Youth Gathering Blog

ELCA Youth Gathering

Dangerous rumors. Director’s Blog, June, 2012

Posted on June 8, 2012 by heidi

I wasn’t going to give time to the rumors that are flying around the church about two pastors who will speak at the Gathering because it gives those spreading such salacious information more press. However, I’ve had to write to enough people who have reached out to us wanting clarification that I thought it would be more efficient to post information to my blog.

 As far as I can tell, anxieties have been raised because of allegations that the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Rev. Andrena Ingram, two people who will speak in the Superdome, are bad role models and examples for youth because of the “things they’ve done” in the past and in their congregations. If past actions were the criteria for allowing anyone to proclaim the gospel, I am guessing 98 percent of our clergy, and the rest of us, wouldn’t be eligible.

 Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber and Pastor Andrena Ingram are two out of several speakers who will be contributing to a carefully crafted, multi-dimensional program designed to inform/form faith in adolescents, focusing on Ephesians 2:11-20. Pastor Nadia has been asked to speak about the radical hospitality that Jesus offers to all people. She will do so by sharing her own story of God’s grace lifting her out of the cycle of addiction and calling her to serve the church as a pastor.

 The focus for the first night of the Gathering is to establish the corporate identity of those gathered as a community of people marked by God’s grace, a community into which all are welcome. Pastor Nadia will offer a message of God’s redemption for all people through the lens of God’s saving power in her own life. She will tell ELCA youth about her own experience of God visible in the life she once took for granted, and how, as a forgiven and loved child of God, she now shares her story of the power of God’s grace and mercy with the people she meets each day. Pastor Nadia’s call from God reaches into the gutters and alleys where most would choose not to go. She speaks with the strong conviction of her faith and a refreshing directness in her desire to tell the life-saving story of her Savior, Jesus. Her story is one of hope for what God has done, is doing and will continue to do in the world unfolding around us each day, with the reminder that the message of God in Jesus Christ is for all people, both the saint and the sinner.

 On Saturday night, serendipitously while world leaders gather in Washington, D.C., for the International AIDS Conference, Pastor Andrena Ingram will tell the story of her personal experience as an HIV-positive individual who chose to not let her HIV status define her life but instead challenged herself to become all that God dreamed for her life.  She will share the message of God’s incredible grace in her own life while at the same time confidently standing on the bedrock of God’s mission of justice for all the people of the world. Pastor Andrena will be the voice that reminds us to speak truth into the world in which we live each day. We will be challenged to look past the color of skin, gender, and the name of a disease, which still carries with it much stigma, to see the incredible image of God brought before each of us in the people we meet each day. Over the years, Pastor Ingram has reached many people in places and situations that are “the road not taken” by most of the church’s focus and attention. And for those concerned, Pastor Ingram WILL NOT be passing out condoms at the Gathering, which is the rumor that seems to have most people alarmed.

 There are many components to the Gathering, each of which is deep enough to stand on its own, but I realize that the mass events get the most attention and cause the most anxiety for some people. I take very seriously the fact that when someone speaks to young people in a venue like the Superdome they assume their church is speaking to them. There is no opportunity for response or dialogue in that venue, so it is our commitment to shape the remarks from the stage around the biblical text and theme we are focusing on each night and not a particular issue. The ELCA Youth Gathering is not a legislative event of the church. Its mission is to support adolescent faith formation. I have always understood the Gathering to be a tool that congregations can choose to use as they fulfill the promises they made when baptizing children, which is that they will rear those children in the faith.

Happy to serve. Director’s blog May, 2012

Posted on May 3, 2012 by heidi

Our little staff of three is doing our best to serve the almost 3,000 congregations registered for the Gathering. I worry that I set us up for the kind of pressure we live with. I am committed to a standard of service that makes everyone feel heard and valued. That is why we attempt to respond to every email or phone inquiry. We don’t have a perfect record, but we try.

 Our commitment to this level of service, which is becoming more and more rare – as I discovered when I got caught in the spiral of automated phone systems trying to deal with a batch of new checks that were stolen – is why I was so proud of the Youth Gathering volunteers this week. I am in awe of our volunteers. They are modeling, in the way they are preparing for the Gathering, what we hope young people will practice in their relationships with others: a spirit of humble service. I’d like to share three stories with you about our marvelous volunteers.

