Conference-itis — What is it?
This post has been brewing for several years. All critiques and questions in the post have arisen from my own struggles, questions, concerns. In other words, if these comments feel a little uncomfortable, I understand, I have been there, too.
What is conference-itis? There are many conferences, from the church body conferences to the wild and woolly conferences (many times bizarre, but catching international attention).
But the focus of this post is not on those kinds of conferences. Rather, I use the term in reference to independent groups springing up within the more conservative churches, that has also been attracting some Lutherans. The conferences have become the next great thing in the church. And to attend or speak at a conference is the badge certifying that “I have made it.” Conference-itis affects the person who thinks this is the “real deal” in church.
A little background on me. I write as one who has served, and is currently serving as a pastor, and in the last 8 years also serving as a seminary president. I attended more than my share of these kinds of conferences from the mid 1980s to the present, several times speaking at such conferences—I was suffering from conference-itis. In the mid 1990s I began to ask myself questions about the conferences, the speakers, and my own role. I now attend far fewer conferences.
Why am I going to the conference?
Several conferences I attended were very helpful for me. They opened my eyes in terms of pastoral care, teaching, and preaching. They served to assess my own ministry. Yet after a few I learned that other conferences were not helping, but in fact, distracting me. Then my question changed to: “Why am I going to this?”
Yes, fellowship with others was good. But at a two day conference where I met 100-200 or more people I soon realized that almost none of them would be ongoing friends. Not because I didn’t want to, but I was serving a congregation of 250+ with Preschool (75) and Parents’ Day Out (125), etc. In other words, any time I dedicated to conference attendees beyond the initial conference was time away from caring for those I was called to serve as pastor.
Yes, learning goes on at conferences. I have gained significant insights over the past 29 years. But I had to ask myself: How is this helping me improve as a pastor serving people? The insights showed that many conferences were not helpful, and so I attended fewer—the conferences were being filtered through that questioning lens.
It was an eye-opener when after attending one conference that all 70 pastors were so enthusiastic about the ideas presented. Some rushed home to begin the “new ministry approach” the first month. I remember one pastor was so excited about small group ministry that he started eleven groups within three months of returning from the conference. Yet at the conference everyone was strongly urged to start small—with one group. Within five years that pastor had no groups in the church. And worse, he provided no support to group leaders at any stage.
Others of us took time and assessed whether it would work in the congregations we were serving. We also took time to plan further out than six months—more like 10 years. It has been 23 years since I went to that conference. The congregation I served at the time started with one group, eventually growing to seven groups when I left. But even more—long after I left the congregation the groups have continued to grow in number and size to this day.
What is the purpose of the conference?
Over the last 25 years I have begun asking this question repeatedly (to myself). Will the purpose of this conference help me serve as pastor? If a member of my congregation attends, how will this conference help that person grow in the faith and serve in the community into which he or she is living/serving?
In the mid 1980s I assumed that every conference would benefit me and every member. But the reality is that many conferences are not so much designed to build up and support the existing congregations and members. They may serve other needs and purposes, which is fine. But I needed to clearly think about this and the implications for the congregation. So, my question became “What is the purpose of this conference?”
It breaks my heart to even write this: In some conferences I have seen where the local ministry is portrayed as “not sufficient.” In other words, the conference itself becomes more important than the congregation. As a Lutheran, I understand that the congregation is a group of believers in Christ gathered around Word and Sacrament. And when a conference moves away from that focus, then I have even more serious concerns.
Even at Lutheran conferences, I have heard comments about Word and Sacrament being essential, but then the speaker(s) totally ignoring those tools, rather intimating that the local congregation might be lacking in some way—which only this conference can fix. The conference becomes an “encouraging community” to get the “real deal” at the conference, not the real deal in Word and Sacrament with brothers and sisters who are my community.
So, I ask myself as a pastor, is this conference helping me serve God’s people? Or is that only a hook to get me there, to be “encouraged” by others wanting “something more”?
Those are tough questions, perhaps making some of us very uneasy. If so, I am glad that is happening, because we need to be brutally honest about all this. If not, then we are slipping into the mindset that “something out there” is needed beyond what God gives and provides in the congregation.
What about those who lead the conference?
One of my filters now includes this question: “What is going on in the congregation of this speaker?” This is not just a congregation-size issue. A pastor may serve a mega-church, but have little hands on experience with ministry in this specific area. The name is well known, but what exactly is he providing in real world experience that will benefit other pastors? If the speaker serves as pastor of a small congregation that has not grown beyond more than a large small group (not an oxymoron), then what does he offer at the conference?
If he is an author, is that the reason he is speaking? That he might generate more sales from his insights? Are those insights, true insights or just a repackaging of something else?
