Academic conferences are core to the life-blood of any discipline. By conference participation younger scholars are inducted into the discipline, and all scholars overcome isolation, receive encouragement, develop scholarly networks, interact in ways that sharpens their own scholarship, and find opportunities for collaboration and publication.
Each year, around the world, missiology conferences are held, often sponsored by missiology societies. Some are small. Others, like the national meetings of the ASM or the EMS, may bring together 150 missiologists or more. By comparison with other disciplines, missiology is relatively small. And this means we often face challenges in organizing conferences that attract sufficient participants to make them fruitful. In this post I suggest factors that I believe make for conference success.
Ten years ago I was asked to take leadership of a regional conference of the EMS that had dwindled in numbers until, one year, only three people showed up. As conference director, and with strategic support from other near-by missiologists, I instituted changes intended to increase attendance and participation. Our first year we had 40 registered attenders, then 90, then 170. In the last five years we have averaged 270, with 320 in our most recent year. I am not aware of any other annual academic gathering of missiologists that is larger.
Every now and again I receive a request to share ideas of what makes for conference success. Directors of other missiology conferences have even attended ours to see how things work. So I decided to write some thoughts up and make them available for anyone to consult. I hope others who’ve had success with organizing conferences will weigh in with additional insights, or alternative viewpoints, and that all of this will provide a valuable resource for anyone wishing to organize such conferences.
Optimizing Opportunities for Participation
The first thing to keep in mind is that many, whether young scholars in the final stages of dissertation completion, or older scholars approaching retirement, want to participate where they have opportunity to be presenters. If they are formally on the program they are more motivated — and, importantly — more able to draw on professional development funds from their institutions to cover conference costs. And, if they are already traveling (and presenting), they are more inclined to help recruit others to attend.
Conference Structure: Successful academic conferences optimize opportunities for participation by having short blocks of time for each presentation (between 15 and 30 minutes), and by having multiple presentations going simultaneously. The regional one-day conference that I have directed for the EMS will have roughly 50 presenters this year — spread across 6 rooms, with no one having more than 30 minutes, and with many doctoral students having only 15 minute blocks of time. At a minimum this guarantees we will have 50 attenders for our conference. And of course many of these presenters will play important roles in attracting and recruiting others to attend.
Conference Theme(s): One can create structural space for many presenters but still have a conference focus that fails to optimize participation. An overly narrow single theme (such as “music and mission”) limits the participation of a majority of missiologists who may not have research interests or strengths related to the theme. By contrast, a theme such as “contextualization vs. syncretism” is sufficiently broad as to allow virtually all missiologists to find some point of contact in their own work with the theme. Alternatively, a conference with several themes also allows for an optimum range of participants. For example, at our conference this year we have two rooms focused on “Missionary Methods,” with other rooms focused on “Preaching and Culture: Contextualizing the Sermon,” “Ethnodoxology: Contextualized Arts in Mission,” “Theology of Religions,” and “Vocation, Work, and Money in Global Christianity.” It would be surprising if a majority of missiologists would not be able to find points of connection between their own work and one of the themes of our conference. By tracking carefully with the interests of other missiologists, one can often pick timely themes that attract a great deal of interest, as when we focused last year on “Diaspora Missiology.” Certain themes lend themselves to drawing in mission-agency leaders, mission pastors, and other Christians interested in mission. “Short-term missions,” we found, was one such theme likely to draw in young people, mission pastors, and others from local congregations.
In addition to issuing a general “call for papers,” I have found it helpful to be intentional about extending invitations to certain categories of people. First are those with name recognition. Success is enhanced when fairly well-known people commit to be presenters early in the process. Because these individuals often have many chances to present, they are less likely to respond to a generic call for papers. And yet the conference will be stronger if it includes such individuals. I always, for example, invite Scott Moreau to be a presenter — since he lives nearby, is well known, and can be counted on to provide an outstanding presentation every time. While presenters normally cover their own costs, I usually cover costs for one or two prominent presenters who come from a greater distance. For one conference that person was Robert Wuthnow from Princeton (who wished to combine the conference trip with a personal visit to relatives in the Chicago metro area). This year, I’ve invited Robertson McQuilkin.
