SYMC is great, but hopefully it will get better

Simply Youth Ministry Conference reviewI spent last weekend with 2,500 other youth workers at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference. It’s really no secret that I’m a big fan of the conference and everything it stands for. They’re doing a lot of amazing things that no other conference is doing. For only being 4 years old, it is truly very impressive.

What’s good

Maybe the reason I think it’s so great is because Simply’s heart really vibes with mine. We’re both totally about conversations and relationships, hence the subtitle of this blog, “Conversations among those passionate for teenagers,” that fleshes out in the post comments, LIVE YM Talk, mentorships,, and more.

Most conferences are about the expert on stage sharing their wisdom with all the people in the crowd. While that certainly has it’s place, I look at the crowd and think, “There is infinitely more wisdom and experience in this crowd collectively than there is in the mind of just that one person on stage.” I want to find ways to harness all the crowd’s experience and pool it together so we can mutually learn from each other, not just follow the hierarchal “top down” kind of learning.

Simply wants to do the same thing. In fact, when they contract their speakers, they don’t contract them just for a speaking gig, they contract them to be available for ministry throughout the entire weekend. They want everyone to be accessible to each other for the duration of the conference. I love that!

The environment they create really lends itself to those connections and relationships with sack chairs laying all over the place for easy conversation. In fact, I wasn’t able to attend any seminars because, when I wasn’t speaking, I was watching my little daughter so my wife could attend seminars. But yet I left having learned just as much as I would’ve from seminars because I spent all that time meeting and talking with youth workers out in the hallways. In fact, Mark Riddle basically gave me a one-on-one personalized seminar for a couple hours himself. I took notes and everything! (Thanks, Mark!)

I also appreciate that I’m not inundated with marking, vendors, and organizations who are all making bids my limited budget dollars. Note to pushy venders out there, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you. I know how to use Google and the telephone.” Thankfully, at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference most of that noise is limited so I can focus on people. The marketing that is there doesn’t feel obtrusive at all.

What could use improvement

There really is a lot to like about the Simply Youth Ministry Conference, but there’s definitely room to improve, as well.

The biggest improvement I’d like to see is that, while the conference is very conversational, especially compared to other conferences, it’s probably only 40% of the way to a truly relational conference. Seminars with circle tables and discussion questions are good, but listening to a speaker, turning to your table to talk through some pre-determined discussion questions for 5 minutes, and then turning back to the speaker isn’t very relational. When the seminar is over, the chances are pretty low that the people at the table will stay in touch or continue the discussion later. It’s more of a conference with conversation than it is a conference of conversation.

This is also reflective in the affinity groups, the conference’s small groups that gather once or twice a day to talk about issues surrounding an area of youth ministry. If everyone at the conference committed to an affinity group, the discussions would be amazing. But instead, I heard that only about 30% of the participants attend an affinity group and, based on my own observation, most of those people were not consistant in attending the group at the same time. Each time an affinity group met, there was a different group of people in it. The discussions were very engaging and I learned a lot from the people there, but did we build relationships and form a connection? Is that really happening? I’m not so sure.

The conference is going in the right direction with the connections, networking, and mutual edification, and it’s doing it better than any other conference out there, but it still has a lot of room for improvement.

A couple quick thoughts here.

First, I feel like we’ve been saying the same thing in youth ministry for the past couple years [ POLL ]. Last year’s schedule and speaker lineup looked very similar to this year’s schedule. We’re hearing the updated versions of the same content that speakers and authors have been sharing for years. The seminars I attended back in the late 90s as a college student are still the same seminars being offered now. Fortunately, a lot of that information is very important and foundational for youth ministry, but still… I’m not saying there hasn’t been anything new, just overall, generally speaking, it feels like it’s a lot of revised and updated material of what I’ve basically been hearing for a long time.

Second, let’s be careful with the sr. pastor jokes. I understand that a lot of youth workers have horrible experiences with their pastors and many of the stereotypes are true, but let’s not reinforce the stereotypes. Instead, let’s respect the pastors who are probably doing their best to serve the Lord but have just as many personal and ministry issues as the rest of us.

Last, the Simply Youth Ministry Conference has something incredible on their hands. Several participants told me that they wonder how long the conference can continue to improve like this until it plateaus and starts to dip. I’ve thought the same thing. At their current pace, I’ll give them a couple more years before it starts to plateau. The only way to avoid this is if they continue to do what they’re doing now — always try new things, risk failure, continually reinvent themselves, and never come to a place where they feel like they’ve “arrived” or have the conference thing figured out.

As Seth Godin talks about so much, the Simply Youth Ministry Conference must continue to be remarkable. So far, they are and I’m looking forward to even more remarkable things from them in the future.

