Heidi Jo Hagstrom needed to postpone being interviewed for RCM magazine. She was recuperating from a flare-up of multiple sclerosis, but to see her, you'd probably never know.

“It depends on how [MS] presents; it's different for all people,” Hagstrom says when she is up for our inquisition. “Usually, for me, some part of my body goes numb. This time I had trouble with my eyes. I couldn't focus well and was sensitive to light.”

Other times, the MS makes Hagstrom dog-tired. Still other times, one of her legs will drag or she will start stumbling. Mostly, the disease presents in numbness overtaking some part of her body. She can usually carry on at the time, but she looks for the first opportunity for relief, either with a course of steroids and/or rest.

But don't pity Hagstrom. She is doing pretty well for herself despite having lived with MS for more than 20 years. In fact, you might think that she's an over-achiever, holding the position of director of the ELCA Youth Gathering for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“It has not really affected my life or my job,” she says. “I give myself daily shots, so when I travel, I have to haul them with me. I'm grateful that I do respond to medicine.”

But things are changing.

“I don't know if I'm entering a new phase,” Hagstrom says, “but my neurologist has told me to figure out a different pace for my life. This job is stressful. Being responsible for 36,000 people at an event is stressful. Being in hot climates is always dangerous for people with MS, and our events are always in hot climates.”

It does, naturally, make an outsider wonder why she keeps doing it.

“For me, it's about a sense of call,” she says. “I believe that I am called to serve in this way. It is my God-given vocation. And I love what I do.”

Intentional Preparation

The ELCA Youth Gathering takes places every third year; the last was in 2006, the next is 2009.

“A key component of our event is that you can't register as an individual; you come as a group from a congregation,” Hagstrom says. “We develop a curriculum for groups to work on before the event, including Bible study and group-building activities. As part of this process, groups prepare covenants to monitor their behavior at the event. This kind of intentional preparation softens the soil of their hearts so that they can better receive what God has planned for them at the event.

“That is a real important point for me. Because if there has been criticism, it has been that this is ‘arena ministry,’ comparing it to going to a concert or basketball game, but that's not how faith is nurtured. I say you can't compare our gathering to an entertainment event because nobody prepares with Bible study for six months to go to a concert or basketball game.”

And while some might call attendance a rite of passage, it's also a form of indoctrination.

“We want them to leave transformed because they have been encountered by God and neighbor,” Hagstrom says. “We want them to be different people when they go back to their congregations. I like to say that by sending young people to a Youth Gathering, a congregation is sending a missionary to the larger church, and then they have to accept that person with their renewed witness when they come back. God just might use the voices of young people to speak to the church.”

Big Gathering, Huge Interest

In 1997, the Youth Gathering was held in New Orleans. The organization planned for 36,000 teen attendees, but another 6,000 registered and had to be turned away. Since then, the church has worked to find a formula that would accommodate everyone interested in participating.

A decade ago, registration opened and closed on the same day. Whether you got in was based on when your registration was postmarked. Savvy pastors and youth workers would go to the nearest airport post office to have their registration postmarked at 12:01 a.m.

Turning kids away wasn't the right answer for the ELCA, especially when teens raised money for years in order to attend.

When she joined the staff in 2000, the church had chosen to operate the Youth Gathering as identical, back-to-back events from Wednesday to Sunday one week, then again Wednesday to Sunday the next. That year, 20,000 youths came to St. Louis for the first week, 22,000 the next.

In 2003 and 2006, attendance stayed steady between 38,000 and 40,000.

But even this approach had drawbacks. The ELCA could not guarantee who would be registered for one week or the other. And despite an internal pledge to make the weeks identical in terms of attractions such as speakers and bands, it wasn't easy.

So in July 2009, the ELCA Youth Gathering is returning to its original one-week-only format as it returns to a familiar location: the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and Superdome in New Orleans.

“It's just hard to sustain the event for two weeks,” Hagstrom says.

As for Hagstrom, the next ELCA Youth Gathering will be notable because she's attempting to cut back on her responsibilities — and stress — for its organization and for preserving her own good health.

“I am working with my supervisors to figure out what that's going to be,” she says. “We have 14 planning team leaders and more than 2,000 volunteers who make the event happen. Each planning team leader is picking up the ball and is grateful for the opportunity to do more than in the past, because I can't.”

Bulletins:

  • The Green Meeting Industry Council's search for a new executive director has ended. The Portland Ore.-based organization appointed Tamar Kennedy Hill to the role, effective May 15. Hill comes to the GMIC from Travel Portland, the city's convention and visitors bureau, where she was co-founder and team leader of the bureau's International Green Team. She succeeds Shawna McKinley, who held the position since October 2006. McKinley resigned in August to become a project manager at Meeting Strategies Worldwide, also in Portland.

  • The three buildings of the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta have officially reopened after 42 days of construction after a tornado severely damaged the facility March 14. While the 1.4 million-square-foot center continued to host events during the construction as space became available, it is now operational in all areas. In addition to repairing damage from the tornado, the GWCCA used the construction as an opportunity to update its facilities for improved energy efficiency.

About Heidi Jo Hagstrom

Born & Raised: Cokato, Minnesota

School: Concordia College (Moorhead, Minn.); “I went to college knowing I wanted to be a lay staff person in a church. They suggested I combine music and religion as my majors.”

Hobbies: Music, singing, gardening