 A retired couple negotiate all of the contracts with bus companies with which we sub-contract. They have 187 of the 190 completed! Read what they sent to me this week (names are changed for privacy):

 Below is just one of the many, many reasons why Bob and I love what we do [as part of the team preparing for the Gathering] and how God continues to work. 
In 2009 XZY Bus Company was Bob’s first negotiated contract. It was for $850/bus/day which we later realized was way too high. We just got word from a synod coordinator on Thursday that XZY Bus Company would like to subcontract again. Bob called on Friday; John wanted $825 again. Bob explained:
1. We were very close to having all the buses needed.
2. The 2012 average to date was $479/bus/day. 
3. We really enjoyed working with them in 2009 and would love to work with them again.
4. While we understood that they kick back a fair portion of the $825/bus to the synod and that many of the other companies do –
5. We had to be cognizant of the Gathering budget.
6. We could not possibly contract for more than $650/bus/day and at that price he would be our highest rate.
John came back later in the day with a rate of $600/bus/day.  Be sure to scroll down and read John’s email from this morning.  It is all about building one-on-one relationships, one at a time; one child of God to another.  “God’s work. Our hands.”   

Email from XYZ Bus Company:

“OK, thanks and our drivers (both dedicated Lutherans) are so excited about doing this again. They did it the last time.  One of our scheduled drivers has been toNew Orleansnearly a dozen times already forTrinityLutheranChurchdoing service work, so he will be a great asset too.”

And here are the two other stories I want to share with you:

When comparing the 2012 contract with the 2009 and 2006 contracts from one of our vendors, I realized he didn’t increase his price. When I questioned him, I learned that he provides service to the Gathering at a loss because he is so grateful to contribute his expertise to make it the best possible experience for young people. He said he has never had a customer call to question when the price didn’t increase. I just wanted to make sure he was paying his crew a fair wage. Asking that question is one way I hope we offer a witness to the God of justice whom we serve.

Yet another vendor, a new vendor, told us that “due to the nature of the event our owner would like to donate some extra equipment which would present nearly the full option we discussed.” So the team that was reworking their plans because they couldn’t afford what they had dreamed of, was happily going back to their original plan.

Both of these examples were made possible not just because of the nature of the Gathering, and the vendors’ desire to serve young people, but this generosity reflects the power of relationships that have been nurtured over the years.

It seems to me that this is the kind of human-to-human, compassionate interaction that Jesus invites us to enjoy in his name, when there are no walls separating us, and when we practice being “citizens with the saints.” As our bus contract negotiator wrote: “It is all about building one-on-one relationships, one at a time; one child of God to another.  “God’s work. Our hands.”

A hopeful imagination. Director’s blog, April 2012

Posted on April 10, 2012 by heidi

If you drew a picture of the world as you hoped it would be, what would it look like? Deborah Storie drew a picture as part of a presentation she made at the Australian Missiology Conference inMelbourne,Australia, in 2005. She took her inspiration from Old Testament prophets, New Testament prophets and post-Testament prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. The title of her paper was “Dreaming Shalom: Hopeful Imagination asMissioninAustralia.” For this month’s blog, I want to share Ms. Storie’s imagination with you.

 This is Ms. Storie’s description: My diagram has two pictures: a picture of injustice and a picture of shalom. The picture of injustice represents the world today. Twenty percent of the people consume 85 percent of the world’s resources. One side of the fence is barren with emaciated people squatting despondently. On the other side, things look green and beautiful. People are well-fed and amply housed. They consume a lot and pollute a lot but their rubbish mostly ends up on the other side of the fence. What is not immediately obvious is that despair, fear and hopelessness pervade both sides. You can’t hide from the harsh reality of the barren lands but life in the green places is equally desperate, they just spend more on public relations and camouflage.


The picture of shalom summarizes biblical images of the future of God. People rest beneath their own vines and fig trees. They live in houses they built themselves and eat the fruits of their own labor. Everyone has enough, no one too much. There is diversity but not division. There is no domination and no fear. Children play and their grandparents live out their days in peace. Men and women tread lightly on the earth, cherishing creation, respecting its fragility, enjoying its extravagance.

 The society of shalom is a society of right relationship: harmony with God, harmony between people, harmony with creation. The diagram has two arrows. Injustice happens whenever non-love (it doesn’t have to be hate – indifference or ignorance are quite enough) uses power to maintain the boundary between “the haves” and “the have-nots.” Injustice happens whenever resources, skills and opportunities are denied to the poor and given to the rich. The tools injustice uses serve some better than others: education, information, health care, legal systems and institutions, economics, trade, aid and development projects, dreams. Injustice can be very subtle. It is often unintentional.

