Why I turned down a speaking gig in Vancouver

The auditorium tingled as the keynote speaker took the stage. He was a tall black guy with a coast-to-coast smile and wit surpassed only by charm, a CNN personality, New York Times best-selling author and former White House staffer who advised President Obama on green economics.

I can’t honestly remember what he said but I remember the buzz of inspiration. The audience was aglow with admiration and an amorphous sense of motivation.

Van Jones was the speaker. The setting was a social justice conference at a small, upscale college near Minneapolis last March. I was there with a northern Cree representative to present a workshop about the impacts of hydropower development in Manitoba.

I don’t much like conferences. It is their shape and geography that bother me. Good things happen at conferences but I think a couple relatively simple though profound changes could make them much better. I think these changes would apply well to church conferences.

My most recent conference experience highlighted my concerns. Van Jones stood up at the front, with the rest of us seated quietly in rows facing him. Wisdom, inspiration and expertise were located on a pedestal at the front.

I would have liked to see the students gathered in small circles discussing amongst themselves, with good facilitators and perhaps people with specific experience as available resources. I would have liked to see them affirming one another rather than standing star-stunned in line to get Van Jones’ autograph.

I wanted to see them empower each other, accessing and enlivening their own gifts rather than importing the supposed key ingredient of change in the form of a larger-than-life quasi-superhero parachuted in from afar.

What we need is near
That brings me to the geography argument. I believe in localization. What we need is near. We need to trust God on that one. We need to find the wealth right around us, not spend money on fossil fuels in search of distant star power. We need to work with geography not fight it. In every way we need to learn to live in smaller circles.

I don’t get asked to speak at conferences often but I have turned down a few long-distance, all-expense-paid gigs, and I biked 1,300 kilometres to one in 2006. More recently, I was asked to speak at a Kairos conference in Vancouver. Part of me would have loved to attend, but I declined. As much as I might like to think I have some unique wisdom to offer, I believe that the local people going to that conference could offer more value than I could. They didn’t need me.

As I wrote to the organizer, “Outside people can provide info and broad perspectives, but the flip side is that they implicitly indicate that essential ingredients of change lie way out there somewhere with ‘special’ people.” The power of change must be located in the local circle, because if it is located in a frequent-flying pedestalled speaker, most often it will dissipate just as soon as that feeling of “inspiration” fades, which in my experience usually happens before I get back home.

So I missed a trip to Vancouver. I missed a reportedly fantastic conference. I missed a chance to hob-nob with other presenters. Instead, I stayed home on the farm with my family that weekend. And I have no regrets.

A rooted community
Again, good things happen at conferences. I wouldn’t have driven to the Twin Cities in March if I didn’t believe that. The matter is not black and white. I just think we as church folk could take some relatively simple steps to make church conferences better, cheaper and with greater lasting value.

In short, make them round, make them local, use facilitators not hot shots, trust yourselves, trust God. Distribute funding to enliven local initiatives instead of giving so much to the airline industry.

National gatherings – which take a ton of money, fossil fuels and conference staff effort – could be less frequent, alternated perhaps with localized gatherings. While it is important to hear from leaders and leading thinkers, the speaker-audience format should be limited.

I think it is also important to remember that many people rarely if ever attend church conferences. I am one of them, and despite that I still feel very much connected to the broader church. To people who go to conferences regularly, no doubt the events seem essential. And in many ways I’m glad for the keeners. But personally, I’d rather sit around a living room with some folks from my local church. They may not be as inspiring as Van Jones, but a rooted community of transformation is worth more than a fleeting buzz.

  • Will Braun writes for Canadian Mennonite magazine, in which a different version of this article first appeared.

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