When you get home from a conference, fired up and excited by ideas, do you find it hard to sustain the enthusiasm? Or several weeks after being back have you almost forgotten what excited you about the conference in the first place?
There are ways to harness what you learn, even if you’re in a small parish that has sent a single person – you – to the conference. Here are 10 tips gathered from Christian educators and university staffers who oversee conferences for their institutions:
- Check conference workshop schedules ahead of time. While it’s true that presenters are notorious for getting their programs together at the last minute, conference organizers should ensure that those looking to attend a conference get a good look at what’s offered ahead of time. “For most of the conferences we work with, we encourage them to get their program on their website even if it’s tentative,” explained Jim Twitty, conference and event manager for the University of South Carolina. Topics may change, but attendees need to know what they’re spending their money on.
- Be realistic, with yourself and those offering the conference, advises Chris Lynn, adult conferences program director for Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, N.C. “I remember my first conference and coming home and believing I could duplicate everything I saw. Never mind that some of it was liturgical stuff and needed the priest’s blessing. The best thing you can do is find one or two ideas you can share and implement in some way and focus on those. Tuck the ‘biggies’ in the back of your head and begin taking baby steps toward them – it may take a couple of years, but you will have sown some seeds.”
- Divide and conquer. “Look at the whole list of offerings and then ‘divide and conquer’ to get the most out of a conference,” recommends Emily Given, who recently oversaw the Holy Mischief Christian Formation Conference at Kanuga. Emily also is the director of Children and Family Ministry at Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas.
- Take a team. At our parish, we often send teams to conferences. For a recent Christian formation conference, we gathered beforehand, looked at the workshop schedule and picked topics that appealed to our talents and interests. We then attended workshops based on these decisions and came back afterwards to brainstorm about what we learned. We have developed Advent and Lenten retreats based on these ideas as well as book studies and a variety of other programs. Our volunteer base has grown and their skills have deepened, giving them more confidence and providing our parish with a richer variety of programming.
- Create a note-taking process. Perhaps one notebook is just for ideas that strike you. Another is for resources or contacts. Or perhaps the conference organizers will provide notetaking space in the materials they provide. Given of St. Michael’s in Dallas suggests jotting “notes in the margin of the participant list. The people you meet can be far more useful than some of the planned sessions.”
- Network. Network. Network. “Networking is half of why people go to conferences: to find out what other problems are out there and that they’re not alone with their situations,” said USC’s Twitty. He also advises those creating conferences to expand the networking time provided.
- Disengage from the office and your own crowd. “The more you’re tied up with the office, the less you’ll engage with the conference. You may miss a chance to meet and get to know your colleagues,” said Bryan Burgin, director of Conferences, Public Relations and Marketing for the College of Education at the University of South Carolina. That means eating lunch with folks you don’t know instead of staying close to those with whom you traveled. You just never know when you’ll hear a great idea or meet someone you may need to talk with down the road.
- Do not fear the vendors. Burgin also encourages conference attendees to engage with vendors or resource providers who may be in attendance. “They won’t make you buy anything and you never know what you’ll learn from them,” he said.
- It’s a digital world. When you return from a conference, Burgin advises checking the conference website to see if any digital resources have been uploaded. Or perhaps you’ll learn while attending a conference that they will be using a resource like DropBox where materials from sessions will be placed for your use once you return home. This also includes taking pictures of things you see that are often difficult to translate. “They can be good reminders to you and also help those who may not have attended the conference,” said Given.
- Brainstorm sooner rather than later. USC’s Burgin recommends brainstorming sessions about conferences as soon as a preflight breakfast. Ideas are fresh and you’re likely to be energized by the event more than you will be once you return home. If you are attending a conference alone, give yourself permission to set some time aside to go over your material and jot down ideas.
Allison Askins is the associate for communication and programs at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Columbia, S.C., and a regular attendee at Kanuga’s Christian Formation Conference each June.
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