Some may call them a necessary evil. Others say they are only good for networking. Yet others mainly see them as opportunities for academic and ministry promotion. There are various thoughts about the necessity of academic and ministry conferences. While there are some elements of truth in each of the previously mentioned reasons, I think we are asking the wrong question. Pragmatics aside, our first question should be, “How should conferences incite spiritual growth?” At this year’s Evangelical Theological Society’s National Conference, I reflected on various ways which I was impacted spiritually. Even in the midst of such conferences designed to stimulate theological discussion and enhance the ministry of the church, certain temptations still abound. First, here are three reasons why conferences stimulate spiritual growth.
1) Strengthened Relationships
Conferences provide opportunities to meet new people and strengthen existing relationships. Conversations over coffee and meals can be a source of encouragement, reflection and idea-sharing. Even if you might live close to good friends and colleagues in ministry, the context of the conferences provides a platform for relationship building that you can’t always experience at home. Temporarily removed from the responsibilities of daily life and ministry help to focus my attention on topics that I might not otherwise have time to assess, especially in community. The topics and content of the conference give a point of conversational reference. Conferences might also be times where ministry woes can be shared with those whom you trust in a context that allows some ambiguity. The spiritual benefit of strengthening relationships and reconnecting with friends alone makes conference attendance worth the price.
2) Challenged by alternate views
While it may be tempting to hear papers and discussions about things you affirm, it might be more spiritually enriching to be challenged by alternate views. This forces you to think deeply about your own convictions as you turn back to Scripture and prayer. We should not be scared to listen to topics that might challenge us. We are not being academically or spiritually honest if we are unwilling to consider other sides. We also need to resist an attitude of contempt. Practicing charity is the most spiritual thing I can do. I should avail myself of opportunities to do so, and be open to the fact that my theology is imperfect. While I affirm orthodox Christian convictions, I need to have some charity in secondary and tertiary issues. When I listen to and evaluate alternate viewpoints it causes me to acknowledge that God alone has perfect knowledge and wisdom, not me.
3) Opportunity to pick up new books
This may not seem like a spiritually enriching exercise to some, but for pastors and theologians its an exciting opportunity. As I peruse the publishers and engage others browsing books, I have the opportunity to discover new works that will enhance my ministry and spiritual growth. Even technical monographs on verbal aspect can have this effect for some (just not me). It is encouraging to discover new works in your own area of interest and discuss up-and-coming books with publishers and other interested people. Talking about how certain books will help in pastoral ministry, personal growth, or understanding the bible and theology can and should be a spiritually enriching exercise. The temptation exists however to get overwhelmed and perhaps depressed at the immensity of books before me. Here are three suggestions I have for book browsing and purchasing. 1) I look for 2-3 of the newest works in my areas of interest first. I browse the booths looking for new works (or standard references) I know will benefit me in my specific ministry or academic endeavors. 2) I find the 2-3 books that have been the “hot topic” of the year. While some topics may seem fadish, there is a reason (whether good or bad) why certain books are being talked about. I figure it would be good to familiarize myself with them. 3) I find 2-3 books that are pure soul refreshment. Maybe I need to be encouraged in my prayer life or be refreshed by some great doctrine of the faith. Or perhaps I need to read a biography or work of fiction meant to excite the heart and incite my imagination.
This is what I attempt to do when surveying the almost overwhelming offering of books at conferences. I can’t read everything. I won’t be an expert in everything. I don’t really need every book I can possibly buy. I suspect this might be the same for you. Even with all these spiritually enriching possibilities, there are a few temptations I need to be aware of when attending conferences.
At conferences, the persistent temptation of comparison follows me wherever I go. Some moments are stronger than others, but it is something I must be aware of and confront head-on. The only answer? Praise and prayer. I need to praise God for gifting the church with individuals able to discern theological issues with acuity. I need to pray that God’s will, not mine, would be done in my life. This means thanking God for the gifts he has made available to me. The opportunity to study in seminary and lead in a church are all God’s grace. Paul says,“What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7 ESV). My temptation to compare myself to others should pale in comparison when I recognize the gifts God has given me, and thank him for the gifts he has given to others.
The temptation to compare can also lead to presenting a false image of yourself. The desire to impress others can be great, especially if a good impression can lead to an opportunity to teach, preach, or publish. No one is immune to this. Again, the answer is prayer. Begin the day asking God to help you see any potential opportunity as an opportunity to advance the Kingdom, not yourself.
How should we view academic and ministry conferences? I propose that we look at all such conferences as opportunities for spiritual growth. Let’s avoid the absurd notion to call them “necessary evils.” Let’s throw out the idea that they are only good for the purpose of networking. And let’s put academic and ministry success in perspective. Conferences can and should be times of spiritual growth. Sometimes they can be draining, and perhaps you need to practice the spiritual act of saying “no.” Also, you might consider the benefit of including your family along for the ride. This doesn’t mean your spouse and kids should go to every session with you, but think about giving your family the opportunity to experience the context without having to attend the conference. What other suggestions might you have to increase the spiritual benefit of conferences?