The conference I’m still looking for:

I’m told there are over 350 church leadership conferences per year in the United States.


350+  that is A LOT and a majority of those conferences feature the same basic approach centered around an inspiring talk given by a gifted church speaker.  This model of conference is great and some groups absolutely nail it (Catalyst and Willow Creek for example.)  But I often find myself sitting in such a conference looking around at the people in the audience.  What are they wrestling with…what questions they have?  I listen to the excellent talk,  and I wonder how a smaller group of us could ever get in a room with that speaker to ask follow up questions, dig into what he or she said – sort of like we did in seminary after the class lecture, when we’d grab a coffee with fellow students or the professor and ask questions, process what we’d heard and really make it apply deep into our lives.

Actually, I did once go to a conference like that – it was the best conference I’ve ever attended.  In 2005, Leadership Network hosted a conference with a simple premise: no music, no MC, no fun videos.  Just great content from top church practitioners over 2 days.  Here’s how it worked:

On Day 1, we went room to room all day to listen to each presenter talk for about 20 minutes.  The conference had about 30 speakers and each speaker simply gave their 20 minute talk several times per day, so in a full day, you could catch about 15 speakers.  You’d simply look at the list of speakers and bios, and choose who’s 20 minute talk you wanted to sit through.

These talks were designed to be a preview for day 2 – sort of a taste and teaser of what the person had to offer.

Day 2 was where the genius of the event showed itself.  Same speakers, but this time they each had 90 minutes and they were directed to only answer our questions, not initiate any content themselves.  In other words, the audience got to shape the content of the presentation.  So on day 2, we could listen to 6 or 7 speakers in a full day.

After the first day’s preview talks, I knew I wanted to hear everything Tim Keller had to say.  So first thing on the second day, I went to Dr Keller’s room along with maybe 12 – 15 other folks.  Tim Keller introduced the morning by saying, “Yesterday you heard my brief spiel.  Today, I’ve been instructed not to initiate any talk at all.  I’m to talk about only what you want me to talk about.  What would you like to discuss?”

Silence…until Mr Question here realized what a gift we’d just been given.

90 minutes of a Tim Keller press conference where WE were the press.  90 minutes of pastoral practitioners asking a fellow pastoral practitioner anything about anything, then follow up questions, then more detail, then peeling back a layer to dig in further.  90 minutes where we get to hear from one of Christianity’s finest pastoral minds, but where we drove the content.  We had him talk about apologetics, engaging the skeptical mind, worship style, leadership challenges, staffing a growing church.  It was an amazing 90 minutes because he always scratched where we were itching. 

The time flew by, a thank you and a handshake and then onto the next room.  Mark Driscoll, Larry Osborne, Mike Slaughter, Dave Ferguson….the list went on and on.

Best. Conference. Ever.

Never seen it done before.  Never found it since.  It worked because the approach of the conference got behind a preplanned talk and hit a target the audience was aiming for.  If you think about it, most pastors go to a conference for ideas, encouragement, tactics and a challenge to do something different.  Surely a great way to accomplish this goal is to let the audience partially dictate the content.

So often what pastors need is more of a “press conference” approach where the audience can help shape the content and make the speaker talk about what we’re wrestling with.  This approach also forces a speaker to move beyond the polished 60 minute talk, complete with well timed humor and emotionally moving conclusion, and instead get into the nuts and bolts of church leadership etc.

So how about it, conference organizers?  How about holding a church leadership conference like this?  You could even call it, “Press Conference.”  I’d go.

4 Replies to “The conference I’m still looking for:”

  1. Well thank you. As the managing director of Leadership Network we appreciate your kind words about our Teaching and Planting Briefing back in Vegas those many years ago. The two folks really behind that were Linda Stanley and Cindi Haworth. Both are long time staff at Leadership Network.

    Some quick reflections and memories:

    1. We expected 200 and had to max out at 400. In reality, a lot of facilities can’t handle all the break outs if you want to pack it full of content in that format.

    2. As Linda remembers it – “The participants loved it, the speakers hated it.” I think that is about right. And again, it makes it hard to get the speakers to do it.

    3. We already had a meeting planned with all the speakers that I think was the day after the event (memory fails me here). So we were already bringing those leaders together. We added the briefing just so others could connect with them. That is what made it work financially. To make it work now we would have to charge a pretty good price in excess of what a lot of people usually pay.

    4. There are still lots of good conferences around and we are always thinking up new ones at Leadership Network. But the financial risks are huge. One of the reasons that our online conferences are working (like is that no one has to travel. It is not as content driven as some like, but via the twitter and social streams there is some interaction. I hope you can join us.

    Again, thanks for the kind words, we will file it under “potential future projects.”

    Dave Travis
    Managing Director
    Leadership Network


  2. Hi Dave,

    Excellent to hear from you! Interesting that the participants loved it more than the speakers and also interesting to hear about the financial challenges. I certainly don’t envy any conference promoter/planner, but as a participant, your conference was so refreshingly different and useful. The brilliance of your model was allowing participants to push the speaker beyond a preplanned talk. (Even the common “breakout” sessions at these larger conferences still offer too much monologue and sheesh, too much self promotion!)

    As for the Nines – I thought last year was fantastic and the exposure to so many practitioners in 9 minute nuggets was excellent. I also wonder if there is some middle ground with these sorts of ideas. For example, I’m in local network of 15 – 20 pastors and we’re all looking for good tactical training. I wonder if there is a viable model of us simply paying one effective leader to come for a day, bring content and lead discussion. I think most of us learn best through processing and we glean the best nuggets by going beyond a preplanned presentation. I’d help facilitate anything like this locally if you guys were ever interested.

    Best wishes to you, and by the way, Eric Swanson lives just up the road. That man is an absolute gift to local church pastors – he’s a force of encouragement and strategy.


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