Every year, pastors and church leaders from all over the country and the world choose one or two conferences to attend. Their goals and hopes for the conference are different, but all of them come with a certain desire to change, to be affected, to leave encouraged. We talked to Brad Lomenick and Gabe Lyons, the creators of Catalyst and Q, respectively—two popular church leadership conferences—about the future of conferences, the defining elements of a “successful” conference and what makes a conference worth it.
What is the big idea behind your conferences?
GL: At Q we have tried to create a place like no other to meet peers—cultural leaders, church leaders, social entrepreneurs and creatives—from every sphere of society … who are humble yet risky and creative in how they embody the Gospel. There are few places where leaders can be exposed to the current and future outlook for society and have a voice into how the Church ought to respond. Q is intentionally small. We decided to keep the size manageable and more relationship-centric.
BL: Catalyst is all about shaping leaders in the Church. We do this primarily through events and conference experiences for leaders under 40. Our big idea is equipping young leaders in the Church to be catalysts—in their communities, on their teams and in culture in general. We feel like we create a very unique leadership experience with our events—combining great speakers, powerful worship, a unique attendee experience, along with challenging stories of leaders making a difference.
Where are you and your team feeling successful, and where are you looking to improve?
GL: One area we are trying to improve is our ability to support the community that forms out of these gatherings. By connecting these leaders following Q, we’ve seen collaboration and cultural goods produced that wouldn’t necessarily have advanced without these valuable introductions. Also, we want to be sure church leaders are clear on whom Q is best for. It’s not just for church leaders—we’ve designed it as a place where cultural leaders in every field can come, learn and bat around ideas and challenges they are faced with in culture.
BL: Our greatest challenge is trying to make an event experience last through the year; continuing the conversation and building on the inspiration someone feels when they leave an event.
What is the future of church conferences?
GL: I believe gatherings won’t be focused only around speakers, but will be built around specialized topics and collaboration with peers. If you can create a gathering where most of the content has never been written about or stated publicly before, and the others attending the event are amazing leaders in their own right, your event focuses on what people can do while together in a room, and you host it in a great environment—this can create the motivation to fly cross-country, and spend whatever it costs to get that experience.
BL: A couple thoughts: One is the move toward connections at events being the most important value, and not necessarily content being the draw and the leading indicator for success. A second thought is how the online experience will continue to evolve. I believe there will be more opportunities for leaders to “attend” events without having to be there in person. A third thought is “generalist” vs. “specific.” More leaders will attend events that meet multiple felt needs versus specific felt needs.
What role should church conferences play in the development of a leader?
GL: Conferences in general expose you to new ideas, peers, teaching and experiences that take you out of your element. Conferences play this role for many leaders, which is why it can be good to go to different conferences and not lock in to just one event year after year. But attending every event won’t ensure growth. It comes down to the application, taking specific next steps based on learning that you can implement immediately.
BL: A big part of developing as a leader is being inspired, being pushed out of your comfort zone, making connections, hearing others’ stories, being recharged and refreshed and experiencing something together with your team or staff. That is what a conference experience should do. When you get outside of your normal routine, many times that is when God speaks the clearest and you see things in a different way. Those moments are incredibly valuable.
Sometimes all the popular conferences have the same speakers. How do you address that issue?
GL: It’s not the speaker’s fault—it’s the organizer’s. It’s an understandable dilemma for organizers whose first priority is to “fill seats”—they have to consider the best-selling authors and attract fans to see them “live.” But I don’t think this is the future of conferences, so I wouldn’t be too concerned.
Most conferences seem to have a token female speaker and a token black speaker. How does your team address diversity when preparing?
GL: Our first priority is to present “never heard before” ideas. We begin the process by putting content first and then back into what presenter can best deliver on that topic within our context. If they happen to be African-American, Asian, female, Muslim or a white male, then we invite them. Having said that, we have a collective of friends who are constantly introducing us to people of all races and genders who are working out great ideas Christian leaders should be exposed to.
BL: We choose our speakers based on certain categories and very specific qualifications. Every event we do has a grid and a filter through which we choose speakers. We always try to be sensitive to diversity in all areas—gender, race, age, denomination, size of church, background, etc.
How do you create an environment of expectation without letting people down?
GL: Every presentation is outlined at our site beforehand. We explain each environment and how that will further their learning. I’m not convinced people come into a gathering listing everything they are hoping to get out of it. Instead, they have a general desire to be affected in some way and usually want God to use their experience to speak to them—so we try to stay out of the way of sending people off with exactly what to do.