RE-Thinking Conferences

If you could change one thing about an annual conference that you MUST attend, what would it be?

Brian Barela blogs regularly here.

  • Brian Barela

    one big thing would be sharing the conference schedule EARLY so that attendees could vote or give feedback to various elements.

    a great question to ask attendees is NOT “what do you like or don’t like” BUT “what is missing from the schedule?” rather than get into an opinion war over various elements it would provide conference directors with an idea of trends that are important to attendees but perhaps overlooked by them.

    • Aaron Badenhop

      Something that I think about, is that when I attend these conferences sometimes I am not completely sure what the purpose of the conference is. Put another way, I would appreciate it if our leaders would broadcast very clearly their intent for the conference. What do they hope this conference will result in? Without this understanding (and without this understanding every time for each conference), it can begin to feel like some conferences are done because we’ve always done them. Even the information that is released about the conference ahead of time sometimes has more to do with the fact that it is mandatory, rather than hearing from our leaders why this latest conference will be worth the time, the money, the energy etc. If in fact we are an organization that does not just do things because we’ve always done them, it would help me to hear from our leaders why at this time, again this year, this conference will be important. I acknowledge that I don’t read every word of every email we get and so I admit that maybe I missed this somewhere, but as far as I can tell, this seems pretty accurate.

      My best guess at this point, is that the purpose of our staff conferences is to refresh, realign, and motivate the staff. If this is the intent, I do appreciate that our leadership cares about us as staff and would want us to be refreshed. However, if this is the intent, my own personal experience is that refreshment, realignment, and vision is accomplished only minimally. Part of the reason this is the case is because right or wrong, there’s a big part of me that feels like the amount of time, energy, and money required on my part, sets the bar pretty high to make the conference feel worth it to me. I know other staff who think similarly about the conference. Therefore, if the above is the purpose or intent for the conference, to use the name of this blog, I would want to “RE-think” how this purpose could be fulfilled (or if the conference should be discontinued)

      While I am at it, I think what is more tough specifically (if the above is the purpose of the conference) is that the content doesn’t always feel coherently connected to that purpose. Not that I am a big sermon critic or anything, but with the dawn of the internet with podcasts and seminary lectures galore online, again without consciously choosing to have this attitude, the bar seems set pretty high for it to feel worth it for me to drive for hours and pay hundreds of dollars when I could find comparable content online from my own home. I respect our leadership and would take seriously their thoughts behind the conference, but again the question, why do they believe it is worth if for us to spend the time, money, and energy to attend?

      I think one thing that might sharpen the purpose of the conference would be for the conference to really matter in terms of the future direction of the organization and our ministries. The reality is that there are lot of ministry ideas out there. What if all there was a feel at the staff conference that instead of feeling like we are strictly the recipient of refreshment etc, if we were more participants? What if there were panels where leaders discussed or even debated different ministry strategies (obviously with humility!)? What if it felt like work was being done, progress was being made as we engaged with one another about where our ministry is headed? Sure it might be messy, but maybe we need to be okay with messy. Maybe our conferences need to be a little less safe? If we talk about being people who live the spirit-filled life, maybe we need to press into a little more messiness and trust that our staff can communicate with humility and even agree to disagree?

      • Brian Barela

        love your last paragraph aaron! thanks for taking the time to weigh in!

        • Alisha Jenkins

          I really agree with everything you are saying here Hop. It feels like there is a belief that we are not getting vision in our personal devotional lives, at our churches, or in our own study (on-line sermons, books, etc…). Also that conference are the main way most staff will get refreshment, vision, & alignment. I’m not sure that is how most staff feel.

          I have a friend who’s on staff with another organization who says they have once conference that rotates. One year it’s students & staff, one year it’s just staff, the next year they don’t have one. I’m not saying we go that far but I wish some changes would happen.

  • Ben

    I think utilizing Ustream and other video streaming sites would be great at putting the conference right in your house or office. By utilizing chat rooms, twitter, etc. you can have a conversation, ask questions and really engage one another during the entire event.
    Also, through video streaming, you can invite speakers from all over the world to speak, for low cost and you don’t have to feed them after. This creates the possibility of getting more content in a more compacted package.
    With new avenues like Xbox using Kinect as video conferencing software and so many people doing excellent work in online streaming, I don’t see why this couldn’t become a reality and save thousands of dollars in the long run.

