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!