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ELCA Youth Gathering Blog

boundless: God beyond measure

by: Molly Beck Dean, Gathering Director

In April, a group of creative youth, young adults and adults gathered in Minneapolis to discern the theme for the 2021 Gathering. After reading through 2018 evaluations, listening to locals share about their city and much discussion about the spiritual lives of young people, the theme “boundless: God beyond measure” was chosen.

As I have pondered our theme over the last few months, it speaks to me more and more. It challenges me to think about how big God really is – from creation of the universe to crucifixion for sins, from death defying resurrection to the Spirit that continues to guide us today. It reminds me of the wonders of creation – certainly the beautiful Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, but also rolling plains, dusty deserts, crashing waves of lakes and oceans, lush forests and majestic mountains. God knows no bounds. God is all powerful and all knowing.

Our theme makes the almost incomprehensible hugeness of God personal. In our scripture verse, Paul writes “I want you to know all about Christ’s love, although it is too wonderful to be measured. Then your lives will be filled with all that God is.” Christ’s love for us is so abundant it can’t be calculated, quantified or even estimated. A love that couldn’t be contained in heaven so God came down and became human. A love so huge it was willing to suffer a gruesome death amongst taunts and jeers. A love so magnificent and glorious that death could not contain it and so Love was resurrected and changed everything humans knew about life, love and forgiveness.

To be honest, I don’t know all about Christ’s love or what it’s like to live a life filled with all that God is. I am bound daily by my sins and weighed down by the struggles of our world. But I have caught glimpses of it. I have stood on the beach and been brought to tears by the beauty and vastness of the ocean God created. I have held each of my new babies and cried because I have been entrusted with two of God’s miracles and in that moment knew a love greater than I could imagine. I have been in worship with a heart so full of the Spirit that my whole body danced in praise and my eyes glistened. I have been brought to my knees and cried the ugly cry over mistakes I’ve made and the wickedness that exists in the world, only to feel a calming in my heart and mind that could only be the forgiveness of God.

These brief moments of being filled with all that God is not only point me to the tissue box evidently, but give me hope for my life and our life together. God doesn’t hoard God’s boundless goodness, but rather shares it with God’s beloved – us – in real ways.

Paul’s words are my prayer for the young people of this Church.  As they prepare for this ministry and as they attend MYLE, the tAble and the Gathering, I hope they get closer to knowing all about Christ’s love and what it can look like and feel like to live a life filled with all that God is.

Molly first attended the Gathering in 1997 and has served at the Gathering in various capacities ever since. She’s worked at the congregational and synodical levels in youth ministry before transitioning to the Gathering Director in 2015. Molly enjoys beaches, spending time with her family and finding the best ice-cream shop in town.

Meet the Gathering Staff

Greetings from the Churchwide Office in Chicago! You might be wondering, who works for the Gathering? In Chicago, there are three staff members that tend to the Gathering year-round. While they aren’t the ones who plan every single detail about the upcoming Gathering, they do support the 14 different teams that do.

Molly, the Gathering Director, first attended the Gathering in 1997 and has served at the Gathering in various capacities ever since. She’s worked at the congregational and synodical levels in youth ministry before transitioning to the Gathering in 2015.

Michael serves as the Assistant Director for the Gathering, where he handles all things housing and registration. Michael began his work with the Gathering as an intern leading up to the 2012 Gathering and has served in various roles ever since.

Justin, the Communications & Administration Program Associate for the Gathering, attended the 2012 and 2015 Gathering and then joined the Gathering staff this spring. He spent the last four summers working in outdoor ministry in various roles.

Molly, Michael, and Justin have a lot in common. Below is a Venn diagram that properly depicts some of their similarities and favorite things. Enjoy–

Gathering Hopes and Goals, Part II

– Molly Beck Dean

(Click here to read last week’s entry, Gathering Hopes and Goals, Part I)

The Gathering is an awesome way to meet Lutherans from across the world, but ultimately, we hope this ministry strengthens your congregational group.  You will be with us in Houston for a maximum of eight days and the Holy Spirit will move in powerful ways in that short time.

However, we know that the real “magic” happens back in the young people’s home congregations.