 Shalom, on the other hand, is created by love. Shalom can never be built by coercion or domination. Shalom’s power is the power of the cross, of weakness and humility, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of truth. These rainbow pathways are creative, courageous, audacious; they encompass every hope, every dream, every hopeful act and every movement of resistance through which individuals and societies participate with God in building shalom.

 [A] [h]opeful [i]magination asks: How does the way we live approach or retreat from shalom? What practical strategies might we devise to move us-with-the-world toward shalom? We are not the central focus here. It is not all about us. What a wonderful thing to be where we belong doing what we were made for!

 If you are accompanying young people to the Gathering, I encourage you to ask them to draw a picture of the world as they see it before they go to the Gathering, and again after they return home. What has changed? How do they feel about not being the center of attention? Can they relate to the power of the cross being a kind of anti-power stance according to the North American value system in which we live? How can they see themselves building shalom in the communities in which they live – home and family, church, school, clubs?

“You have no idea what it’s like to work with a group of youth in a congregation.” February, 2012

Posted on January 30, 2012 by heidi

“You have no idea what it’s like to work with a group of youth in a congregation.” The woman on the other end of the phone was frustrated for sure, and on the verge of anger. She had checked her congregation’s online account, and wasn’t happy with the number and type of hotel rooms to which her group was assigned. We started to make hotel assignments, but didn’t disable that part of the online account while the puzzle pieces of the complex housing assignment process  were being moved around.  You can’t imagine how complex this proces is, made more difficult by our commitment to house congregational groups by synod. It will take some time to fit the various pieces together, and until the puzzle is fully put together, registered congregations won’t be able to access that part of their online account. Housing assignments will be distributed as promised by the time of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network’s annual Extravaganza in early February.

It was a bad day. Angry people called and accused my two, faithful co-workers of making a mistake because their assignment didn’t match what they submitted. Some people sent emails that lobbed the same accusation, and still others evoked alarm by posting their displeasure on Facebook. We are sorry if we caused any angst.

I want to express to all of the people who called, emailed or posted on Facebook, we feel your pain. We are in this together. Really, we are with you; we are among you; we are because you are. Do you remember ubuntu in 2003?

 We care about the details, and we work to make this the best experience we can for you because we know that the ELCA Youth Gathering can be a turning point in the faith lives of young people, and adults. We can bear witness to the fact that Jesus uses the ELCA Youth Gathering to

● call people into ministries that bring about the beloved community (Revelation 21) Jesus promised;

● give young people clarity about their vocational call;

● fill our hearts with the love of God, and be softened by God’s grace;

● be God’s hands, feet, eyes, ears and voice in the world.  

 Seth Godin wrote in a recent blog, “Caring involves raising that bar to the point where the team has to stretch.” We are stretching for the stars — in service to God and YOU!

What are you looking for?

Posted on January 7, 2012 by heidi

“What are you looking for?”

 Jesus asked that question of John’s disciples (John 1:38) and he is asking that of us, too. I have thought about that question when making my New Year’s resolution(s). I invite you to do the same. Answering that question may be the most important resolution you and I make for 2012. Another way of putting it is this: How do you want your relationship with Jesus to grow?  

 That might be a great question to ask young people, too. How do they want their relationship with Jesus to grow as a result of their participation in the ministry of the Youth Gathering? You have several months during which you can ponder that question together. You can create a safe and sacred space for confession and forgiveness as you meet with your group to prepare for the summer experience.

One way to approach answering that question is to identify those parts of yourself that still await integration with following Jesus. Don’t hesitate to bring these areas of your life to Jesus. Jesus understands our human struggles. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who is tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned” (Hebrews 4:15).

Dick Hauser, S.J., Professor of Theology, and director of the Christian Spirituality Program at Creighton University, says, “The deepest yearning of the human heart is the yearning to live in communion with God — yes, to live in communion even in the awkward and complex and often overlooked areas of our lives.” I encourage you, and I encourage myself, to bring those awkward parts of ourselves into the light in 2012. Jesus is inviting us — as he invited his first disciples — to walk more closely with him in the complexity of our lives.  

We pray for the grace to be open to Jesus’ invitation to follow him more closely in 2012.

God’s economy of grace, December, 2011

Posted on November 30, 2011 by heidi

When young people step off the bus, plane or van inNew Orleansnext summer, I want them to step into a community of the beloved that operates according to God’s economy of grace. I want them, and me, to experience a community wherein the rules of merit are broken, a moment in time when God is completely in charge for a while.

