Leadership Forged Through Conference Planning

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Laura Cheifetz is curating a series on leadership development. These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Carol Steele

Confession: I am a perfectionist who likes to be in control. I am a “one” on the Enneagram and an ENTJ (emphasis on J) on the Myers-Briggs. I recognize the shortcomings of these describing tools, but I also admit they describe me pretty well.

For me, comfort is derived by creating order (laundry folding, anyone?), poring over details, sleeping on a decision, or hashing out a word choice with people who know more than I do. I feel good when I know that a worship liturgy has been discussed by a focused group of diverse individuals who weren’t under a great deal of time pressure and were free from distraction. I like when everyone around the table has time to think, question, deliberate, and arrive at a (fully proof-read) destination.

So what am I doing working with youth conference planning teams of volunteers who have never met one another, will only ever work on a single project, and are beset by distance, deadlines, and curveballs? Losing my mind, sometimes.

But more often, I am in wonder: at the bonds formed when strangers share a common task; at the teamwork undertaken by adults and youth working as partners; at the faith built when a small group concentrates on how best to create space for their peers to grow in faith.

Photo by Daniel Killilea

So when the words on the screen during their presentation contain a stray comma (or worse); when a discussion requires extra time because the trust required is being built as we go; when the microphone doesn’t come on at precisely the right second because the person operating it just finished exams and is learning their first “real” job; I take a minute and think about the lessons being absorbed, consciously and unconsciously, by everyone, including me, who is taking part in this task.

I believe that along with faith, leadership is being forged as conferences are planned by volunteers and executed by collegiate staff, and that the lessons imparted — even as words slip through misspelled — bear fruit in the church of Jesus Christ and beyond.

Here are a few things you can learn in a summer of working on conferences in Montreat (and also in Mo Ranch, at Massannetta, and Presbyterian Youth Triennium, among others):

  • Way more often than not, leadership involves creating the space for someone who is not you to shine. Leadership is 99% behind the scenes.
  • When that person shines, they will receive 100% of the credit for everything that went well.
  • When things go wrong, it will feel like the blame is all on you, whether it is or not.
  • Something that you thought was well intentioned and fully prepared will, in fact, contain a flaw. That flaw will be pointed out, and therein lies an opportunity to learn, and to avoid that particular mistake in the future.
  • When there’s too much communication behind the scenes, the worst thing that can happen is: nothing. When there is not enough communication behind the scenes, he worst thing that can happen is: everything.
  • Communicating with people face-to-face is hard. Being vulnerable and taking responsibility for mistakes is hard. Getting over it when you make a mistake, and not making yourself the center of things, takes work, and it’s necessary.
  • When we worship God is the audience; the congregation the actors; and the leaders the stagehands (thanks, Kierkegaard).
  • Assume nothing and take the initiative.

To be sure, these same leadership lessons can be picked up in other places. What I get to witness as teams choose a conference theme or plan a recreation event is learning that takes place across generations, theological viewpoints, and a host of other differences, and in an environment where leaders young and old are encouraged to lean on one another as they ask what any of this has to do with following Christ.

As leaders emerge, youth and adults alike are more comfortable putting words to their faith experiences, more confident in their own ability to made decisions and take initiative, and happier in their own skins, having been affirmed in the knowledge that their gifts are actually, really, truly there, bestowed by God.

If you know someone — youth, college student, or adult — who wants to learn leadership in an environment that builds community and expands faith, encourage them to check out our denomination’s camp and conference centers. We’re doing it all the time, behind the scenes.


Carol Steele is vice president for program at Montreat Conference Center, where she has worked with over 20 volunteer conference planning teams and enough years’ worth of collegiate summer staff to make her feel pretty solidly middle aged. Before working in Montreat, she received an MDiv/MACE from Union Presbyterian Seminary and worked on Capitol Hill answering constituent mail.