In just a few weeks, in journeys that make the Exodus out of Egypt pale in logistical comparison, 30,000 people are going to load buses, planes and vans and head to Detroit for the ELCA Youth Gathering. It’s going to be 5 days (plus travel, plus side trips) of amazing opportunities for all involved to grow in their faith.
This will be my tenth time to the ELCA Youth Gathering, and I’ve always found it to be an incredible ministry opportunity. I’ve participated as a youth minister bringing a group, as a volunteer and as a team leader, so I’ve seen it from a lot of different angles. Having said that, let me be crystal clear: I am not an expert. Not at all. (And I’m not writing this in any kind of an official Gathering capacity.) But over the years, I have learned some things that might be helpful in making this an amazing experience for your group. I’d like to share those things with you:
- Plan on 3 things going wrong for every person you bring to the Gathering.
That means, if you are bringing 15 people from your congregation, plan on your group having 45 problems during the trip. These could be everything from your flight being delayed, to a traffic jam in Chicago that will slow you down (likely), to the hotel losing part of your reservation, to there being no restaurants open at the time you decide to eat dinner. Tell your group to plan on 3 problems for every person. And then talk about how you’ll deal with the problems when they come up. (calmly…logically…looking for solutions…no whining…etc…) The reality is, you probably won’t have this many group problems. But if you do, you’re emotionally ready for them. And if you don’t, you’ve ‘beaten’ your expectations.
- Be kind to the volunteers.
The folks in Gathering team shirts? The odds are 99.9% that they are a volunteer who is as excited as you are to be there. It’s not their fault that the floor of Ford Field has been closed off…it’s not their fault that it’s hot out and that there aren’t water fountains nearby…it’s not their fault that your bus was late and that you missed your launch time. They are there out of the goodness of their heart and they want to help. I’ve seen adult group leaders treat volunteers horribly. And when you’re tired, hot, sweaty and impatient, please remember that it’s not their fault. They’re following instructions. So treat them (and everybody for that matter) kindly. And your group will be watching you. If you’re patient, they’ll be patient (perhaps even with you). You’ll have a better week, I promise!
- Be prepared to interpret.
Here’s something that folks don’t always understand. The Gathering is not a stand alone event. It’s a huge event, with tons of resources poured into it, but if you just show up, plan on participating and expecting that the power of the event will somehow create a transformational event in the lives of your young people, you quite possibly will be disappointed. The Gathering isn’t intended to just be everything to everybody. The Gathering depends on the congregational adult group leaders to interpret the experience with the young people. You’ll need to talk through everything that you have done with them. Asking and processing the different “day” experiences, and helping young people figure out how to put these things into the context of their own lives. Groups that do this have a great experience. Groups that don’t sometimes walk away and say “meh.”
- Don’t miss stuff.
Sometimes I’ve seen groups walking away from the Gathering during a time of great programming to go do something on their own. A baseball game…a tour…whatever… Here’s my advice: Don’t do that. There is so much at the Gathering to do and experience, that I’d really encourage you to jump in 1000% and experience as much as you can. Look for gaps in the schedule to do some of the other stuff. But don’t miss the Gathering.
Make sure your group and you drink a lot of it. I know, I sound like your Mom. But I’ve seen lots of people go down from dehydration at these things. And that will ruin someone’s day.
- There’s no such thing as down time.
I’ve walked past the crowds of people sitting outside the general sessions awaiting admission. I’ve seen some groups sitting there…flopped down…bored…waiting. Then I’ve walked by groups where group leaders have their group sitting in a circle on the sidewalk. They’re playing “Full Contact Spoons,” or answering questions from a “Would You Rather?” book, or are doing impromptu skits and drawing people from other groups into it. And the young people are engaged, and laughing, and having fun. That’s a group I’d want to be a part of. Carry props and games in your backpack and have a list of possibilities ready to go. (I know one guy who carried around a small bullhorn…yes, a bullhorn…just for these moments. Do you know how much fun you can have with a bullhorm? “Hello Domino’s…this is the Gathering Commander…please bring me a pizza!” But not inside Ford Field, please.)
