In WA, the Perth Gospel Partnership recently ran our 2 day Annual Conference for Christian leaders—church pastors, ministry leaders and would-be pastors. I would like to offer some reflections on the value of pastors’ conferences. But ‘truth-in-advertising’—I was one of the organisers and MCs of the conference so I do not have a disinterested perspective.
It was a two-day non-residential conference with about 180 people, hosted by a local Baptist church (building and catering). Attenders were almost all connected to the PGP (the WA Chapter of TGCA), the majority of whom are employed in various forms of church or para-church ministry. It also included a few lay elders, theological students and ministry apprentices. This is the twelfth such conference run in WA, and drew people from Perth (the majority) and regional WA including Kununurra, Broome and Albany. About 20% were women.
Murray Capill gave three keynote talks under the heading ‘Preaching: Targeting the Heart’, and Sam Allberry gave two talks on ministry to same-sex-attracted and gender-confused people. The program also included:
- Hands-on preaching/Bible Study workshops in breakout groups, putting Murray’s material into practice;
- A sit-down dinner (with spouses invited) at which Murray preached a sermon and was interviewed about his sermon;
- Electives on how to preach and teach God’s word run by local folk;
- Up-front interviews of various local ministries (e.g. a church plant, an Apprentice and her Trainer);
- Meal times / coffee breaks.
Conferences are Worthwhile.
Most pastors (used generically) feel the need for upskilling and encouragement. Gospel ministry is difficult—often a lonely road. The demanding nature of ministry: loving and leading; preaching and pastoring; mission and mercy—all in a fast-changing, and often hostile cultural context—is stretching most pastors’ capacities (and COVID has added to the stretch). So a conference that encourages, equips and energises them for ministry can be of significant benefit. A couple of days of helpful input with fellow-soldiers is highly valued by many.
Gospel ministry is difficult—often a lonely road … A couple of days of helpful input with fellow-soldiers is highly valued by many.
Conferences Need to be Optional.
Pastors are invited (sometimes pressured) to attend lots of conferences—and many of these are terrific (e.g. Reach Australia, TGCA, FIEC, MTS, GAFCON). Most pastors are also ‘required’ to attend denominational clergy gatherings. The danger of becoming conference junkies is real. Those of us who organise conferences need to be aware that getting people to our conference is not always the best use of their time and energy. We need to give people the space to decide not to come.
Quality Input is Gold.
What counts as quality will vary, but here are some of the things I value:
- I want the glory of Jesus and his grace on display—even when we are talking about practical skills. I want my heart warmed and fires fanned by the gospel first and foremost.
- I want to be stretched—to be moved beyond what I already know and do. I want to be extended in both my vision (what I could do) and know-how (how I could do it).
- I want help in understanding the context I am in—internal and external, personal and corporate—and I want to know how to proclaim Christ in that context. I don’t just mean that I want cultural commentary (though some of that is useful) but assistance in being sensitive to ministry contexts.
At our recent conference, Murray Capill provided an example of this; sharing his perception that, in our current context, preaching needs to provide leadership as well as pastoring.
There Needs to be Variety.
Doing the same thing each year wears thin. Yes there is value in gathering to simply hear God’s word, but conferences for pastors can do much more on a mixed diet. I think there is value in conferences having a specific focus (e.g. preaching or evangelism) and varying that focus year to year. In our planning for PGP, we have sought to rotate through various foci—eg preaching, evangelism, leadership, theological clarity. Sometimes we take advantage of a speaker being available, but often we are finding people who can address our chosen focus.
Smaller can be Better.
It is tempting for every conference organiser to want as many people in the room as possible. If the quality is good, surely the more the merrier, and the impact will be wider?
If a conference draws people from too wide a variety of theological colours, trust is difficult to build.
But the downside of getting a wide spread of people is that the conference easily becomes a consumer event. One of the main aims of PGP is to foster partnerships in the gospel through the time together. We want attendees to grow in trust of each other and to build on common convictions and passions. That trust can become the basis of deeper personal encouragement, mentoring and partnering in gospel enterprises.
But if the conference draws people from too wide a variety of theological colours, trust is difficult to build. In this regard, celebrity speakers often don’t serve us well. They draw a crowd, but not necessarily the crowd you want. There are occasions when I want to see a gathering of every theological flavour under the sun to hear sound teaching, but usually I have smaller goals that I hope will serve the Lord more fruitfully.
Encouragement in Ministry Needs Vision-Setting.
Most of us have our heads down doing the work of ministry. We see what is in front of us and not much more. We rarely get to see things from a wider perspective. A gathering of like-minded pastors is a good place to hear what is happening outside my small patch, and to see my ministry in the wider context of what God is doing in our city or region or the world. For example:
- hearing about church plants being done in my city reminds me that the gospel is growing and prods me to consider whether our church could do it;
- meeting young Apprentices gives old, weary pastors hope for the future.
- a ‘State of the Nation’ address suggests priorities for us all—reminding us all that the conference is not just an event, but part of a movement.
There Should be Time to Connect.
Opportunities to network and build relationships are a wonderful product of this sort of conference. One of my joys is overhearing conversations:
- people picking each other’s brains about something in theology or ministry practice;
- theological college peers arranging to do lunch together to keep the connections strong;
- someone connecting with an unknown fellow-soldier from the same neighbourhood or same demographic or who shares a passion;
- a parachurch worker being invited to lead something for a church.
Such partnerships are critical to the momentum of a movement. But they are difficult to engineer: much happens providentially as people share the same space. But organisers can facilitate this by the program (e.g. small group interaction, shared meal times, venue layout (sitting, standing and separable spaces for meals) and by using locals to lead electives, workshops and conduct interviews.
Value Builds Over Time.
Our aim is to have predictably good quality of input and relational value so that most of the people in the network will come, regardless of the speakers on any particular year. Paradoxically confidence in the conference comes from having such consistently good input that people come for at least part of the time.
But we hope and pray that the other treasures of the conference (the relational connections and partnerships) will mean that ministers just come. For a conference to contribute to a growing movement, it needs an increasing core of people who will show up consistently.
We have still got a long way to go to realise our hopes and prayers for the PGP and for our annual conference. But God has been kind to us in raising up many locals who want and value the network, and who contribute by attending and engaging. If you are a conference junkie, I hope these reflections will shape the way you participate. If you are a conference organiser, I hope these reflections will sharpen your thinking about how your conferences could serve the purposes of our great God and Saviour.