The High School end-of-year banquet had a rich tradition at one of the churches where I served as youth pastor. Students looked forward to this extravagant evening all through their high school years, and as leaders we looked to this event to provide an exclamation point to a student’s transition from youth ministry.
On this particular year I made careful preparations to gather our group at a local Teppanyaki restaurant, where the chef masterfully cooks, juggles knives, and creates fire right before your eyes.
On the night of the banquet there were a small group of us, enough to sit around one open grill. In addition to the 5 graduates and I, there was one volunteer adult (who was also a parent), and my wife. One of the youth was “Monica,” an exchange student from Brazil who had spent the year at our high school and had come to the youth group on and off.
The meal was going very well. Most of the students had never been to a restaurant like this and were enjoying the chef’s show as he made our food. We were laughing as a baseball player tried to catch flying shrimp, they cheered for the ‘volcano’ made with onions, and were in awe at knife juggling.
I noticed our waiter was talking a lot with “Monica.” She was at the other end of the table, and because the chef, the open grill, and the vent fan were between us, I couldn’t hear what was being said. I could tell the waiter was flirting a bit and I thought to myself, “He’s just hoping for a big tip.”
After a few minutes, the waiter came back with the tray of drinks for us all and I noticed interspersed with the soft drinks, tea, and water, one of the drinks had a tiny umbrella stuck in it. I was not surprised to see him set it in front of Monica but I assumed, “They know these are high schoolers, I’m sure it’s just a virgin drink from the bar.” As part of a summer job in college, I had worked as a bartender and I knew the penalty for an establishment serving a minor.
A second thought ran through my head, “I suppose if it is alcoholic, it’s legal where she is from.”
I continued with my meal, assuming this was a virgin drink, but then I noticed Monica was passing the drink around to a couple of the guys sitting down at her end of the table. They were taking sips and laughing. I figured then it was alcoholic, but the louder voice in my head kept saying, “He can’t have served alcohol to a minor, that would be crazy.”
We went through the entire meal and I did nothing. When I got the bill, there was no mention or charge for a drink from the bar. Later I found out Monica told the waiter it was her birthday and he brought her the drink as a gift.
The adult volunteer who was at the meal came to my office that next week and expressed grave concern that I hadn’t stepped in and stopped the drink when it came. Other parents also questioned my judgement over this incident. My supervisor came down pretty hard on me and that led to a parent meeting where I apologized for not responding immediately to the situation.
Obviously, not one of my glowing youth ministry success stories. But since this is written as a note to my younger self, if I could go back, what would I say? Also, what lessons could be drawn from my past experience that might help someone today?
The first thing I would say is, “Recognize you are the leader.” Even if there are older people (like the other adult volunteer) present, because you are the youth pastor people expect you to step up and lead, no matter your age.
Second, I should have gotten up out of my seat, walked over and asked what was going on. Assuming I would have heard the truth, I could have laughed that she had pulled this off. I should have then taken the drink back to the bar.
Third, knowing myself better could have helped. Since I now know my default mode is “information” (part of being an Enneagram 5), I needed to look for ways to provide more information and strategy ahead of time. I could have thought through possible scenarios and come better prepared. I was caught out, and therefore froze in that situation.
In the end, no one was hurt, no one lost their salvation, and I was humbled but learned an important lesson as a 24 year old youth pastor. Still, I wish I knew then what I know now, I would tell my young self, “Step up and do something!”
Written by Rick Bartlett – you can reach out to Rick here at firstname.lastname@example.org