The Art of Conference Going – 4 Tips

Conference going is an art. That may sound a bit hyperbolic–like, “brushing your teeth is an art.” Yet, I believe one can go to conferences and get little out of them. We can also attend conferences in such a manner they aren’t enjoyable or miss key opportunities for ministerial growth.

I absolutely love going to conferences because they stimulate my thinking and refresh my soul. This post is designed to help you love them too. Over the years, I’ve learned by mistake. I’ve also learned some things about attending conferences I’ve found helpful that I hope you’ll find helpful too. Here are 5:

1. Choose your conferences wisely. I used to choose conferences based on which cost the least, were closest to where I lived, or were in my faith “tribe.” It’s better to attend fewer, better conferences than more, cheap conferences that may be lesser quality. There are some cheap but real diamonds out there. I think the Pepperdine Bible Lectures in Malibu (free registration, reasonable housing, unique content and stunning setting) is one. Another is Leadership Network’s The Nines. It’s all online, and the bare bones package is free. However, in general, you get what you pay for in the conference world. I know some churches may grumble about a $300 registration fee–despite the fact many corporate conferences cost 4-5 times that. Others bemoan the time away for staff required of attending conferences. However, churches simply need to get it into their budgets to make this a reality–and grant the time away to staff with enthusiasm. I understand saying, “Churches need to make this a part of their budgets” is easier said than done. I also know the best conferences typically cost “best conference” money–and the cost usually includes quality resource material you can take home with you and use. Willow’s Global Leadership Summit, Catalyst, C3, Exponential (a great value), and others usually carry larger price tags by church standards. They are also worth it, in my experience.

I would also encourage you to choose your conferences with breadth in mind. If for a season you really want to concentrate on a particular area of your development, it’s OK to choose conferences accordingly. However, I’ve come to value some breadth in choosing which events I attend. If possible, I like to attend one that’s outside of my primary field of ministry–like a Student Ministry, Worship Ministry, Children’s Ministry, or Family Life Ministry conference. I like to attend at least 4 per year that help me with one of the following: leadership, preaching, spiritual renewal, and strategy/productivity. These do not include conferences I speak at, or conferences our church hosts. It also doesn’t include online conferences. These are times away for intensive learning and spiritual renewal.

2. Understand the reason you’re going. I may attend the Global Leadership Summit to learn and process leadership principles with our leadership team. I attend other conferences to grow as a preacher. I go to the Pepperdine Bible Lectures primarily for fellowship (it’s my alma mater). Another I may attend for the purpose of strengthening our marriage. Wherever I go, I want to know why I’m going so I can judge whether it was worthwhile. Some friends of mine hear their favorite speaker is going to present at a cool location. Don’t be a groupie with the church’s money. Grow with the church’s money. If the conference you really want to attend with purpose is in a cool spot with your favorite speaker–awesome. Just don’t let that drive the train. Know why you’re going and let that drive how/where you attend.

3. Prepare. If you can, don’t show up on fumes physically or emotionally. Sometimes you can’t help it. I understand. If you can, though, try to have your desk clear when you go. Get caught up on sleep and even prepare spiritually for it. Ask God to do something mighty in your heart and mind on the trip for His glory.

I recommend you have a “capture tool” at your disposal at all times. Your cell phone, a Moleskine journal, a slip of paper…whatever. Just make sure you have something to write quotes you hear, “thought rockets” you have, or things that dawn on you suddenly as you’re talking to someone. Be ready for God to move.

When it comes to booking travel, don’t stay at a rent-by-the-hour hotel, or book your plane ticket to where you arrive right as the first session begins or have to leave early to get home. If you must call back to the Mothership, try to minimize how often. When you call home, don’t complain about the conference or hotel. Instead, thank your spouse for Set yourself up to get the most out of it.

4. Attend diligently, with some flexibility. I’ve been to some where the hotel turns out to be nicer than advertised, the town is more fun that I realized, or I discover I’m more depleted than I thought. In those times, it’s easy to want to do something other than attend the sessions. This comes down to self-honesty and self-examination. I would encourage you to as much as you can anyways. Why? First, to honor the resources of the church. The other, because the broader internal and life-balance issues need to be addressed comprehensively when you return.

Here’s a trick I learned some time ago: pre-plan your fun. You will be less likely to cop-out big time if you indulge yourself a bit with intentionality. Look for a seam in the conference schedule or a session  where the program sags a bit. Go ahead and ditch and have some fun if you need to. However, do it only once. Plan it in advance, and do it only once. That way, you won’t be as tempted to do it more than once. If there are times when the church would be best served by you replenishing rather than attending a session–do it.

Once.

Rarely are we so fried that if we don’t recharge that instant we’ll melt down. If we are, all the more reason to stay in the conference sessions, so we don’t do something stupid in an effort to medicate our pain. When we get home, we should pay immediate attention to our spiritual and emotional well-being. We must do whatever necessary to seek God’s replenishment, honoring Him through responsible work-life balance and dealing with issues threatening your ministry.

One last thought on pre-planning your fun: some of the best sessions I’ve ever been a part of snuck up on me when I almost ditched. I remember nearly skipping some sessions led by lesser-known speakers (at the time) named Erwin McManus, Stephen Furtick, and Gene Appel. Those sessions turned out to be huge for me. So, choose wisely, my friends.

And then, there’s one more thing:

Pay attention to “re-entry.” When your spouse or elders ask how the conference was, don’t complain or say, “Well, I didn’t really get much out of it.” Focus on what you did get out of it and thank them for the opportunity to go. One of my best friends in ministry loves to ask of himself and others, “What price did someone else pay so you could be here?” That question doesn’t make me feel guilty, but it reminds me to honor the generosity of those who made my attending that conference possible. Be a thanking machine, and come up with a 2-3 minute answer to, “So, how was the conference?”

Then, do something with what you learned. Ask yourself on the trip back and capture it: What am I going to do with what I just experienced?

What tips do you have for getting the most out of conferences.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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