Most senior missiologists have a good idea of the strengths and interests of many other missiologists. And so, once I know a conference theme, I immediately think of people I know that have special expertise related to the theme. I drop each a note and let them know about the conference and that I’d love to have them as a presenter, should they be inclined and interested. (I do clarify that presenters cover their own costs.) Because I am interested in getting presenters representing a wide demographic range (see my post on Missiology–Old, White, and Male?), I go out of my way to extend invitations to women, Latinos, African Americans, Internationals, and younger missiologists (including students) who have done good research on the topic and who I know have special strengths or interests related to it. Because we have multiple slots for presenters, I’m able to selectively offer a number of people a spot on the program, with space remaining for others who apply. The goal is to have a program with outstanding presenters and with a wide range of presenters.
Because scholars are embedded in networks, I work to understand those networks and to invite key presenters from as many such networks as possible — trusting this will help pull others in. For example, when a faculty member or student from a nearby seminary or university participates — they are very likely to encourage fellow colleagues and students from their institutions to consider participating. In prior years van loads of students and faculty have attended from Asbury, Wheaton, Concordia, and Cedarville. With a little encouragement, some faculty will actually design their syllabi to allow conference participation to count towards course work for a mission course. Again, when a key denominational or mission-agency leader is a presenter, they are more likely to draw in others from their institution or network.
It is helpful to tap into networks of interest related to special topics. Thus, this year we have a track on “Ethnodoxology,” and it was Robin Harris and Brian Schrag of the International Council of Ethnodoxologists who organized and helped publicize the track. Again, the track on “Theology of Religions” was largely organized by Dr. Harold Netland. Any time there is a cluster of people working on a topic, this brings extra energy and connections to a conference focused in this direction.
When a publication is planned in relationship to a theme, this too helps motivate presenters to participate. Thus each year the EMS publishes a book on a theme drawing from the best papers submitted, which will be on “Missionary Methods” this year. Greg Scharf and I have arranged a theme issue of the Trinity Journal on the topic of “Preaching and Culture,” which will include most of our papers in this track.
Clearly many other factors go into conference decisions. For example:
Where a conference is held makes a difference. Thus holding our conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School each year helps us draw in TEDS students and faculty, and draw participants from a major metropolitan area — and this is pivotal to gaining the critical mass needed.
When a conference is held matters. The ASM gains certain advantages by meeting in June where there are less conflicts with academic schedules. On the other hand, this is when many missiologists travel. And it is harder to draw in students during the summer, than during the semester. In our one-day conference we attempt to schedule the conference so as to avoid academic conflicts with nearby schools.
The cost of a conference matters. See my comments in this regard in my earlier post Missiology–Old, White, and Male?
The right institutional supports are helpful. With TEDS co-sponsoring our conference, additional supports are provided — including critical help by doctoral students. Strategic support from fellow faculty members, and especially my dean (Dr. Tite Tienou), has proved invaluable.
At the end of the day, even after doing some of the above, conference success does not rest on the efforts of any one individual. Rather, success comes when networks of missiologists become invested in the success of a conference, in using the conference to help strengthen missiology, and in using the conference to help their own students become involved in the discipline.
 Association of Anabaptist Missiologists, Association of Professors of Mission (APM), Australian Association of Mission Studies, British and Irish Association for Mission Studies, Central and Eastern European Association for Mission Studies, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Missionswissenschaft, Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS), Fellowship of Indian Missiologists, International Association of Catholic Missiologists, International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS), International Society of Frontier Missiology (ISFM), Japan Missiological Society, Lutheran Society for Missiology, Midwest Mission Studies Fellowship, Southern African Missiological Society.