Should Pastors’ Conferences Even Exist
By Joe Holland | July 11, 2022
Topic: Applied Theology—Leadership—Pastoral Theology
I saw T4G’s birth. And I attended its funeral.
It was 2006 (or late 2005), and like most churches, the one in which I ministered had a weekly meeting for pastoral staff. This was my first pastoral role out of seminary, serving as the minister to students and families at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss. Ligon Duncan was serving as our senior minister, and in this particular pastoral meeting, he had an update that was unlike the usual talk of programs and preparing for the Sunday services. He and some of his pastor friends—Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and CJ Mahaney—were organizing a pastors’ conference to encourage and equip pastors. I was there at the first T4G conference. I attended later T4Gs as a pastor and then as a church planter. I attended in 2018 on staff with Ligonier Ministries, working a booth and representing Tabletalk Magazine. And finally, I attended the last T4G this past April, serving Grimké Seminary as their managing editor. So, all told, I’ve attended T4G multiple times, serving in multiple ministry capacities, and have never left one of their conferences without receiving some sort of encouragement I wouldn’t have received any other way. I’m appreciative of the life and legacy of T4G. And in God’s providence, as I left the hotel after the last session of the last T4G, sitting in the pull-through lane of the hotel waiting to pick up friends, I ran into Ligon and remembered that staff meeting years ago when I first heard about this thing, this event that became a pastors conference.
And now, as T4G ends, I’m again witnessing the birth of a new pastor’s conference.
This August, in a little over a month, Grimké Seminary will host its first pastors’ conference. We’ll gather in Richmond, Va, to hear pastor-professors stress the importance of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy in ministerial labors. Watching a conference end and another begin got me thinking about pastors’ conferences, their benefit, their detriment, and their place in supporting (or detracting from) the local church. I found myself asking, “should pastors’ conferences even exist?”1 An earlier (much longer) draft of this piece included my ideas about different conferences in particular, about conferences in theory, about platform building, about conferences as preaching competitions, about revenue generation, and a host of other speculative thoughts about how pastors’ conferences could devolve into everything from iatrogenic gatherings to events every sane Christian would think should have been shut down years ago. But the truth of the matter is I just don’t know whether some pastors’ conferences are worth it, and I don’t know how to make that judgment determinatively.
But I do know why we think the kind of pastors’ conference we’re hosting at Grimké would be beneficial to pastors, church planters, elders, church leaders, and seminary students. In fact, we had to answer the question, “Why would we even host a conference like this?” As we sketched it out on the whiteboard at 211 W. Franklin St. in Richmond, three justifications became clear.
Come and See
We are a non-residential seminary of over one hundred students, incorporating predominately in-person lectures, steadfastly focused on supporting the local church, with professors who are also active pastors, a seminary named after a biracial pastor who pastored in Washington DC at the beginning of the twentieth century, and our theological commitments could be best described as vanilla Reformed. If you’re paying attention, then you’re also asking, “How does all of that work out?” Not to diminish the diligent work of our excellent admissions staff, but it is really hard to give a thorough description of the experience of a Grimké Seminary student without spending a ton of time over several phone calls. To some degree, this is intentional. We know we are doing something different, and we know we’re trying to reach a certain type of student. But what we can say is, “Come and see.” Spending time with Grimké students and faculty is the best way to catch a vision for the kind of seminary education we’re trying to craft for our students. Our pastors’ conference gives our attendees an opportunity to get a feel for who we are, talk to our professors, and get questions answered about Grimké Seminary in a casual, in-person format.
SMEs and Their Work
When I did project management work, we were always looking for the best SMEs we could find. A subject matter expert (SME) is someone who is recognized by training, education, and experience to be an expert in a particular field or on a specific subject. Whether they go by the title or not, every field of study, business, or education has SMEs. And there is the unfortunate experience some audience members have been subjected to when a SME speaks publicly on a topic they are not an expert on. For example, actors (SMEs in acting) have a bad habit of speaking publicly about all kinds of topics on which they have no experience, training, or education. A pastors’ conference done well provides attending pastors with subject matter experts in the fields that comprise pastoral ministry.
Community, Not Degree Mill
We are blessed with two classes of graduates and a third scheduled for the end of this year. The consistent feedback we receive from our graduates is that they not only received a great education, but they were also a part of a community they wanted to continue to participate in. As a seminary, we want that. But also, as a seminary, we don’t want to become a degree mill that creates endless new degrees so alumni can stay connected through endless tuition payments. There are a few solutions to this problem that provide lifelong points of connection for our graduates. But one is certainly a pastors’ conference. Graduates can come back like an annual class reunion and experience the added benefit of bringing along their leadership teams.
It is said that when Donald Barnhouse founded the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, he did so with the expectation that the organization would shutter its doors when it was no longer necessary. That is how pastors’ conferences should start and, when necessary, end. If this is the only year Grimké Seminary hosts a pastors’ conference, nothing changes about our work to equip pastors and planters for ministry in the context of their local churches. But for this brief moment, we think we can serve and encourage pastors for a few days in late August.
Sign up for the inaugural Grimké Seminary pastors’ conference.Get Tickets
- Obviously, you know where I’ll end up on this issue since we’re hosting one. But it is still a question I asked and one I think we all need to ask regularly. ↩