I started an interesting conversation on Twitter this evening when I asked several people for advice on how to spend my continuing education funds in the coming year. The early registration deadline for the conference I’ve attended the past two years is imminent, so I spent some time looking at the schedule and learning about the presenters and workshops. While there are a great many things on offer, it seemed to me that the topics were heavily weighted toward institutional maintenance (endowments, clergy transition and the like) and relatively little on topics that would challenge me to think beyond the walls of the building or challenge the way I do and think about ministry.
So, what am I looking for in a conference? That’s hard to say because I have very little to go on. My experience with conferences has primarily been with academic conferences which fell into two very broad categories. The one sort of conference was the giant, international gathering like the American Academy of Religion that brings together thousands of scholars from all over the world. For me, the AAR was primarily an opportunity to visit the publishers’ displays and to reconnect with friends and colleagues from graduate school. The other conferences I attended were either regional meetings of the larger AAR or smaller conferences that focused on particular issues or fields of study (the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference). These latter conferences offered opportunities to engage deeply with other scholars both on common interests and in interdisciplinary conversation. There also tended to be, especially at the regional meeting, more conversation about pedagogy in our particular contexts. As a teacher and as a scholar, I tended to learn more and think more creatively about my work. One of the most exciting things about those smaller conferences was when the big-name scholars attended the entire event and engaged with graduate students, young faculty, and other established scholars in a variety of settings.
As a priest, I have attended exactly two conferences. I have not participated in any continuing education workshops that lasted longer than 2 days; I have not attended seminars of any sort. The one continuing ed event that I attended was quite valuable (staffed by the Alban Institute). Here’s what I don’t need:
- I don’t need to attend plenaries to listen to canned lectures by theological or ministerial “rock stars.”
- I don’t need workshops in which presenters enthuse about the wonderful and successful programs they’ve created
- I don’t need to hear the word “missional”
- I don’t need to attend a Eucharist with a powerful sermon preached by a wonderful bishop that is completely unrelated to the rest of the meeting (and the bishop having flown off to his/her next gig immediately after the Dismissal)
- I don’t need workshops that are really presentations by organizations trying to sell me their products or services
- I don’t need opportunities to schmooze and network
- I don’t need to hear presentations by church agencies or functionaries or seminaries
Here’s what I need:
- I need to be fed spiritually. This may be one of the few times throughout the year that I am not presiding at worship. To participate with others in the Daily Office is a great joy; to have opportunities to nourish my prayer life and my relationship with Jesus Christ even as I am being challenged vocationally and intellectually would deepen the overall experience
- I need help thinking about my particular ministry context. Workshops that are led by people doing creative ministry in particular contexts, sharing failures as well as successes; but followed by conversations with those leaders about one’s own particular context (in other words, less presentation and more conversation; what can we learn from each other, how can we help each other)
- I would welcome the opportunity to learn about and strategize about specific ministries in specific contexts—so an in-depth exploration of a parish by a group of people from similar contexts working together to learn about a congregation’s successes and failures and imagining new ministry opportunities
Let me know if you are aware of any opportunities such as those I’ve listed. I’m desperate enough to think that maybe the AAR would be the best use of the funds I have available.