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

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