Yes, ELCA Youth Gatherings are primarily for youth. A pastor, Marty Francis, from a small congregation in southern Ohio, has traveled with youth to several Gatherings. He tells his story of what it meant for youth to go to New Orleans, as well as the role he plays as an adult chaperone who is also the pastor.
As pastor of a historical country church nestled in the rural village of Ashville, Ohio, Marty Francis and his modest 169-member congregation know what it means to prioritize.
While most priorities evolve with the needs of St. Paul Lutheran Church and its members, one constant never falls from the top of the list: the ELCA Youth Gathering.
St. Paul has sent its youth to every Gathering since St. Louis in 2000, and the buzz convinced Francis, at first a somewhat reluctant chaperone, to accompany his group to Atlanta in 2003.
“I wasn’t sure about Atlanta because I thought it was just for the kids. I was skeptical. But I found out, no, it wasn’t just for kids. I was really inspired.”
In recognizing that the benefits were two-fold, Francis and the congregation’s youth made it a priority to become regular attendees.
I’m very serious about faith and preaching and teaching, but it’s good for the youth to see me in a different light. I’m usually seen as the quiet, serious Pastor Marty, but I’m a child at heart, and sometimes it comes out.
“It’s nice to know that when you come from a little country church struggling with its identity, you can get together with other Lutherans and see the strengths and gifts in our church that come out at the Gathering.”
This July’s Gathering proved to be particularly special for Francis. After 21 years at St. Paul, he is retiring this month, making New Orleans his last Gathering as an active pastor.
“I probably could have skipped this year since I am retiring, but I wanted to go,” he said.
Francis describes the Gathering’s impact as “very profound” on both the youth and himself. He thought it was quite effective at inspiring future leaders. Six youth attended the Gathering from St. Paul’s.
“I haven’t seen anyone come back and not be excited and stimulated in some way,” he said. “Some youth come back and say it’s the best thing they ever went to. Some youth who have been marginal in the church before, come back on fire and start participating more. They learn that the church is much more than St. Paul. It shows them they can do things for the church outside of our four walls.”
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According to Francis, he thought New Orleans stood apart from past Gatherings, thanks to its heavy emphasis on service.
“I live for the evening worship and this year, the servant projects. I think we could have added another day. It’s the idea that the Gathering can leave an impression on the city we’re in. Hopefully, it reminds the youth that there’s opportunities to serve back home too, even though we might have to go out and find them.”
For Francis and the congregation’s youth, the Gathering is a time to grow in their faith and to learn from each other.
“There’s always a new side of some youth I see during the Gathering that I wasn’t aware of before,” he said. “I’m always gratified to see the strong faith and leadership that is already there. It just comes out in different ways.”
Seen in Different Light
Likewise, Francis uses the Gathering to relate to his youth by portraying himself in different and sometimes unexpected ways.
“I’m very serious about faith and preaching and teaching, but it’s good for them to see me in a different light. I’m usually seen as the quiet, serious Pastor Marty, but I’m a child at heart, and sometimes it comes out.”
According to 18-year-old youth attendee Stewart Trego, this sort of openness ultimately enhanced his ability to relate to Francis and other adult leaders at the Gathering.
“Some people my age see pastors as completely different people, but being around Pastor Marty at the Gathering showed me that he’s just another normal person. He’s older and he’s been through more in life than me, so it’s great to have his insight. At the same time it was important to have all the adult leaders near to personally talk about the spiritual stuff. I definitely felt more bonded and comfortable with them when we got home.”
Suggestions for Improvements
While Francis passionately believes the Gathering provides unparallel opportunities for spiritual growth through its “excellent speakers and a good mix of fun, celebration and theology,” he knows that there is always room for some improvements for the sake of the youth.
- Better crowd control management.
- Organizing a way for every church group to sit on the [main] floor at least once during the evening worship service.
- Bringing in some of the Lutheran celebrities the musical group, Lost and Found, sings about in their crowd-pleaser, “The Lutheran Song.”
Despite these minor criticisms, it’s clear that to Francis, the positives of attending the Gathering greatly outweigh any criticism. If you’re skeptical, he suggests you go and see for yourself.
“A person that would say it’s not worth it is someone who’s never been there. I’d tell them, ‘Go. Go and see what’s going on there.’”
Although Francis preaches his farewell sermon Sept. 27, he’ll continue to spread the Gathering’s influence. “I can’t claim to have perfect faith, but the Holy Spirit is always working. It energizes me coming back. I get motivated for future sermons. Since I’m leaving, I’ll take it beyond St. Paul. I have a lot of things to share with other congregations.”
Francis admits that carrying forth the legacy of the Gathering upon returning home can be difficult. However, he warns, it is essential.
“The Gathering is like a mountain-top experience. It’s a building block in the journey for leadership in the church. But we have to keep the spirit up and not let it die. That’s where congregations can fail, by letting it die and getting back into a routine. It should be another seed planted. Then you go on and see where it leads.”
For Francis, executing this vision from the Gathering is one more priority at the top of his list.
Rachael Reed, from Asheville, Ohio, is a journalist and freelance writer and a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Asheville. She graduated this year from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She attended the 2003 Youth Gathering in Atlanta as a youth and the New Orleans Gathering as an adult chaperone.
This article appeared in the September / October 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners Online .