- It’s not about you.
Once I walked through a hotel lobby in the late afternoon. It was a “gap time” when the afternoon programming was wrapping up and well before dinner. As I walked through the hotel lobby I looked over and saw 3 adult group leaders sitting in the hotel bar having a beer. I literally stopped in my tracks. Really? I get the desire to take a break and enjoy a cold beverage. But that was just plain wrong. I had to work hard to keep from going over and shouting at them. And it reminded me that sometimes we forget that when we bring a group, as leaders we are there for the group. We’re “all in.” And to step away from the group for a moment like that 1) breaks the covenant we all agree to by being a part of the Gathering; 2) pulls us away from our group when we are supposed to be there for them, and; 3) is stupid. When we’re at the Gathering, we’re there for the group; totally and completely. Wait and have your beer when you get home. Have two. I don’t care.
- Don’t yell stuff in Ford Field.
Ok, this is a personal pet peeve. And it’s been better in recent years. But occasionally someone somewhere will yell something out in the general sessions. Like their state name, or something like that, trying to elicit a reaction. And then people cheer, and it totally throws off the direction and mood that the Dome Teams are trying to create. And it’s dumb. I’m sure that Vermont is a nice place…but at that moment, we don’t care that you’re from there. I always told my group that the person who did something like that would have to ride home from the Gathering in the bathroom of the bus. That threat, by the way, works for a lot of things.
- Be kind to the volunteers.
Oh…did I already mention this one?
- Plan on eating at odd times.
Most people try to eat at…well, meal times. That’s when the lines are long and you’ll waste a lot of time. Pick some odd times. Bring snacky breakfast stuff (fruit…toaster pasteries…etc…) for breakfast, granola bars for late morning snack and then eat lunch and dinner at an “off-time.” You’ll be much happier not waiting in a 55 minute line for Freaky Fast Jimmy John’s.
See you in Detroit!
Guest blog post by Rev. Paul Amlin, Program Director for Youth Ministry; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Chicago, Illinois
I was texting back and forth with a seminary friend this morning and the topic of the ELCA Youth Gathering, Detroit, and how the Gathering will address issues like the Charleston killings and racism during our time together. This got me thinking. If someone has never experienced a youth gathering, or hasn’t been to one in recent years, they would have no way of knowing how deep and wide we go to deal with current issues, key issues, issues that get to what it means to love our neighbor and to learn from them. I’m convinced that the bold choice to go to Detroit is affirmed in the subject matter we’ll address (equity, racism, justice to name a short list), the city where racism has played a major part in history, and recent events in our country.
This led me to think about ways to engage the material, the real examples and teaching from Detroit in our local communities. We have been blessed, the last two cycles at least, to have live streaming available for anyone with a laptop, computer, tablet or smartphone and access to the Internet. Through the stream you will be able to watch a live morning program hosted by youth at COBO (convention center) and grab a seat at Ford Field to hear the music, the praise and worship, and to hear powerful speakers address contemporary issues in light of and in response to faith in Jesus Christ. Young people and the adults who accompany them to Detroit will likely leave the city inspired (and tired!) but also wired to do big things back at home. What better way to engage this energy than to have your congregation participate through watching the live stream?
So here are a few ideas for streaming parties for all ages.
1) Open the church each evening of the Gathering, put up a screen and a projector and order some pizza or have a world-famous Lutheran potluck dinner. You could pray for those in Detroit before the stream begins, watch the stream, take notes, then discuss what you heard in small groups afterward.
2) Since not everyone will make it to the church each evening, make sure you share the link to the live stream via e-mail, text, semaphore, etc. Post questions on your church Facebook page, on Twitter, Instagram, etc. to engage folks in conversation about what they’ve heard.
