oh, conferences-schmonferences

kathyescobar church stuff, crazy making, down we go, leadership 15 Comments

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).