 In our culture we base almost everything on “achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value, or worthiness of some sort.” * In God’s economy of grace we are released from the “internalized merit-badge system” that holds many of us hostage. Within that system, and “without grace, almost everything human declines and devolves into smallness, hurt, and blame.” Many of us try so hard to earn the merit badge ― consciously or unconsciously ― that we sacrifice the freedom and peace we are promised in Christ.

 I want young people, and the adults who accompany them, as well as myself, to be disoriented when they are inNew Orleans, disoriented by grace that “humiliates our attempts at private virtue” in an effort to gain the merit badge. I want us all to experience the peace Paul references in our theme passage (Ephesians 2:4-20), peace that knows no division between people, nations or faiths. In Christ, where all are one, (v. 14) we give up what Richard Rohr calls our “ego consciousness” and replace it with a “soul awareness.” Fr. Rohr says it is going from being “driven” (to perform, achieve, accomplish, please, earn, etc.) to being “drawn” into God’s heart.

 I would like to suggest that it is at the intersection of action and prayer (contemplation, reflection) where we are drawn into God’s heart and where transformation happens. That is why the Gathering program activity days, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, are wrapped with worship at the beginning of the day, and prayer/reflection at the end of the day. In worship we enter into the paschal mystery (the death and resurrection of Christ) as we join with the saints of every age, the body of Christ, around the Lord’s Table. We become the body of Christ after we eat the body of Christ and are sent out into the world to be Christ for others. But “Jesus did not call us to the poor and to the pain just to be helpful to them, although that is wonderful, too. Jesus called us there for fundamental solidarity with the real and from that, to the transformation of ourselves.” Each night, as groups gather for the Final 15, they will be reflecting on where God has met them in the day, and asking God to use those moments to draw them closer to God’s heart.

 I cannot predict when the Spirit will move in the hearts of young people at the Gathering, but I know chances are good that during times of prayer and reflection (i.e., contemplation) on the action of the day young people may glimpse the grace-shaped, life-altering path of Christian discipleship. Their witness upon returning to their congregations may not be one of celebratory victory for mission accomplished, but rather they may reflect a powerlessness that is evidence of God’s economy of grace.

 * All of the quotes in this blog come from “A Lever and a Place to Stand: The Contemplative Stance, The Active Prayerby Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico

October 2011

Posted on October 3, 2011 by heidi

Part of the Living Into the Future Together [taskforce’s report]  included the call for every ELCA congregation to have a mission strategy by the end of 2012. This resolution was adopted by the 2011 Churchwide Assembly. It is the responsibility of the Congregational and Synodical Mission unit of the ELCA, the churchwide unit in which the Youth Gathering is housed, to fulfill that legislation. I am assuming that the bulk of the work toward completing congregational mission strategies will be carried out in collaboration with the Directors for Evangelical Mission in each synod, whom we hope we also will be at the Youth Gathering, along with the bishop from every synod. (Please make sure your bishop has been invited and encourage your Director for Evangelical Mission to participate as well.) 

I gratefully acknowledge the Holy Spirit when I observe how beautifully timed the work of the (Youth) Gathering Coaches is with this missional movement that is generating so much energy in our church right now. This is an opportunity for us to position and equip youth to play a critical role in shaping the mission of their congregation and their synod. That is one reason why we chose to keep synods together at the 2012 Gathering. Youth need to be at the synod mission tables and at the table when mission is defined in congregations, but first they need to know these conversations are taking place.

The Practice Discipleship Planning Team is making available, through Synod Coaches, training sessions for adults to learn youth ministry best practices so that when young people are invited to the conversation they speak from the context of faith informed by Holy Scripture, prayer, worship and service. My hope is that when youth are made aware of these conversations, they will insist on being part of them as baptized members of the body of Christ. What they learn and practice inNew Orleans will inform their contribution to the mission of the ELCA in the world for the sake of Christ.

YG Director’s Blog.August,2011: How we serve

Posted on August 8, 2011 by heidi

I just returned from a large group bible study at the youth gathering of one of our ecumenical partners. The opening band had the audience of teens jumping in unison with raised-arm praise, singing lyrics about their God being greater, stronger and higher than any other. In fact, most of the songs the group has sung for two days have been about how awesome God is, and how awesome they are in God’s eyes.

 When I got back to my hotel room I spent some time in prayer, trying to discern my discomfort with what I was hearing and witnessing. Not that I don’t think God is awesome, and not that I don’t support full-out, full-body praise of Jesus, and not that I don’t think young people need to hear they are the desire of God’s heart. It just felt like the planners of the gathering chose the easy path.