How is his presentation? I don’t care to be entertained. I don’t need speakers who publicly push the boundaries of language. Is he sarcastic, snide, rude? That doesn’t edify anyone—Ephesians 4:29. Will that language help me care for the cancer patient, the new widower, the parents of a runaway in the congregation. If the speaker critiques someone, does he critique the false teaching or does he ridicule the person?
Is the speaker showing by his knowledge of the Bible that he knows ministry inside and out, from failure and success? Or is he offering his own mix of what works with a little from the Bible, a little from the business world, and a little “common sense?” Is he willing to admit the limits of his knowledge and experience? Or is he presenting as if this “new thing,” better than the Bible, is the only way to go?
These are very difficult, challenging questions. But as I have learned over the decades, if I don’t ask the questions, then I am letting someone else dictate what I should be doing in ministry, with me becoming a shallow imitation of someone who may or may not be working for the good of the kingdom.
What are alternatives?
At that point, we need to see whether the time and money to attend any conference really is worth it to the pastor and congregation. Maybe that two day conference (that eats up four days when travel is included; effectively amounting to 60 working hours) might yield to an alternative that will help the congregation. Perhaps it might benefit the congregation more if the pastor took those 60 hours over the next two weeks to study Greek and Hebrew texts, gaining insights into the Scriptures. Then he can deepen the Bible studies that he teaches locally and faithfully preach each week. Each pastor has to ask himself that question.
I have been mentoring pastors for 25 years, and in the last eight years visiting pastors and seminary students. I ask them all the same question: “What are you reading?” Sometimes I will get responses about the latest best seller by Rev. Dr. ______, or just throwing out a last name, intimating that I should know who he/she is and be pleased they are up to date. Now, I have no problem with people reading books, I’ve been known to read 5,000+.
But when I ask the question about “what are you reading?” I am specifically asking: “What are you reading in the Bible?” As pastors the best preparation for service is to be in God’s Word. By this I also do not include commentaries, although commentaries are good they cannot replace reading the Scriptures.
The reading of the Bible:
1. Read the Bible: (i.e., a consistent reading through the Bible). Many resources are available for anyone to begin and continue reading the Bible. In hermeneutical terms, we are expanding the matrix of understanding the Bible, always with Christ as the key to the matrix. (John 5:39; Luke 24:44-46; etc.). As a pastor, we can easily make it a goal to read the entire Bible in one year.
2. Mediative reading: To complement #1, this approach takes more time, a slower pace. It is often best to read aloud the text. As the mouth articulates the text, the text forms in the mind, in the heart, and begins a process of drawing one closer to God. Psalm 1:1-2 illustrates this process.
3. Detailed Study: For the pastor, this means taking out the Hebrew and Greek texts and working through a section of a text. Often people hear this encouragement and want to start but tackle too much at one time. If you are rusty, then I suggest working through a book (like John’s Gospel) and translate one verse a day. You may have to frequently look up words in a lexicon when you start. But you are doing one verse. Soon you will discover that you don’t have to look up some words, because they have become familiar to you, and you can do 2-3 verses each day.
For those who are not trained in the languages, detailed study can still be done. Compare translations (different approaches is good: so NAS and NLT or NKJV and GW make good combinations). Where they differ, there is probably something going on in the text that needs more attention. As you study, notice structural words (connectors like “therefore” [Romans 12:1] or repetiton of patterns [Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5]). Can these patterns help us understand the thought progression of the author, etc.?
Attend Bible studies that the pastor leads. Ask your pastor questions (Acts 17:11). If he doesn’t know, then ask him if he could help you research the text.
Are all conferences to be avoided?
Not at all. I think pastor conferences within a church body can be very beneficial. In The AALC we have an annual Fall Pastors’ Conference that has become a refreshing, enjoyable, and helpful environment for my service in the congregation.
My plea (for myself, first) is that I examine the purpose of any conference. Will this help me in my service in the congregation? Or will it direct my attention elsewhere? Sadly some conferences do that. So I have declined to attend.
Finally I ask: Am I called by God to serve as conference speaker? Is this more important than my call as a pastor to a congregation? Then look at where am I in serving a congregation. Will speaking at this conference also assist me,a s well as others in serving God’s people?
Finally, the really personal questions: Do I crave the applause of the “audience”? Am I in a popularity contest? Who has the largest audience? Who is receiving attention? Is my ego being stroked by the accolades?
Again, the questions are mine—and they have revealed much about my own heart. This has been a long process and rethinking issues, and stopping to consider what I found so “fashionable” at the time that I wanted to pursue it. In repentance I seek God’s mercy. Not for others, but for myself.
I have directed this series of questions at myself since the mid 1990s. In discussions with other pastors, I have found they too have had concerns but didn’t quite know how to address the topic. Thus, my post is for my benefit, my friends’ benefit, and anyone else struggling with the pressure to “be at this conference!”
I am slowly recovering from conference-itis. It is freeing to do so.