As summer travel season gets into full swing (or, for some, may already be in high gear), I feel the time is right to share the story of one of the low points in my now eleven years in volunteer youth ministry. It happened in Phoenix, Arizona, and has come to be called (by those involved) “The Night of the Infamous Walmart Run.”

Full disclosure: we can look back on it now and laugh about it, and we learned a valuable (if  somewhat humorous) lesson.

It was two years ago that we were in Phoenix, Arizona for the Assemblies of God National Fine Arts Festival. Factor in that it was also a General Council year, and it was quite an influx of people, and it also meant that a few of our church’s pastoral staff (including the senior pastor, his wife, and their oldest son, who is a good friend of mine) were along for the trip. Their two daughters were taking part in the festival in various entries as well.

Earlier in the day, we had been talking about, and loosely planning for, a run to a Walmart store that was reasonably close to the hotel where we were staying, was accessible by city bus (we had flown down to Phoenix and were getting to and from the convention center via light rail, assisted by the hotel’s shuttle vans), and would only require changing buses once. A large group headed out, and the pastor’s son and I set out later to join them (we got into a very deep discussion, which is a whole topic unto itself). All was going well, until the group that actually made it to Walmart hit the first snag; what we thought was a 24-hour store was actually going to be closing not long after they arrived, which of course led to long lines at the checkouts. OK, not a big deal, we’ll just make it quick and then hop back on the bus for the return trip. Rather than make the trek out to join them, my friend and I waited at the intersection where the rest of the group would need to change buses in order to get back to the hotel, figuring we’d all arrive back at the same time, and traveling in a group in a strange city was probably a safer bet (which it usually is). They made it there without an issue, and we did meet up with them, but that’s when we ran into the next problem, which ended up being the biggest issue: the buses in Phoenix stop running at 10PM.

At this point, I need to explain something. First of all, we didn’t know the buses would stop running at 10. Second of all, buses being pulled off the road at such a time was a foreign concept to us. We’re from Milwaukee. Around here, the buses run until 2AM (sometimes later), the idea being that they’re still running when the bars close, and it’ll keep the drunk drivers off the road. (It’s not a terribly effective strategy, but again, that’s a whole other issue). At some point, we figured out the bus wasn’t coming, and walking back to the hotel was simply not an option, so we had to figure something else out, and fast. A few phone calls later, and our youth pastor (who was not at all happy with me or the other leaders who spearheaded this outing; more on that in a bit) was able to send the hotel’s shuttle vans out to pick us up and bring us back to the hotel, quite a bit later then we intended to arrive back. Oh, did I mention that the senior pastor’s two daughters (one high school age, one middle school age) were with us, and he had no idea where they were? Suffice to say, I’m eternally grateful I wasn’t immediately discharged from the volunteer staff, much less excommunicated from the church, and forced to find my own way home (that would have been a fun phone call to my mom, if I would have even been able to get a hold of her).

Long story short (too late, I know), we had an impromptu and very uncomfortable meeting with our youth pastor upon our return (who hadn’t even been the youth pastor for terribly long), and learned a few important lessons along the way, which I want to share with all of you.

First of all, make sure plenty of people know where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and when you expect to be back when you’re traveling with a group of students, especially on an extended trip like this. Second, know how you’re getting to where you’re going, and how you’re getting back. And, obviously, know when the buses stop running! Finally, if the unthinkable (or just inconvenient) should happen and you do get stuck or need some help, don’t wait to ask for help. And most importantly, keep your youth pastor/leader or other leadership in the loop!

So, there you have it. My story of the Infamous Walmart Run, and a few of the lessons I’ve learned. I know I can’t be the only one who’s made a big-time mistake like this. Share your story in the comments!