” were model campers, and it seemed that we were finally turning a corner in the ministry. Our first crisis was a broken arm. We soon discovered that this was a typical occurrence with this particular student, who apparently had brittle bones. (Who knew? Something to add to the medical information form next time.) His parents weren’t overly concerned, and one trip to the hospital didn’t dampen our spirits. He came back with a cast that made him a camp star. Unfortunately, that wasn’t our only crisis.
The worship leader was rooming with some of our older male students: the partiers and risk-takers included. One morning, after the students were off to small groups, he approached me with a concern. He had noticed some odd behavior from three of the boys when he entered the room that morning; some of their comments and actions sent off alarms. When they left the room, he went to the trashcan and opened up the empty Mountain Dew bottles they had deposited. The strong smell of alcohol coming out of the bottles was the reason he had approached me. There was no mistaking it: the boys had obviously been drinking, and not just that morning. The bottles had been accumulating. My heart sank.
Accompanied by the worship leader, I confronted the three students with our discovery. They readily admitted that they had been drinking ever since they had arrived. Apparently, one of the boys had the ingenious idea of pouring Zima into the Mountain Dew bottles before they loaded the buses for the trip, and the other two boys went along with the plan. They knew they had broken the rules, but didn’t appear remorseful for what they had done, just that they had been discovered. They also knew that the rules said they would be sent home, but I don’t think they expected it. We talked with them at length and prayed with them, then asked each of them to call their parents. I rounded up the volunteers and let them know what had been happening, and I consulted with the pastor via telephone.
While the rules had been clearly established, I never expected that I would actually have to fly anyone home—and I’ll admit, I resented being put into the situation. As if the dilemma could be any worse, one of the offending students was the son of another staff member. A few of the adults advocated for the students and asked that we let them stay at the camp. Nevertheless, I believed that I had no choice but to follow through with the policy that was in place—a policy to which the students and parents had both agreed. For me, this was a matter of integrity.
Proverbs teaches that the person who seeks godly wisdom will receive it, and will be discerning, acting in justice and fairness. It would have been easy to justify “giving in” as a wise decision. However, Proverbs 25:26 says, Sometimes a godly person gives in to those who are evil. Then he becomes like a muddy spring of water or a polluted well (NIrV.) I did not see giving in as a choice, or my authority and trustworthiness as a leader would forever be compromised.
I called the airlines and explained the situation. They were very helpful and volunteered to place a note in their files stating that they were minors who were being sent home from a camp for consuming alcohol. They were not to be allowed to sit together on the plane under any circumstances. The worship leader drove them into Denver to the airport, which gave him an opportunity to talk with them—a teachable moment. Unfortunately, they weren’t in any mood to talk.
Though all of the parents had signed a form agreeing to pay for an airline ticket if their child violated the zero-tolerance policy and had to be flown home, none of the parents ever reimbursed the church. One of the students continued to participate in the youth ministry sporadically. Two of them were seniors at the time, and went on to college only a couple of months later. I attempted to reach out to them after the camp, but with little success.
An unexpected but welcomed outcome occurred during the camp itself. Two of the seniors, who had never quite accepted me as a “replacement” for their former youth minister, approached me one evening after the offending students had been sent home. They expressed their respect for me as a leader. They affirmed me for actually following through with the stated policy. One of them even sent me a letter later that summer, reiterating his thoughts. This strengthened my belief about the importance for a leader to act with integrity.
As time has passed, I have continued to reflect upon that camp experience. Sometimes I am haunted by “what ifs?” and wonder if I did the right thing. I do believe that I acted correctly, given the policy I had instituted, but I question the actual policy itself.
I was trying to preempt any drinking or other drug use by letting the students know that this would not be a “grace” situation. This was partly because I knew we would be involved in outdoor activities that would present them with a greater risk if they were using any type of drugs. But I really didn’t expect anyone to be so bold as to violate the policy. Besides, the vast majority of my students were really good kids who would never even dream of using drugs or alcohol, let alone at a church event.
If I had it to do over again, I probably would have included the policy with language more like the following: Any student using alcohol or other illegal drugs may be sent home at their parents’ expense. Simply changing the “will” to “may” provides some leeway for the leader to make the decision on the fly.
I have lost touch with those students over the years, as I now reside in another state. Perhaps I will be able to reconnect with them one day, which may help me to know how that decision has impacted their spiritual lives.
When is the last time I took a look through all of our youth ministry—and church-wide—policies? Will I be okay with enforcing them all exactly as they are written when the time comes?
In what situations do policies need to have some leeway for the leader to account for situational context? In what situations should policies be black and white in order to protect the leader from having to make certain decisions?
When policies are enforced that carry disciplinary consequences for offenders, what follow-up processes need to occur for the offenders, their families, and others in the group, so that ministry continues to be offered to everyone?
It Happens is a collection of “true tales from the trenches of youth ministry.” CYMT collected these stories from youth workers across the country so readers can learn from their mistakes and be prepared when IT happens to you! It Happens is available in Kindle or paperback format from Amazon.
This week’s excerpt comes from Karen Jones, a youth minister who served for more than 15 years in Missouri and Texas. Today, Jones is the Department Chair and Professor of Ministry and Missions at Huntington University and is currently on the executive board of the Association of Youth Ministry Educators.