3) Be sure to invite the youth to watch! For those who couldn’t make it to Detroit, this is a chance for them to feel like they’ve participated in some way. When their friends get back, they can engage in conversation about the event in a meaningful way. Of course, it’s okay to make this an inter-generational activity.
4) Give shut-ins the information, too! If you’re really edgy, set up a viewing party at a nursing home where you have members or have volunteers visit shut-ins to watch with them.
5) Have a Sunday closing worship viewing party! Live stream the service in your sanctuary while you are worshiping, occasionally turn up the volume to share the experience, OR set up a projector in the fellowship hall for anyone who wants to follow along. What if on that day your church includes the Gathering, the people of Detroit, participants AND you community in the prayers as closing worship is happening?
6) Download and share the “Getting Ready” materials. They give insight into the things we’ll discuss in Detroit, but also include things like teaching what a Theology of the Cross means for Lutherans. You could use these materials for adult education, inter-generational times, or for confirmation or youth group (even if nobody from your church is going to Detroit!).
I’m convinced that the Gathering serves as our Lutheran version of a big tent revival. Imagine what could happen if the enthusiasm, energy and teaching from this revival caught on at home! It will take some extra work and require a commitment of time and resources to make it happen, but I believe the rewards will be magnificent.
I’d love to hear your ideas, your stories of how your congregation follows along and interacts with events like the Gathering. Remember to post to social media using #RiseUpELCA and share some photos of your viewing parties for others to see.
Heidi Hagstrom has announced her intent to leave her position as the Director of the ELCA Youth Gathering following the 2015 event next summer. Heidi has been studying in the M.Div program at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque and intends to pursue rostered ministry as an ordained pastor within the ELCA. The ELCA has posted the Gathering Director’s position and will be accepting applications for this vital leadership position through the month of September.
The Gathering is one of the most powerful ministries of the church. It gathers somewhere in the vicinity of 39,000 young people, adult leaders, volunteers and staff together for a amazing faith formation experience. It presents and lives out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that quite simply cannot be duplicated anywhere else within the church. It is transformational for the faith lives of the participants, for the community that hosts the Gathering and for the ELCA. It is a masterpiece of deployed leadership. Everywhere you look within the Gathering, it speaks the name of Jesus.
I believe that the Gathering creates a culture of leadership that respects the gifts of both individuals and the community. It listens, learns and then acts. It is full of joy and laughter, from the stages of the initial planning, all the way through to the last closing worship. Clearly the Holy Spirit is alive and well through the ministry of the Gathering.
This culture has been carefully tended over years. And while there will be opportunity later on (it’s a long time until next July!) to thank Heidi, I’d be remiss if I didn’t name that much of the reason this culture exists is because of Heidi and the team with whom she works. As someone who has brought groups, and been in different levels of leadership within the Gathering, I’m grateful for this culture.
Now, the ELCA will be seeking a new Director for this vibrant ministry. The hope is to bring someone onboard soon, to join the leadership team and to walk through this last year of the planning cycle with them.
Might you be someone who would consider this call? Or perhaps you know someone who has the gifts for this ministry? Please give this thought and prayer. More information including a link to an online application can be found on the ELCA’s web site here.
Thanks be to God for the Gathering and its leadership. Thanks be to God for the person out there somewhere who will be called to this ministry.
Networked in Christ,
It was with some dismay and a bit of disappointment that I’ve been reading the ongoing comments and conversation in blogs and on Facebook about the City of Detroit as the site of the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering. I know that the news about the legal bankruptcy of the City of Detroit is very big news, and the implications for the city and those who live in it are immense. But to be honest, at this point in the game, it’s really not helpful, or even appropriate for those of us who are invested in the ELCA Youth Gathering to begin the ‘sky is falling’ mantras.