Often the Gathering is used as a spring board for a congregation’s youth ministry as they restart or re-energize. Whether it’s the bus ride to Houston or a meal time at the University of Houston or a late night Final 15, we hope that the various parts of this ministry deepen the connection that youth have to their peers and adults in their home congregation.


The final goal of the Gathering is that young people learn about the ELCA. Some will come to Houston and realize for the first time that they are part of something bigger than their congregation. Others may have strong connections with their synodical ministry, but not be fully aware of what we do throughout our country as a Church.  And most young people (and adults) have a lot to learn when it comes to how the ELCA is present with our global Lutheran siblings and doing ministry across the world. I hope that young people meet ministry partners in the hall of NRG Center and are amazed at the many and creative ways we are Church together. I hope they hear and see that there are opportunities for young leaders to be engaged right now in many parts of the ELCA’s call to be Christ in the world.

And finally, I hope they go home and share with those in their home congregation about the ELCA and the ways they are most passionate about engaging. 

Perhaps I should have opened with this, but maybe you are thinking, “why are these five things Molly’s hopes and goals for participants?” The answer is actually quite simple – because it’s what I have experienced each time I’m a part of this ministry.  My first Gathering was as a high schooler in 1997. I journeyed on a bus from small town North Dakota to New Orleans.  It was my first urban experience, the first time I realized my Church was so huge, the first time I saw people of color who were Lutheran. I think it was at the Gathering that God solidified my heart as a youth minister. Several of the other youth who journeyed with me at the Gathering are still my best friends because we grew in our relationship with God and each other that week in ways that are hard to put into words.  

And each time I return to MYLE, the tAble and the Gathering, I am challenged and affirmed in new ways as a Christian, as a leader, as a woman, as a mom, and as a friend.  My eyes are opened and my heart breaks. Every time I’m a part of this ministry, I am brought to tears because of the incredible beauty and the haunting darkness in people’s stories and in our world.  Even though I’ve been a legit ELCA church nerd since high school, each cycle I learn something new about what our Church is doing with and for God’s people across the world and I am proud to be part of the ELCA. 

This is a powerful and transformational ministry if you are brave enough to let your guard down long enough for the Spirit to enter in, if you can be quiet long enough to listen to someone different than yourself, if your prayer is to be open to what God is calling you to, if you realize the strong roots of a community will ground you no matter the strength of life’s storms, and if you imagine yourself as part of something bigger than you. 

Gathering Hopes and Goals, Part I

– Molly Beck Dean

Faith formation in teens is the mission of the ministry of the Gathering.  It is the hub from which all things come for the tAble, MYLE, and the Gathering. We strive to create environments and opportunities for faith formation through worship, Interactive Learning, Bible study, Service Learning, and fellowship. Some of the faith formation experiences at the Gathering can be replicated – you can bring them to your home, congregation, or synod and create the same experience for others there. Some are unique to this ministry because of its size and scope.

There are also several hopes or goals that I have for those who come to the Gathering, especially the youth participants.

The first is that they are both affirmed and challenged in their faith. I hope that at least once during their time with us that each young person feels the undeniable presence of God and is affirmed in their beliefs. Likewise, I also hope that each participant has a moment where something troubles their heart or their mind enough to challenge their faith. Maybe they have to rethink what they have been taught about God. Maybe their heart breaks over a story they hear and they have to wonder why God would let such a thing happen? Our faith is deepened on the mountaintops and in the valleys.  It is my hope that participants can be vulnerable enough to let both happen while they are at the Gathering, surrounded by caring adults and peers.

MYLE, the tAble, and the Gathering are opportunities to experience new perspectives. It is my hope that youth and adults will open their minds and hearts to let in those perspectives. For some, that will happen in NRG Stadium through a speaker’s story that is different or even contradictory to their own story. For others, the new perspective is being in a large city. Others will experience a new perspective by learning the story of the organization and people they serve with on their Service Learning day. No one is trying to change another person’s mind on an issue or invalidate one story in exchange for another, but rather we seek to expose our participants to stories, sensations, and situations that are new and encourage growth.

