I’m sitting here with our cat, Buddy, curled up on my lap. Timothy and I have been in Detriot, MI for an extended weekend leading workshops and tabling for LEAD at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza. This annual event helps members of the Network (most are faith formation directors, youth workers, youth ministers, or children, youth, and family directors in some capacity) gear up for the 2015 Detroit summer nation-wide ELCA Youth Gathering, where they will chaperone their youth groups and young people (I did in 2009 for my home church, that year was in New Orleans).
The Extravaganza (E) is also a time for reconnecting with colleagues and friends from around the country, and doing some lifelong learning together in inspiring large group sessions, workshops, and intensive classes. This was Timothy and my first E. This year’s theme: story.
It’s basically a coaching/lifelong learning nerd’s dream come true. This is the E’s 19th year. We all know that lifelong learning is a necessity to living a healthy, adventurous, and vocation-rich life. One thing that isn’t talked about as much though is the soil required for that lifelong learning: relationships. Without the trust of your neighbor, and without your neighbor trusting you, there’s no connection, advocacy, love, accountability, collegiality, or support that makes lifelong learning happen. Over and over again, I saw those foundations grow and strengthen all weekend long.
During one of the evenings all the 9 regions (region 1 is AK, WA, ID, OR, MT, tiny bit of Wyoming) met in different corners of the hotel. First, 10 people came. Then 20. Then 30. I think we had maybe 50 people gathered around in this basement ballroom lobby: youth workers, youth leaders, and children, youth, and family directors (and us outlaws but they loved us anyway, I’m still not quite sure why), and about half were from WA. I have never seen so many Washington state church leaders in one place outside of WA. And it wasn’t that they were just present. There were hugs, there were moments of “there’s more room! Come sit here,” there was applause for E first-timers as we introduced ourselves, there was patience, there was excitement. I recognized faces from PLU, and from my facebook feed who are now leaders at my own homechurch (St. Andrew’s Lutheran in Bellevue, WA), and even a familiar face from 2008 who served on Camp Lutherwood staff with me in Bellingham, WA. That was a squeal-y moment and one that probably made my husband wish he brought earplugs.
This ELCA Youth Ministry Network and it’s annual Extravaganza is one of the best kept secrets in the church. They have doubled their size from 500 to 1,000 members since October. These leaders go back home and meet locally once a month or so to ask for help, for prayers, for ideas of each other. Leaders learning with leaders. Leaders supporting leaders. There’s collegiality, there’s faith, there’s laughter, and most importantly, there’s trust. I’m hopeful there is a network and connection like this for pastors. I wish I could say I knew of one. I think that’s what synod assemblies try to be, but perhaps those networks are quieter. All I know is that Timothy and I aren’t youth workers, but we were welcomed, genuinely welcomed, in such a loving way by all these youth workers. People asked me to tell my story; like my whole story. It blew my mind. I secretly hope they will keep asking me to hang around because this is a network that will, and is, changing the church and the world with their vulnerability, their courage, their leadership, their authenticity, and their willingness to ask questions.
Oh and I should mention, my workshop went great. I shared why stories have become really important to me in the last year, and an experiment I’m conducting to try my ideas out. My college freshman year roommate’s youth leader was there, random (St. Matthew’s in Renton, Briana’s dad’s now the bishop of NW-WA)! And other friends, and new friends from New York to Washington, Pennsylvania to California. Check it out here if you want to learn with me and others why stories and storytelling matters with your people at church. Shout out to Timothy who literally ran around the entire hotel and complex to retrieve decaf coffee (with cream and sugar) for me at 8:30am as I set up the room. You are a darling, sweetheart.
There are so many things I learned, and people I met, and things I’m grateful for from this weekend. Being present and answering, “What is LEAD?” at the LEAD booth was especially fun. So many beautiful stories of leadership were told and I’m so thankful people were willing to share those stories with me. LEAD’s mission to grow learning, listening, and lifelong leaders is so close to my heart. They’re located out of Houston, and Timothy is one of their coaches, and I think we’ll be connected with them and be huge advocates for/with them for a long time to come.
So thank you to the E leaders and coordinators who made this weekend such a rich experience! And thanks to LEAD and others for helping us get there. I can’t wait to see what learning and leading might grow out of this weekend!