Turning Wine into Water
By Bart Frost
My first congregational event as a brand new Director of Religious Education was an ordination. I was greeted with smiles, handshakes, and a keg sitting in a bucket of ice. This was my first professional gig and I had no idea about what the expectation was around drinking at congregationally-sponsored events. In the midst of a new role, in a new city, I also had to figure out which was more professional: to have just one or none at all? Then, a member of the Board offered me a beer. Taking a cue from the minister, who had a glass of wine, I graciously accepted and stopped after one.
Now, it may not seem like it, but that situation was terrifying at the time. I had to navigate new social codes and I wanted to make a good first impression. I wasn’t responsible for any youth or children at the ordination. Yet, I was worried that as a young adult Director of Religious Education, if I drank publicly I would be seen as immature and not serious about my new job.
Alcohol plays a huge part in lubricating our society, ensuring social situations glide effortlessly with an overabundance of laughter. Alcohol is a depressant that exaggerates our emotions. Alcohol stratifies and divides: wine vs. beer, domestic vs. craft, sober vs. not. Alcohol unifies; we build bonds over drinks after work. Alcohol is holy (John 2:1-11), and something that holy people avoid (1 Timothy 3:8). Alcohol is both civilized and dangerous.
How do the common narratives around alcohol play out in your congregation? How do they play out for the entire UUA? A little over ten years ago, I helped the General Assembly Planning Committee draft the following policy for GA:
No alcoholic beverages will be served or allowed at any Planning Committee sponsored event. All events during General Assembly offering alcoholic beverages must also offer attractive non-alcoholic beverages with equal accessibility and prominence. No alcoholic beverages will be served to anyone under the age of 21. As a community we are committed to GA being a safe environment and all attendees are encouraged to support this goal.
A few years later, I met with the Youth Ministry Advisory Committee as a representative of the General Assembly Planning Committee. They wanted to discuss the alcohol culture at General Assembly, because it is common knowledge that getting a sponsor who is willing to not drink during all of GA is extremely difficult. This was not the first or last time the issue had arisen. For many who attend, General Assembly is a professional conference where old friendships are renewed or new networks built over drinks.
Our alcohol culture resides deep within our congregations. Colleagues have shared with me struggles in their congregation about whether or not alcohol should be available at their congregational retreat. There are too many stories about minors having to be hospitalized for alcohol poisoning because alcohol was left in the open and not monitored. Once when I was Director of Religious Education, I found leftover wine from a congregational dinner in the youth room. It was hidden behind a bookcase by a well-meaning person who didn’t want to leave it in plain view. Luckily, the youth group was on a hiatus at the time.
Ask yourself: How does our society’s culture and attitude towards alcohol affect and influence (pun intended) the life of your congregation?
Here are more questions you need to talk about with the leadership in your congregation:
- Is it legal to serve alcohol for [x] event? Many states, cities, and towns required a permit for the sale of alcoholic beverages. In some places, this extends to ticket sales that include a glass of wine or beer with dinner. Do your research and consult a lawyer.
- How does alcohol consumption further the mission of our congregation? Are you serving wine as part of a ritual, such as communion? Does it have a spiritual function or is it serving social needs? If it is related to your mission, what alternatives are being provided for those who have to drive, for youth, or for sober participants? How are you creating a welcoming space for them?
- Is having alcohol present preventing members of your congregation from being fully present in the community? Are you excluding sober members and youth because they are uncomfortable with the way alcohol is consumed? Also, is alcohol so present that it clouds decision-making processes? While we aren't responsible for others' sobriety, we can make it easier for those who are sober to be in our spaces by not having alcohol or having attractive non-alcoholic options in prominent places. In an inclusive and welcoming community, we don’t push people away because they ask us for help. If a member of our congregation comments that the presence of alcohol is disturbing, we have a responsibility to listen and act. Alcohol should never be present at committee meetings or business meetings; this isn’t the Mad Men Era.
These are just the first questions to ask as you evaluate the influence of alcohol in your congregation. As you delve deeper, you might seek out additional resources like the ones below. Has your congregation recently discussed its alcohol policy? Tell us how it went in the comments!
Find out about Addictions Ministry on UUA.org
Read and share Restored to Sanity: Meditations on the Twelve Steps, by Ken and Cathlean (Skinner, 2014. Read a Call and Response post about the book.
Explore Safe Congregation resources and engage your congregation’s leadership in conversations about policies and norms.
About the Blogger
Bart Frost currently serves as Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the Unitarian Universalist Association. He has served a number of our congregations in volunteer and paid roles before joining the UUA in 2014. In his former life, Bart managed a wine bar in New Orleans, and retains his sommelier certifications. Reach him on social media:
Twitter: @bartfrost; @YaYAUU