It’s the summer of 1968. I am the “youth director” for the summer program at First Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, Florida, and I am overwhelmed in the first weeks on the job.

Everyday I have a day part or two to plan for and lead. For example, one day brings ten or so K- through second graders in the morning, and fifth and six graders in the afternoon. Various other age groupings fill the other weekdays, and then I have to program an event for junior highs, let’s say Saturday afternoon, and for senior highs Sunday night. I’ll be called on to preach three times this summer, and never having served a church before, that means some prep time, for sure. Plus, “being available” for youth and their parents as needed.

The apartment on the church grounds is over a garage. It’s not air-conditioned, but church members loaned us a couple of fans to circulate the stifling hot/humid air through our three rooms. We sleep with windows open, and even open the door that leads from the bedroom to an outside stairway to the ground level. One morning we learn that leaving that door open might not be a good idea. We are awakened by a knock on the screen door well before the alarm clock would go off. It’s a seven year-old boy peering in (not to say peeping in), asking if it’s time for his age group to meet. We tell him no, and ask him to come back in a couple of hours, and not here, but to the church. That door won’t be open the next night, no matter how hot it is.

As I look back on that summer, I remember especially how good the people were in that congregation. From the church staff to the elderly lady across the street who regaled us with tales of her driving snowbirds’ cars up and down the east coast — Virginia Beardsley was her name, and she was quite the sight in her later years, her wide, um, girth straddling the inadequate seat of one of those big tricycles so evident in the greater Clearwater area — we enjoyed the hospitality and moral support of our summer church family. One guy took us up in his small plane, the widow of a local minister offered me some of his books, and another member invited me to play on the church softball team. The plane ride took longer than my softball career. At the first game I managed to jam a middle finger and the season was over before I fully healed. Between my waterskiing and softball playing, the church quickly discovered that I wasn’t much into sports.

And I must confess that I also wasn’t much into planning activities either, kind of a major shortcoming for a youth “director.” Many events with the teens were to take place “off campus,” and more than once I neglected to arrange transportation. Unlike my predecessors in that summer position, I was an introvert and hated to recruit parents to drive, chaperone, or help in the most simple ways. I figured people would just show up when I needed them. But they didn’t; or, they got a bit miffed if I ambushed them as they dropped the kids off at church. “Do you mind driving us over to Busch Gardens?” Many minded, and rightly so.

Speaking of that Busch Gardens senior high junket, the church’s associate pastor, who oversaw my work that summer, had to field parents’ complaints about me twice (that I know of). The first occasion was my very first Sunday night senior high gathering. I don’t recall the program that night, but when it ended early in the evening, I thought it might be fun to drive into Clearwater and see a movie. Teens like movies, right? Anybody want to come along? The next morning, Associate Pastor Joe Amory called me into his office and said he’d fielded a couple of complaints from parents. One said her son felt left out of the movie trip because he hadn’t brought any money to youth group (not knowing he’d have to spend some on a church field trip to the movie house). The other caller complained that their family never went to the movies on the Sabbath, and what in the world possessed me to think that was OK to do on a Sunday?

No more Sunday movies, I promised Joe.

And that Busch Gardens jaunt? That was before there was that much for teenagers to actually do at Busch Gardens. It was before the Tampa theme park had big, exciting rides, so basically there were, well, gardens. After we had walked the grounds, I realized we still had an hour or so before our rides came for us, if I’d actually asked them to come. So the only other thing to do to fill time was tour the Busch Beer brewery. Perhaps you see the problem. And why the next complaints came through Joe’s phone. “Our family,” the caller said with no little consternation, “has been to Busch Gardens many times, and we never had to resort to touring the brewery!!” 

No more brewery tours.

I’ll say this for that first jump into youth ministry: it provided sufficient grist for my later teaching the youth ministry course at our denomination’s graduate school for church educators, PSCE (Presbyterian School of Christian Education, in Richmond, Va.) I was getting an education that summer that I was happy to share almost twenty years later.

In our next episode, Joanie and Caroline go with Jeff to the radio station and the guy who comes to the door there is carrying…a gun.