Keep up the good work Kami, Matty, Andy, Chris, Doug, Rick, Sherri and everyone else at Group/Simply Youth Ministry! Thanks for a great weekend of connections, learning, and personal growth.

Posted on March 3, 2010

  • Great observations, Tim! I often wonder how SYMC will continue to feel smaller, more relational, more intimate, more conversational etc. as it continues to grow. But since that has been a foundational value from the very beginning, I am confident everybody will figure it out.

    and….it was great to officially meet you last weekend!

    • I was thinking about that, too. I dunno if they should split it up between multiple cities to keep numbers low or what. Churches have this same problem — as they grow bigger, they try to stay small with small groups and such, but again, we probably have low percentage of church attenders in church small groups. *shrugs*

      Good meeting you, too!

  • I agree with you. I love SYMC and was sad I was not able to attend this year. The relational part is clearly important but it seems to be the hardest to figure out. The Affinity groups are a good idea, but for some reason they just don't seem to "click."
    I dont know exactly how to get the affinity groups to work right, but maybe they have things backwards. Maybe the topics for the affinity groups (small church, big church, technology, etc) should be the topics for the seminars, and the affinity groups should address the seminar topics (the tracks, workshops, etc.) I don't know, but that would be a way to harness the power of the collective. Its an idea to think about anyways.
    Also, what I love about the SYMC conference is that, yeah, its the same old information, but most of it is about embracing God, partnering with one another, and refocusing us on the kingdom. Its amazing how new that old information looks when we are truly seeking to further God's kingdom.

    • I wonder if affinity groups would work better if, instead of being topical, they were more open and the topics could flow from the people. The affinity groups I was a part of rarely stayed on the group's topic anyway. But yet, I know there's value in grouping with people who serve in a similar ministry context, as well as value in grouping with people who serve in a different context. Small church and big church people both can learn a lot from each other, ya know? It's hard to know how to do it best. Experimentation and trying something new is probably the best way to figure out what works and what works better.

  • I'd have to say I don't totally agree with you on the content part. While it may not be new to you or I, it's new to all those youth workers who are new to youth ministry. I was reminded of that while meeting with my mentee and discussing the impact the conference was making on him. Also, while some of the content may not be new to you and I, it never hurts to be refreshed and reminded of that foundational content. Also, as I sat in the deep track and half track sessions during the conference I saw veteran & rookie youth workers together absorbing new content that was being taught as well.

    I think the content needs to stay fresh as well as foundational even if it does seem like "we're saying the same thing."

    • Yeah, that's why I'm struggling with, "it's good stuff and needs to stay," and, "okay, I'm ready for something new." I think this is indicative of the youth ministry world in general right now, not just the conference.

  • Joe

    I just wanted to say I totally agree with your assessment of the conference. I laughed at the first one or two Sr. Pastor jokes, but after that I wasn't thrilled. I also feel like some of the things the conference does only enforces the stereotypes of a youth pastor. In reality I feel like a picture is painted of youth pastors that makes us out to look like we're just older people who still aren't grown up. That we're all about acting like a goofball with kids. Honestly, I'm not like that. Well, I'm a goofball at times, but not for the sake of connecting with kids. I seek to connect with kids in an honest, real relationship as myself; an adult. Does this make sense?
    I know some of this is on me, but I don't even know what the affinity groups are all about. I honestly didn't look into anything extra because the conference is already packed with so much stuff. I think there needs to be some more "open space" to connect with people while we're there. I often come home from conferences more tired than when I went! Anyway, I'm rambling now. Thanks again for your honesty in ministry and life.

    • Yeah, I unintentionally created the down-time to connect and talk with people because I wasn't in the seminars. I tried to go to a seminar, but Hannah was too happy laughing, squealing, and talking, so I had to leave. Worked out great for me personally, though!

      I agree, stereotype jokes are funny for the first one or two, but then it's like, "Uhh, okay." I wouldn't say SYMC or the presenters over-did the stereotype jokes horribly — just that there was probably a couple jokes too many.

  • Stephanie Caro

    I think 30% ratio of attendance in an affinity group is great. I would love it if a third of the people in my church were in a small accountability group.

    • AMEN to that! I agree.

    • You're right, it is good! But I don't think we should be content with that, that's all. To shrug our shoulders and think that's as good as it's gonna get probably isn't the best attitude or approach to have. That's exactly how the conference or a church will eventually plateau with their user engagement. Then you switch to maintenance mode instead of growth mode, which is basically the same as decline management.

  • I agree that a huge part of large conferences for me is networking and having conversations with other youth workers about ministering to teenagers in Jesus' name. I think a really big intangible benefit is being fed and rejuvenated as well.

    However, I also go to conferences (I haven't been to a SYMC yet) gain a large amount of information in a short period of time to digest later. I do think there's a place for placing a person who has a lot of wisdom in a certain area in front of a large amount of people to share his or her years of wisdom and experience.