I have been very involved in the Gathering since I took my first congregational group to the event in San Antonio in 1988. I have served on several different leadership teams over the years, and in 2012 was blessed to be the co-team leader for the Practice Discipleship day. I will not be a team leader in 2015, but will likely be involved in some way. I think I can take advantage of my experience with the Gathering to make some observations that may be helpful. (But let me be clear – I’m not speaking on behalf of the Gathering, or the ELCA Churchwide offices. These are just my thoughts):
- First, the Gathering is a big deal for congregations, and we all know how much is invested in time, energy and money to get there. Everyone involved wants it to be a fantastic, transformational experience for young people, and for the Gospel to be proclaimed and experienced boldly.
- Adult leaders are right to be concerned about the Gathering’s safety and the quality of experience. If you’re not concerned, something is seriously wrong. When I take a group of 20 on a retreat to a camp, I’m concerned for these things. 39,000 young people in a strange city should have all the adult leaders on pins and needles, all the time. This is true for any city that we are in. To be concerned is to be a good leader.
- That being said, we all need to trust the Holy Spirit, the process, the Gathering staff and the Safety and Security Team. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the people who work on this end of the Gathering take everything into consideration. Seriously. Everything. There is a protocol for any possibility you can imagine. When I was a team leader, I had a chance to look through the mammoth 3 ring Emergency Preparedness binders. They have contingency plans for things I couldn’t even have imagined. And they work in very close partnership with the local police, city officials and even national authorities. And they are very well staffed, and they do as good a job as I’ve ever seen in training their team. They are totally, 100% committed to the safety of our young people.Will Detroit present any special challenges? Probably. But so did New Orleans (twice.) So did San Antonio in ’06. In fact, in every city where I’ve brought young people to the Gathering, there have been issues and challenges. But with the level of planning and preparation that is in place, and with strong congregational leaders watching out for our kids, and with some common sense, our Gatherings will continue to be safe. Trust the Holy Spirit. Trust the process. Trust the Gathering Staff. Trust the Safety and Security Team.
- Perhaps most troubling to me are the conversations about whether we should or should not be going to Detroit because…well…it’s Detroit. Questions like “Can it even be saved?” or “Shouldn’t we focus on someplace else that has a better reputation?” have surfaced. I was not a part of the conversations about choosing Detroit as a Gathering city. But here’s what I firmly believe: God is calling the ELCA to go to Detroit precisely because it is Detroit. I was there this past fall as a part of a group working on theme discernment for the Gathering, and got to spend quite a bit of time in and around the city. When I went there I had expected to see a city that had bottomed out…that was in desperate need. There is definitely need in Detroit. But I saw a city that has begun to rebound. I saw a city that is in the middle of re-creating itself in ways I could never imagine. I saw community gardens and playgrounds in lots where houses used to be. I saw creative neighborhood communities drawing together. I saw an “urban farm.” I saw a downtown where employment is on the increase. I saw a new baseball park…football field…and huge new expansion of convention facilities. I saw a city growing in vibrancy and diversity where God is already doing amazing things. This is the side of Detroit that we don’t see in the news.And I saw a unique opportunity for ELCA young people.We believe that Jesus steps into the mess and the crap of our lives, and lifts the cross with which we are all burdened. Jesus meets us, calls us “friend,” looks us in the eye and does this with grace and with love. I believe that God is calling us to step in to Detroit; the beauty and the mess, to meet the people there, to call them friend, and to help them to lift the cross with which they have been burdened.My prayer is that we can do it with grace and with love.
This Gathering will not be easy. And it is going to feel different from Gatherings of the past. There will be new and different challenges. I believe most of them, to be honest, will be logistical in nature. But we can deal with that. We’re good at dealing with that. Blessed by the Holy Spirit, we’ve always made it work in the past, and we will again. The team leaders for this event are amazing, gifted people of God who are creative thinkers and problem solvers.
This blog post is not meant to chastise those who are concerned…nor to shame them. Every congregation will have to make its own decision about participating. But please, before you react, pause. Think big picture. Trust the process and the leadership. Trust the Holy Spirit. Take a breath. As for my congregation? We’ll be there. I am excited to be a part of a denomination that will be there. Together we’re going to step in and become a part of God’s mission in Detroit.