#TBT The Conference I’m Still Looking For

For #TBT, we’ll revisit some older themes and give them a fresh look. I first posted this in September of 2011 and I suppose you could say, “I still haven’t found what I’m 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 do 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. This was 2005 and Keller was not a widely known name like he is now. So 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. 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.  And sure, we’ve probably all sat through a Q&A session at a conference that went badly: an audience member making a passive aggressive point, or wanting to argue something obscure.  This wasn’t that.  This was a full day of church leaders hungry to learn asking specific questions to church leaders who had something helpful to offer.

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. 

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.

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