oh, conferences-schmonferences

I’m not a huge fan of Christian leadership conferences. They have their place. I have met some wonderful people at gatherings over the years, and heard some really excellent messages here and there.

I have been a participant. I have been a speaker. I have been a workshop presenter. I have been an I-think-I’ll-just-stay-out-in-the-lobby-and-talk-to-my-friends-because-that-will-be-more-meaningful attendee. I have paid to go. I have been paid to go. I have gone by myself. I have gone with a group. I have checked my email and Facebook the entire time someone was talking. I have paid attention and taken avid notes. I have been inspired. I have been completely annoyed. I have wished I were home. I have been glad I went.

I want to be careful about honoring the sincere hearts of those who are plan and attend conferences because they can be a great place of inspiration, networking, and connection.

Those three things happen at many of these gatherings.

It’s awesome.

Please hear me: I’m not trying to rip on every conference. I know good comes out of them in all kinds of lovely ways. I have been privileged to be part, and I am thankful for the experiences and look forward to continued learning. 

But I also want to say out loud here what I’ve been saying for a lot of years at every conference planning conversation I can think of: What if we stopped doing the same thing over and over and over again and bravely tried something new?

What if we stopped feeding the same monster?

What if we stopped…

  • Bringing in big names to attract more people?
  • Working so hard to get a whole bunch of eager & amazing men and women in the room who want to learn and have them sit facing forward, listen to inspirational sermons, drink water from a fire hose, and then have to hurriedly leave for the next event?
  • Charging money that makes it impossible for most average people who aren’t being paid by their churches or ministries to attend?
  • Thinking big?
  • Packing talk-after-talk-after-talk and workshop-after-workshop-after-workshop in just because it feels like we should?
  • And my biggest pet peeve about some missional-y gatherings I’ve seen (I realize some don’t have that focus so this doesn’t always apply): having people with privilege and power be the ones sharing over and over again on how to “do mission”?

And what if we started doing what I know some people are trying in different ways (or dream of, too)…

  • Replace known speakers with practitioners instead, with people who would never normally share at a conference because of their lack of name recognition but can easily offer an incredible amount of wisdom and experience?
  • Had processing time after each session, room to sit and share with others, space to engage, take a breath, soak in learning?
  • Made it inexpensive so that anyone could attend? (It’s so possible).
  • Think small, intimate, connected, workshop, party.
  • Build space, quiet, and opportunities for contemplation and reflection, not as a side component but as an integral part.
  • If it’s a conference for leaders or mission/incarnational living, have speakers who are the ones who are usually the people being talked about:

~ People from the pews who can share what it’s like to be in church systems and be treated a certain way.

~ People from the neighborhoods we are moving into who can offer what it’s like to be missionized–the good, the bad, the ugly.

~ People from the margins who are never, ever on a lineup at a conference who can safely tell what it’s like to always be on the underside of power.

~ People who are always talked about at conferences but are never there.

I know some of these things are happening already, and I love that. I’m aware of Unconference, Transform Network, Denver Faith and Justice Conference and other gatherings here in the US and abroad dedicated to experimenting with different models & pricing structures & ways of being (I’m sure you know of many more).

But these are way in the minority and aren’t widely attended.

The old model is still alive and well.

And people without margin and resource are often usually never a part unless they receive a scholarship.

The pricing, the set up, the privilege, the framework just doesn’t support it.

That’s not right.

When we are talking about the future of the church, to me that is a travesty. Like church, conferences are places of learning and should be reflective of the wider kingdom and what we hope for it. It shouldn’t be built for only those with margin and education and resource.

It should be filled with diverse men and women who can help us shape the future and challenge us in ways that we need to be challenged, make us uncomfortable in ways we need to be uncomfortable.

