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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.

Greatest Hit: Advent Worship Planning and Sermon Themes

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on Advent worship planning is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource as you look towards December.

Starting from scratch this Advent?

  • Mark Davis put together this presentation to help guide worship planners to develop themes for Advent.
    • Here’s a sneak peek of the process:sneakpeek

Need some theme suggestions that are little more concrete?

  • LeAnn Hodges connected Advent to adaptive leadership for a sermon series:
    • “Living in a Time of Adaptive Challenges”
      • Pay Attention
      • Wilderness (We Can’t Support Ourselves…)
      • Joy in the midst of Uncertainty
      • Let it be with me…
  • Fairfax Presbyterian Church (Fairfax, VA) presented Advent as an antidote to the exhaustive and escapist behaviors that so often accompany the holidays:
    • During Advent and Christmas we often turn to exhausting, escapist behavior; however, the season offers us an invitation to wait, to prepare, to hope… At Christmas we remember the birth of Jesus only insofar as it reminds us that he implanted a new vision on our hearts and has promised to return. This promise to return is what we base our hope upon.
      • …ever watching for Christ to break in
        • Bonhoeffer said it is easy to look around and to see the ruins to which Christ must come again. Given a season of holidays in which the lonely are lonelier and the broken have wounds open again, we are tempted to ignore the season completely or to turn to exhausting, escapist behavior…to escape the depression of unfulfilled watching. Advent challenges us to keep watching and keep hoping because Jesus coming again is not a fantasy but a reality ever-available to our imaginations as we live in the already and not-yet.
      • Opening ourselves to the transforming moments of conversion
        • Turn around. Repent. Perceive a new way. These are the invitations of the second week of Advent. We need to be converted over and over again in our lives because we keep losing the vision of God’s kingdom and determination to live toward it. “Conversions proceed layer by layer, relationship by relationship, a little here and a little there, until the whole personality is re-created by God.
      • Letting go
        • We are in the last week of pregnancy in the Advent season. Our desire and anticipation are at a high. The time for Christ is come feels urgent to us in our watching. But, as with all new parents, we have no idea how drastically this new life will change us. We have not concept of how little control we actually have in the human journey. If we did, we might not be as eager. But the journey of the pregnancy has given us new eyes to see, a new practice of conversion. Perhaps we are ready. The invitation of this week is to let go of control, to learn not to do all the things we think we must do to save ourselves (like the illustration of floating), but to trust that God is still coming to create, redeem and sustain our living.

No time? Here are some liturgies that are ready to go:

How about adding some music?

  • To accompany candle lighting, some congregations write a song based on the year’s theme; others add new verses to familiar seasonal songs. If the muse has abandoned your resident aspiring songwriter, try these hymns from the Glory to God hymnal:
    • #467: “Give Us Light”
    • #103: “Come Now, Prince of Peace”
    • #85: “Light One Candle to Watch for the Messiah”
  • If you are trying to looking to get away from the Christmas favorite that over-saturate the airways between October and New Year’s, incorporating jazz standards to express the moods of Advent can be an unexpected variation of your theme.
  • For alternative arrangements to carols, check out the You Call that Church Music? archives.
  • If you are struggling with arguments for and against singing Christmas carols during Advent (“But the children will never learn these songs if we don’t take time to teach them!” and many others), check out this NEXT Blog post by MaryAnn McKibben Dana that works through some excellent points.

Other resources