    • Yeah, I agree that "expert down" teaching definitely has it's place. I'm wondering if you can effectively do "expert to the masses" kind of teaching and "people to people" learning at the same event. Seems like two different directions, values and emphasis. I think right now SYMC has those two meshed together about as good as it's gonna get. From here on out, maybe they should pick one direction over the other? I don't know for sure, just thinking out loud, that's all.

  • I would like to see some fresh content taught. One seminar I went to I also went to at NYWC, and got the same content at SYMC. The positive to same seminars given year to year is that if you can't get to one you want the first year, you can get it the next. Although, I'm not interested in all the seminars offered, and there was even one seminar time where none of them really stood out to me as something I was interested in but it gave me a good break.
    As for affinity groups, I really don't understand how they work. I didn't get to any last year due to lack of time with how busy I made my schedule. This year I wanted to try one out for the first time, but the one I wanted didn't meet. Are they set up with topics chosen ahead of time so you go in to it kind of like a seminar, knowing kind of what to expect? My first impression was that you just go and get to visit with others that are in the same area of ministry as yourself. But I've seen a lot of talk about specific topics for affinity groups.

  • Kami Gilmour

    I could go a million directions with this, but since SYMC and the value of relationships and conversations is an emotionally charged subject for me personally (and I'm still raw) I'm just trusting you fully understand our heart for maximizing relationships at SYMC– as well as our passion about always adapting and improving the format. I believe anything oriented around relationships/conversations will never be able to be plugged into a perfect full-compliance model so we can dust our hands off any say "we've arrived" …because that would instantly make it void of organic human-ness that makes it genuine. It's messy. It's loose. And ultimately? We need to realize a big part of this is the responsibility of the attendees to make relationships/conversations a priority if they WANT to. It’s the same for this ministry as it is for youth ministry.

    • Yeah, you're right. Hopefully your passion for relationships and conversation rubs off onto all the participants so they'll want to. You guys have done a great job of making the opportunity available.

  • Kami Gilmour

    Since we are coming up on the season of content planning for 2011, I'd love to hear more input from folks on the "fresh stuff." [Quick tangent–Some high-quality foundational YM tracks will always be repeated, as 60% of attendees have been in YM less than 5 years and are attending SYMC for the first time.] For new content we survey youth workers extensively to look for needs–but we hear so much of the same stuff over and over! BUT there always needs to be more fresh, cutting edge relevant content. We need ideas! This year we explored some new formats (half-tracks & heart-to-hearts) as testing ground for interest on over 20 new topics we'd not done in the past. Were they relevant? I think so–but I'm not sure if they were really all the "new" that we're talking about We've already got some ideas brewing for next year (such as a pastor/youth pastor pre-conference retreat and more strategically positive communication/training in that area!) But I'd love to get tons more feedback on what new/fresh things people would be willling to invest time and $ on at a conference.

    • Wow, you guys at SYMC have a pretty different audience than I do here. My blog survey earlier this year indicated that 65% of my readers have been in YM for 6+ years. I'm glad you guys are connecting with the newer youth workers! I agree that you definitely need to keep those foundational youth ministry tracks in place for them.

      For me personally, I benefit most from the hallway conversations, sharing with others what I'm processing in my own ministry, and hearing their feedback and wisdom as they steer me in the right direction. Maybe that's why I'm so passionate about seeing those conversations happen for everyone. I also love being stretched by thinking through other people's questions and contexts because that often challenges me to think differently about my own, as well.

  • I cringe when the senior pastor jokes come out. There are enough barriers between senior and youth that we do not need to poke fun and only create more of a wall. I may be in the minority but have a wonderful working relationship with my senior pastor, and the other pastor on staff. I also have a great working relationship with the local board of administration. They are not caught up in how much our student ministries is growing, what time I spend in the office or how many vacation days I have taken. I really feel that the pastor could ask the board for a 2 week staff retreat in Hawaii and the board would say make it a month ALL expenses paid. Okay stretching it a bit, but you get the point.

    I was not able to attend the SYM conference as the price tag is too rich for my budget. I have heard NOTHING but positive comments about SYM, and desire to go some time, but we will see.

    THANKS for the post, enjoyed reading the post and comments.

  • @Kami
    I didn't attend the conference but I am been searching for some content on other world religions in relation to the Christian faith.

    I am feeling very overwhelmed because I am trying to keep current with Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. I think it would be great to have a Christian speaker who has come out of one of these major religions and shine light on how students can engage another religions while truly holding on to the doctrines of the Christian faith.

    As youth workers it is tough staying current with Christian content so having to be prepare to know about the other faiths is difficult.

    Just a thought…

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