It makes me think back to several years ago when a mission team came The Refuge to learn. We hosted a justice panel, where Refuge friends shared what it was like to have mental illness, be a single grandma living below the poverty level or a single dad, to struggle with addiction or a disability, to live with PTSD. They shared how they often felt on the underside of power, of being someone’s “project”, of what it was like when some of us traveled and they didn’t have enough money to buy gas. It was glorious! And I’ve been thinking how on the whole, out of all of the “missional” (yes, that word bugs me even though I know it has its place) conferences I’ve yet to hear speakers like them.

In my opinion, they should be the keynotes. But alas, that’s messy, unpredictable, unpolished, and unpopular.

Oh, conferences-schmonferences.

I know they are helpful and have their place, but I would love to see something new emerge over time. For some reason I felt like rambling about that this weekend (and yeah, I’ll probably never get invited to speak at another conference again, ha ha).

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

15 Comments

  • Hi Kathy, thanks…Just wanted to let you know about a Conference that happens in Australia each year called ‘Surrender’. It is an amazing time where those working on the ‘underside’ get to share their experiences. There are lovely opportunities of gentle ‘worship’, contemplative and reflective. People get to hang out with each other to talk…it is a shot in the arm for people who are in a faith shift, or whom are struggling with the institutionalised church. It is happening in March and I am looking forward to it very much. It, like you, give hope that there is a place for those who don’t fit.

    Reply
  • It would be great.

    I haven’t been to a conference in …. 8 years or so I guess, and I don’t miss them at all.

    Although, I think the best part of a conference is meeting and talking with people in between sessions. So maybe there could be a conference with no speakers at all and just a bunch of people hanging out and seeing where the conversation takes them.

    Reply
  • Wow, Kathy! This reflects so many of my own thoughts! And my desire to design one or a series of “different” or “anti-conference” gatherings. Not been, but from what I’ve heard, Wild Goose Festival is somewhat like what you long for… Have you been or heard much to confirm or disconfirm that?

    Some day I sure hope to join with you and a few others in a really practical, make-some-progress “conference”. I have bunches of ideas so if/when you get busy on one, please let me know. One of my determined priorities would be, as you say, no “celebrities”, maybe no “keynote” talk at all. Mainly a mix of practitioners/learners who want to collaborate and learn from one another… and begin, perhaps, some new steps on their path or mutually start something that will continue. (I had thought Big Tent Christianity would be that but it appears to have fizzled…. The Phoenix one in about 2011 was very stimulating and I thought substantive… nice variety of people who determined to listen and learn from others they might not easily or closely align with.)

    Reply
    • hey howard, i haven’t been able to pull off wild goose but i do think it is different and has a lot of other elements than a regular conference. i think many have been very healing and inspiring for a lot of people…

      Reply
  • Three years in a row I attended one of the huge conferences that took place in the city where I live. There were big name speakers, plenty of workshops and seminars, a huge hall of exhibitors and more. Between sessions, and sometimes during sessions, I hung out in the common spaces and talked with other attendees.

    Most of the people I talked with were church staff people, often pastors. Most had similar stories. Their churches were in decline, they were discouraged, and the church board had sent them to the conference to learn some new gimmick to attract more people to their church. When I asked if they had tried this previously, most had. When I asked if it had worked, all said it had not, but the church board thought they should keep trying. As one pastor and his wife told me, “Oh well, it’s a break for us, and the weather is nicer here than it is in Michigan this time of the year.”

    Another summed up the conference experience for him: “It’s a chance to get away from where I live and talk to pastors that do not live where I live. We can share our problems and not worry that what we say will get back to our congregations. The book tables are great and I get to catch up on my sleep.”

    Reply
  • Firstly, I so miss you and everybody at the Refuge. It is nice to at least be able to read your blog and feel a little bit connected. Secondly, I want to go to the conference you described in the “what if we started doing…” section! 🙂 It sounds wonderful. I would love to be a part of an event like that as an attendee or organizer. Maybe my small group can take a field trip to Broomfield sometime to experience what you guys are doing and get inspired. 🙂

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *