Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Church Life, Alcohol, and Me

Every year at this time of year I end up having the conversation with someone (usually a congregant) about church life, me, and alcohol. There is a familiar flow to the conversation, and I thought this year, after having one conversation with a friend and ministerial colleague along these lines already, I thought I might give my answer publically.

The most popular article I have ever written here at Celestial Lands was an article from several years ago titled “Not Misusing Intoxicants”. As a part of my Zen practice, I chose one of the Zen Precepts to try and practice as literally as possible for a year… and I chose the precept “not to misuse intoxicants”. While alcohol was first on my mind, that year also altered my use of the internet, of television, and of many other things I use to distract myself from reality. It even performed a miracle in altering my caffeine intake!

The year of practicing that precept as literally as I could coincided with most of my Ministerial Internship at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL. So, at church events that had alcohol (usually wine, served traditionally in clear plastic Dixie cups for some inexplicable reason), I would mingle with a cup of hot tea in my hands. Eventually, someone asked me about it.

You see, prior service military, minister, male, and not drinking alcohol led a few people to make the assumption that I must be a recovering alcoholic. I will never forget the dear congregant who pulled me aside at one such event, and whispered in my ear “How long have you been in meetings?” I was so clueless I did not get it. “Meetings? I’ve been in meetings all day. We had the Pastoral Associates meeting at noon, followed by a staff meeting at two. I then had a meeting with Barbara, and I just got here from a meeting with a congregant… why do you ask?”

“Not those kind of meetings… Meetings! How long have you been in AA?” pointing to my cup of hot tea.

Now, I love AA. I think AA and AlAnon and other 12 Step programs do wonderful work and provide a wonderful home and support network for people who are struggling with many different forms of addiction. If there was a 12 Step program for me however, it would probably be one for Workaholism, not Alcoholism. So, it was a little embarrassing for me to realize that more than a few of the congregants of the church I was serving had seen that I did not drink wine at church functions, and made the assumption that I was a recovering alcoholic.

In the earlier article on this, I spoke about my observations of church life and the use of alcohol, and so I will not cover that ground again. One of the practices I developed from that year is that I do not drink alcohol at church functions, or at events that are held by congregants. Why? Because I’m working. Whether it be the Annual Auction at the Church, or a New Year’s Eve Party at a congregant’s home, I do not drink alcohol. For me, it is a part of my setting the healthy boundary line around the kinds of relationships I have with congregants. The relationship between a minister and a congregant is not one of friendship, but it can sometimes seem like it. One of the ways I underline the difference between a friendship and a pastoral relationship (for myself and for others) is that when I am with congregants, I am working. And when I am working, I do not drink alcohol.

I keep to a similar rule with ministerial colleagues, unless it is a purely social event. So, if we are mingling at a retreat, I will probably forego the wine (and I will always forego the cheese). Why? Because, in my opinion, ministerial retreats are work time. I am there in my capacity as a minister. Now, if a group of my friends in the ministry go out for dinner at General Assembly, that is another story. These are my friends… and I am happy to share a toast with them.

This practice also has another aspect for me, and that is that my tastes in adult beverages are pretty specific. They really center around three different items… none of them terribly common in American social life. I usually have to go looking for the first two when I want them, and the third has a specific, shall we say, genre…

First, dark German beers… preferably a Dunkel Weisse, or a dark wheat beir with reddish tints. I prefer ones that come from traditional breweries in Germany, some of which I visited when I was there. If it is brewed by monks, all the better! I never have been a fan of American beers, but I could stomach a few of them before I went to Germany. Now, I’d rather have nothing than not have a good dunkel. I have, on occasion, substituted with a Sam Adams when for social reasons I had to have something… but it is nowhere near the same. The only thing that could tempt me to break my rule about drinking at a church event would be if someone showed up with a true Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier (bottled in Germany for Germans, not the export version… so you gotta smuggle it out). It was the first German Bier I ever tried, and it will always set the standard for me. Although the Warsteiner Dunkel and the Plank-Bier Dunkler Weizenbock come close… at least of what I can get in the States. I usually find a way to keep at least one of them in my fridge at home.

And, I rarely drink more than one at a time… and rarely more than one or two a week. First because of how expensive they are to get in the States, and second, because each feels like a full loaf of bread when you are done with them! The way Beir should feel…

I am also a fan of medium to high tannin, medium to full body red wines. Syrah, Red Zinfandel, a few Cabernets, and a few Bordeaux Blends (Meritage) top my list. I’m not all that picky about where they are from, only that they be dark, full bodied, and have a character of their own. One of my favorites is a medium-bodied Red from North Carolina, actually… and not just because it is named after Cardinal Richelieu… The reds I like are all heavy texture, and on the less-fruity side of taste and nose… and serve well at room temperature. And, whoever took Zinfandel grapes and took the skins off to make White Zinfandel will have to answer to the maker of all creation, if there is any justice in the world…

The last is the drink I am most likely to have both at home and out with friends, and it is the drink that comes the closest to being part of my “work” life. It is my creative writer’s drink, known as a “Niven”. I will usually have it late at night, when I am working on a writing project and gripped by my muse. Often, it is when I have sat down to write a short story, or work on one of my perennial attempts at producing a novel (that I will never let anyone read). It is named for its creator, the Science Fiction author Larry Niven… and it is probably one the reasons I love his novels so much. It even appears in the novels of Larry Niven’s friend, Jerry Pournelle, as the drink of choice of one of my favorite characters.

It is also the drink I will most likely have when I am at a dinner with ministerial colleagues, after a good glass of deep, red wine. And… it’s stealthy, and easy to make.

Cup of Coffee… shot of brandy. That’s it. Sometime you might add a little of your favorite coffee sweetner, or a little drop of vanilla if you want to get really fancy. But when I’m writing, it is usually true that the simplest solution is the best. Black coffee, shot of brandy. I usually like a good French brandy, but about any one will do. And for writing, nothing is better… Larry Niven is a genius.

Oh, and before anyone asks… I tend not to have a Niven when I’m sermon writing… just wouldn’t seem right…

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David

3 Thoughts on “Church Life, Alcohol, and Me

  1. I remember you saying(from the pulpit?), “I’m not drinking for an entire year.” Can that be correct? In any case, I have just made a promise to myself that I won’t drink any alcohol for a year. I don’t think it will be difficult most of the time, but there may be times when all I want is a very good glass of red wine (or 2 or 3.) I’m doing it for the practice of discipline. My spiritual journey will be the richer for it, one way or another. Thanks for the idea, which has been germinating in the hidden recesses of my mind for several years.
    Martha

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more on the “no intoxicants while working” rule AND your definition of when you are working. Don’t know about the cheese comment (lactose intolerant? Vegan?) though. I did break the rule at a wine tasting fund raiser the church held, but I managed to drink less than half a glass over an hour’s time.

  3. Martha… I do think I said something about it from the pulpit… after the second or third person asked me about it… 😉

    Craig… The cheese things is that I am allergic to milkfat. My French wife loves is… all her speciality cheeses and her ice cream are safe in the fridge from me!

    And as I said in the article, I would be challenged to say no to a non-export Weihenstephaner!

    Yours in faith,

    David

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