Intentionally, and often completely unintentionally, we know that the Gathering is a place for young people to ponder who God is calling them to be. Vocation is how we live our baptism out in daily life, how we are the hands and feet of Jesus in our corner of the world. The Church needs to have a stake in the development and understanding of our young peoples’ vocation. Gathering leadership hopes and plans for moments of “aha!” as our young people meet inspirational people, hear their stories, and then listen to the nudges of the Holy Spirit calling them to something similar in their lives. Almost every time I’m at an event representing the Gathering, someone will tell me that the Gathering helped them realize they were meant to be a social worker or a volunteer or a youth director or an advocate and on and on.

On the Road with the Director

– Molly Beck Dean

“On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson is certainly on the soundtrack of my life as Director of the Gathering. I do a good bit of traveling for the Gathering and my other work with Churchwide faith formation.

As you probably guessed, most of my travel is to the Gathering’s host city to meet with planning teams, hotels, city officials and partners. I also build into my travel schedule trips to different synodical events, continuing education conferences, and time with ministry partners like the ELCA Youth Ministry Network and Lutheran Campus Ministry.

If I’m honest, I have a love/hate relationship with so much travel. I have two kids and a spouse at home and leaving them on a regular basis, sometimes for extended periods of time, is hard. I also try to be fully present with whatever I am doing when I travel, so emails and to do lists back at the office tend to pile up when I’m on the road.

But I love the things I get to do when I travel.  Meeting with the various planning teams gives me such joy as I listen in on their faithful and dedicated dreaming, planning, and problem solving on behalf of the young people of our church.

Gathering staff are also the connectors between the teams.  It’s important that staff are “in the know” so we can share with others what each team is doing. Spending time with youth at synod gatherings and other events feeds my soul in real ways.

I’m a youth minister at heart, so spending time with young people and their journey with Jesus is a must for me in order to be the best Gathering Director I can be.

I also really value being with the people of the ELCA as we plan for and reflect on the Gathering. I want to hear about your Gathering experiences and memories, how we can equip you better for the ministry of the Gathering, and your ideas for the future.

Maybe I’ll be in your neck of the woods when I’m on the road again!

A Day in the Life of the Director

– Molly Beck Dean

There is some curiosity about my job, so our fabulous blog editors thought it would be fun to do a “day in the life of the Gathering Director” post. I’m on the road five to fifteen days a month, but when I’m not out meeting with fabulous folks promoting and planning the Gathering, I’m hanging out in a cubicle on the 9th floor of Higgins Road in Chicago. This particular day in January felt especially ordinary so we thought it would be fun to share!

8:25am: Arrive to the office, general chit chat, and hot beverage getting with colleagues.

8:40am: Open the email inbox and be pleasantly surprised when there are only 20 new messages since 10pm last night. Time to reply!

9:15am: Done enough with emails for now. On to contract writing! Today’s checklist includes Service Learning lunches, a Mass Gathering speaker, and a MYLE worship leader.

10am: Check-in meeting with the fabulous Chicago-based Gathering staff. #blessed

12pm: Lunch at my desk (a bad habit), sign some new hotel contracts, then book flights for the ELCA Youth Core Leadership Team members for their March meeting.

12:45pm: More emails, check social media.

1pm: Off to meet with a representative from the Network of ELCA Colleges & Universities!

1:30pm: More emails.

2pm: Finalize details and the news release for our Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands fundraiser.

2:15pm: Eat some Sour Patch Kids.

2:17pm: More emails.

3pm: Meet with colleagues from Mission Investment Fund to finalize plans for their presence at the Gathering.

3:30pm: Work with colleagues on the Gathering’s plans for being at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network’s Extravaganza.

4pm: More emails, more social media, more Sour Patch Kids.

4:17pm: Phone call with the Convention & Visitors’ Bureau in our 2021 Gathering host city!

4:25pm: Back to emails!

4:45pm: Finish up 2017 staff evaluations.

5:10pm: Pretend to straighten up my desk and pack up to go home.

5:12pm: Someone stops by the cube with a question and some friendly chat.

5:20pm: Putting my coat on, really leaving this time.  Remember I was supposed to print something for a meeting this weekend so I fire my computer back up.

5:25pm: Grab a few more Sour Patch Kids and hit the road.

Another full and wonderful day as Director of the ELCA Youth Gathering!