I was a youth pastor for about 30 years.
I used to say I would do it until I was 70. That didn’t pan out. I hit 70 less than two months ago. I wouldn’t have had the energy.
Pocatello, Idaho was our mission station for 11 years: 1976 to 1987. Memories abound—many glorious, some bleak. We are still in contact with a significant number of those former “teens”.
One of those years we took a mission trip to Provo, Utah. We encouraged a small local church in our denomination for a weekend and handed out papers bringing the Good News in the neighborhood.
We had a puppet team and had a singing group as well. What a wondrous weekend.
Until Sunday night, that is.
We stayed in a KOA campground to conserve our costs. One of the ladies in the church brought the family camper trailer and did all the cooking. We had several tents. Of course, there were girls’ tents and boys’ tents. Reasonable enough.
I did something I later regretted—not the action, but the approach that mandated the action.
We had rules about our life in that campground. Our concern was our reputation among the people camped all around us. The rule was simple. Boys were to stay in boys’ tents and girls were to stay in girls’ tents. Neither one should enter the other for any reason. We were not to be perceived as a party-on group of irresponsible young people, but intentional and purposeful about life.
Here’s where I created a hard situation for everybody. As part of the rule I said that, after a warning, if someone was caught in the tent of the opposite gender, they would be sent home.
I was tested on that. I had to remind different people a couple of times. On Sunday night, after a joyful ministry serving people, and a sweet gathering that evening in the church building, we went to our campground, feeling warm about it all.
In my tent changing clothes, voices from the neighboring tent were clearly audible. A boy and a girl were inside, and I heard one of them instruct another of our teens: “watch out for Pastor Ken“. That person was to stand near the doorway and keep watch. These people already had a warning.
They knew exactly what they were doing. It was a deliberate choice in spite of plainly spoken rules. This became the toughest night of my life to that point, and probably in the top two or three ever.
The adult leaders conversed. There was only one clear course of action, and the gnawing in my stomach grew as no way around the decision could be found. We called the three people in and informed them that they would be getting on a bus to go home the next morning.
Here’s what made it worse. I was in charge of the trip and could not leave. So, I ended up asking one of our hapless adult leaders, fairly new to involvement in youth ministry, to accompany them home on the bus. He looked at me and said he do it. His attitude was impeccable.
At least one of the three, with wide eyes, begged me not to send them home. That person feared the response of parents. But, since I had been deliberately tested and defied, I had to follow through with what I had said, for the sake of integrity.
The best friend of one of the people I sent home was angry at me for months afterward. Particularly that night and the next day anger was visibly apparent.
Monday morning as the preparations were being made for the four individuals to leave, one of the other young people came up to me and said: “Ken, you did the right thing.“ She was highly encouraging to me. That made it a bit better.
However, the events surely took the edge off the next day.
We had planned an outing at the close our ministry—a celebration. We wanted this as a way to say “thank you” for serving. It was a surprise to them all. But now a cloud was hanging over us.
We drove up to Park City, Utah, stopping for a picnic on the way. The offended person gave me frosty stares all day. The whole group was subdued, but I wasn’t about to take away this privilege, because of the actions of three individuals.
At Park City, we had arranged for everyone to take the tram to the top of the mountain, and ride the alpine slide down. Flying down the mountain was a kick! We did it three times, I believe.
By the time we were done smiles were back.
During the day and on the trip home, in my mind wrestled speculations about how parents would respond. It turned out they all highly supported me, and agreed with what I had done. That took away some of the sting.
One of the three, although I don’t remember just when, eventually thanked me for doing what I had done. Sometime later, the offended best friend also warmed up to me again and to this day we are friends.
God did his work in several hearts and lives through the events, but I would never want to experience it again. From then on I was more careful to frame expectations and consequences for excessive juvenile behavior. One lesson: Never promise something you do not want to carry out! I assumed that, of course, no one would step on these clear, reasonable rules, and I would not have to carry it out!
The fact that I dearly love them all added to the angst of what had to be done. There was no joy in following through with the process.
Nope. No joy.
But as time went on and responses were softened a deeper joy came to our relationships.
Still, if I was to go back those 30 some years and do it again. I’d start out with a whole different level of communication.
The thing I did right was to keep my word. Integrity is a huge deal. And there would have been much more fallout if I had not been strong enough to stay with it.
Even when your heart has sunk to the bottom, God is present, and good comes.