A few months ago I preached at a couple of conferences. They were on the other side of Australia to where I live. One was a particularly large conference with over a thousand ministry leaders from around Australia. Across the week I had lots of people at home praying for me and texting me to let me know. I am very thankful for that.
However, just between you and me, can I share something? A little secret? Being a guest speaker at a conference is probably the easiest thing I ever get to do as a pastor. Like, orders of magnitude easier that almost anything else I do. The prayers being offered seemed inversely related to challenge of the task.
There are a few reasons for this, at least in my experience.
Ministers Are Competent in and Well-Trained for Preaching
First, it’s something I feel vaguely competent in and trained for. If you had asked me at Bible College what I expected ministry to look like, it would have sounded a lot like what speaking at a conference is like. Opening the Bible with people, teaching its content, talking about its implications, and praying with people. For the time you’re at the conference, it’s a kind of distilled, platonic form of everything you hoped ministry would be—the word of God working in the people of God in the context of a rich Christian community.
Moreover, at a conference you’re often giving talks you’ve at least tried in beta-form elsewhere. They tend to be your better talks, having been given two to three times more attention than your average Sunday sermon. The conference delegates, having sampled some those talks can come away with a skewed view of your gifting. And—what’s worse—if you leave your heart unguarded, you might come away with a skewed view of your gifting too.
Conference Preaching Involves a Short To-Do List
Second, and related to the first, when you are a conference speaker, you are focused on One Thing. Your to-do list is short:
- Give talk.
- Chat with people.
Everything else is taken care of. You don’t worry about whether someone has turned the urn on. You don’t fret over the fact that the drummer just called in sick. You don’t find yourself haggling with caterers who read your “1000” as “100” and are now seeing if the local Subway can turn out 900 sandwiches in the next two hours. For the guest speaker, it’s a low-stress ministry. It’s so rare in ministry to be so focussed. It’s rather pleasant.
Conference Preachers Get Thanked
Thirdly (and here’s the danger zone), you get thanked. Publicly, privately, all over the place, lavishly. That rarely happens in almost any other context of ministry. And to my mind, you get thanked in inverse proportion to how hard the thing you just did actually is.
I don’t think thanking speakers is a bad thing. It’s a kind of corporate thanks, a symbolic thanks for the word that you’ve heard and the God who is its ultimate source. But it is a potential danger for people who regularly speak at conferences. You could start to take it all a bit too seriously. You certainly come away from a conference feeling appreciated and like your ministry is making a difference. It’s not a big jump from there to subtly start choosing to be where you’re thanked, rather than where you’re needed.
It Isn’t All Easy
I don’t want to throw any conference speakers under the bus here. There are some unique burdens of conference speaking. The travel can be gruelling. They can often be quite expensive for the speaker (honorariums normally go to the church or organisation the speaker works for, which is right, but it means that speaking at conferences can be personally expensive because of auxiliary costs, even when the conference organisers are generous). Impact on family is significant. At conferences there can be surprise expectations from organisers. The conversations can be challenging—lots of chit chat, receiving thanks graciously when you want the ground to swallow you up, surprise in-depth pastoral conversations, or fielding complaints from people whom you’d offended or disappointed. I have a day job and only speak at conferences as a side hustle. No doubt full-time itinerants face other challenges I’m not aware of.
The Comparative Challenges of Local Church Ministry
But for me, all things being equal, the hard part of ministry isn’t giving talks at conferences. The hard part is Everything Else. Most ministry is ambiguous, tricky, multi-factorial stuff. You may spend vast swathes of your week doing things you feel incompetent in and ill-equipped for. You must fight to focus on what you need to focus on. No one else is doing that for you.
The people you work with know you well and don’t take you too seriously. They’ve seen you make mistakes, and fail, and grow. They know what your average Sunday sermon is like. They know you and keep you humble and have never read your bio line or hardly know the things you’ve done that get promoted in other contexts. Local ministry keeps you humble. If the occupational hazard for long term local ministry is discouragement, the occupational hazard for itinerate ministry is believing your own press. The home crowd haven’t even read your press, and wouldn’t be impressed if they did.
As a result, I secretly asked God to direct most of those prayers back to the spots they were really needed: Everywhere Else.