    • Brian Barela

      ben i was thinking something similar regarding speakers!

      if you cut out the travel costs and skype/ustream/etc the speaker in, you can afford a different level of speaker.

      also a lot of the big name speakers travel frequently–it might actually minister to them to be able to speak from a more comfortable place, and be able to go home to their family at night.

  • Cheryl Boyd

    I would replace the carnival with another activity where staff and their families can work together to help meet the needs of others rather than spend so much money “consuming”. For instance, last time we watched video of how staff kids packaged meals for those in need (I think it was in Haiti). Why not pick a few things like that to set up and do. We could love and serve thousands with our “family time”. This sounds like a logistical monster to pull off, but not more of one than the carnival.

  • John

    Great point Brian – a schedule really helps us to engage with the content prior to and during.

    I keep coming back to things being virtual. Given that a businessman from Chicago and a businessman from England can meet and do business in Singapore, I wonder what we can do virtually to involve more people, or participate more virtually.

    On another note, some of our conferences are huge, an element that is not going to go away. However, having time together in smaller groups helps many to process the information overflow. Watching some of our CSU conference, for instance, in an apartment with close friends has helped us digest the content easier than in an open, empty auditorium. I guess what I am saying is how can a conference be a personal and intimate event?

  • Drew

    Getting a chance to see notes & outlines from those who lead breakout sessions would be a big help. I’m sure a common disappointment is having more seminars you want to attend then there is time. The mp3’s are good, but having notes would give people like me a chance to geek out even further on a seminar we really enjoyed or that was particularly useful. It would also allow people the opportunity to access a particular bit of information quickly instead of trying to find it in the middle of a 45 min mp3.

    As an example, I participated in a webinar on support-raising a while back and they made their powerpoint slides available to save/print. I refer back to those slides almost monthly because I have easy access to it and am much more familiar with the material because I am able to scan through it so often. I don’t do that with mp3’s because it would take too much time trying to figure out, “Where in that talk did they say that?”

  • Cheryl Boyd

    I, sheepishly, realize now that it may have been a broader question than I was thinking. Sorry for the irrelevant comment. I do think that, in a general sense, many times conference tend to keep elements just because they have “always been done before”. I would imagine that many people on this network would not tend to fall into that category, but the conference schedules should be driven more from principle than the auto-pilot of tradition. We should be seriously considering every element of a conference and what purpose it fulfills. The stewardship of time, finances and manpower should be thoughtfully utilized.

    • Brian Barela

      agreed cheryl! even 5 years ago staff were not as connected w each other in between conferences as they are now due to social media. i feel like we can really leverage those connections and discussions that are ALREADY happening to make conferences better. the conference is not the start or end of a conversation!

  • Russ

    I would have an evaluation after each main session talk or seminar. (It could be done with mobile).

    Three questions.
    1. What is something you learned from this talk?
    2. What is some feedback you have for the presenter on delivery or content?
    3. Would you invite others or promote this seminar in the future? (i.e. was it worth your time) (Yes or No).

    => the context here is slightly smaller events (don’t think US staff conference)

    • Brian Barela

      was wishing i would have done this at my last seminar. i sensed i connected on some levels but would have loved to hear specifically so i can refine my content for future audiences.

  • susie shaw

    brian–you need to have leadership own it–not a head level but heart level…this requires the more difficult work of quietness, reflection, hearing from the spirit… i really believe God has the direction and vision if you get a team together and wrestle with it a theme, direction will emerge.

    i felt this the year we did “come alive” at cmas conference (was it 03?). i also things you can get all the greatest speakers but the best conference take the audience a direction. less seems to always be more (as our formation always seems to be).

    i felt one of the best and most memorable retreats/conferences i had on staff was when deiter zander came and just ministered to the staff.

    anyhow. i have lots of thoughts. feels free to use me as a resource as i can see things a lot clearer being off staff now looking back in.

    trusting food stuff for you brian!

    • Brian Barela

      thanks suzy for the good thoughts.

      agree that direction is more important than hype/speakers/venue.

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