It is relatively easy to get a room full of Christian youth fired up about an all–powerful God who is greater than any other. One can’t help but get swept up in the moment, especially when the decibel level alone overwhelms all senses. But is that an accurate depiction of God in light of the cross of Jesus Christ? And is the kind of preaching that substantiates teenagers’ identification with a God who is all about buoying up their Ego reflective of the church’s mission?

Martin Luther taught that a Superman-kind of divine power is the very opposite of what divine power is all about. He reminded us that God’s power is hidden in the form of weakness. When Christians talk about divine power, or even about church or Christian power, it is to be conceived of in terms of the cross—power hidden in the form of weakness. That is NOT the easy path!

Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us in her book Almost Christian, that the Gospel story that animates the church is about self-giving love and dying in order to live. That is a much more challenging message for American teenagers to embrace. Most of us would rather invoke the power of our collective American determination to fix problems than surrender power or turn the other cheek like Jesus asks. Jesus’ example of sacrificial love goes against the grain of can-do American individualism.

In the biblical text around which the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering is being shaped, the first thing that Jesus does is offer a gesture of peace. If we are following Jesus’ path it should be our intention to offer – first – a gesture of peace to each other and to the people of New Orleans. The biggest lesson we can learn from New Orleans, in New Orleans, is a way of being Christian in the world that values humility, sacrifice and mutuality. You may be disappointed if you come to the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering expecting to join an army of Christians all fired up to  “help those poor people,” or fix something that is broken, to get dirty and tired doing service projects, and then come together each evening to celebrate our accomplishments.

Our service projects – or justice experiences as we are calling them – will reflect our identification with Christ in how we relate to people in a distinctive way. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” For some that will mean listening to stories of injustice; for some that will mean cleaning a playground that is not a safe place for children to play; for some that will mean learning how they contribute to the systems that keep people in poverty; for some that may mean reading stories to children; for some that may mean painting pictures to brighten the halls of a dingy school building; for some that may mean planting to rebuild wetlands.

We return to New Orleans, not as representatives of a fist-pumping, all-powerful God who uses us to “fix” broken lives, but as representatives of a wounded God who brings a greeting of peace, and a gesture of understanding by joining with them in their life. That is the harder path.

YG Director’s Blog, June, 2011:Why are be going back to NOLA?

Posted on June 1, 2011 by heidi

Why are we going back to New Orleans? I can’t tell you how many timespeople have asked me that question. The first few times I answered, Ihave to admit I did it with a bit of an attitude, a kind of hand-on-one-hip “why wouldn’t we?” response. And every time – yes, every time – if the person asking had been to New Orleans for the2009 ELCA Youth Gathering they had their own long list of reasons why weshould go back. They just wanted to hear my reasons. That’s easy.

  1. Because it’s the right thing to do.
    God calls us to accompany God’s people. Just as we are the desire of God’s love, so too, by the grace of God, we love our neighbors. And who doesn’t respond when a neighbor is in need? Some New Orleanians have found their bearings since Katrina, but mostly those are white people who have access to resources and power. New Orleans still has a disproportionately high level of people of color living in poverty, people whose voices remain unheard, children who deserve a good education, and parents and grandparents who need sustainable employment. Until all people have adequate housing and are food secure, God’s people can’t rest.
  2. This is a golden moment in time.
    I believe we have been given an opportunity to capitalize on a moment in time to teach young people an enduring lesson of faith, the difference between charity and justice. When we were there in 2009, New Orleans needed us to focus on immediate needs so we provided direct service. In 2012, our focus will be on the root causes of the problems to help create the world Jesus promised. Will groups still participate in service projects? Yes, but there will be an intentional added component of reflection on the systemic issues that trap people in poverty, or that threaten the environment or that ignite violence in youth.
  3. Because we were invited.
    New Orleans is known for its hospitality and its food. In 2009 we were invited to the dining room table and were served up a huge New Orleans welcome. In 2012, we are being invited back, and this time we’re welcome into the kitchen where the family gathers. People still talk about those orange t-shirts that invaded the city in July, 2009. ELCA youth are equated with love and kindness in New Orleans. They have embraced us like members of their extended family. What family member wouldn’t accept an invitation to dinner?

Jesus is our peace. In his life and death on the cross, Jesus broke down the dividing walls so that we are no longer strangers and outsiders, but we are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. The foundation of God’s house was built of apostles and prophets, and Jesus, the cornerstone, holds it all together. (Ephesians 2:14-20 – Gathering Paraphrase)