Conferences and seminars for pastors abound, especially during the summer months. These kinds of events spring up like clockwork, much like the welcomed daffodils and tulips I see growing in the Midwest right now. In the various magazines, and on numerous online sites, ministers are encouraged to attend such gatherings. Each one appeals to the minister to consider their event as unique time for teaching and refreshment. I have spoken at a number of these kinds of events over the years. And prior to speaking widely myself, since around 1990, I enjoyed attending one or two pastors events like these each year.
I have not become a cynic about such events but I now see that most of these seminars and conferences are “personality driven” events. If you loved the "big person" (always a male in the circles I traveled in) then you just had to attend or you might miss out on something very important. I found that if you get the biggest names to speak, create an intensely loyal following for a high profile successful pastor/author, slay a few theological dragons in the mix, then you can have a successful event, maybe even a large one. (For nearly ten years I hosted such events and the "top name" was always the issue, hands down.) These events aim at various things. Some aim at inspiring and encouraging, and often do a nice job often. Others aim at doing these goals but also they seek to build a movement, or a loyal following. These are less valuable, so far as I am concerned. These events tend to attract people to a “strong” cause (person) and the downside is clear: if you do not resonate with the agenda you will not benefit from the event. If you do resonate you are likely to come away filled with less charity for those you disagree with. As I said above the agenda is generally built around slaying a few dragons, usually church dragons! (The dragons of the moment include: Emergent Christians, postmodernism, women in ministry, homosexuality, any perceived softening of the authority of the Bible, justification and the views of N. T. Wright, etc.)
Of all such events that I have attended, and spoken at over the last twenty years or so, the most enjoyable of them all was the Beeson Pastors School in Birmingham, Alabama. Beeson will host its 22nd annual Pastors School, July 20-24. (The only down side to Beeson is that it is brutally hot in Birmingham in July!) The Beeson School encourages pastors and wives to rethink, refresh and renew. And there is provision for the whole family, including a youth track for grades six through twelve. College students are encouraged to work with the youth in this track or attend meetings with their family. Childcare is also available if you register and stay on campus. Payment is also very, very reasonable. There is quite a bit of free time to enjoy as well. Information is at Beeson Divinity School.
This wonderful Beeson Pastors School is convened by the dean, Dr. Timothy George, who is truly one of the finest theologians, writers and teachers among evangelicals today. I had the opportunity to conduct a workshop at this event on two different occasions and thus saw this event first hand. I found it refreshing and without pretense. The pace is just about right, the emphasis is strongly Christ-centered, the speakers and setting are most encouraging and no one stands out as a “super star.” I think this is quite intentional precisely because this is the way Dr. George does things. His view of the unity of the church and the importance of all Christians loving and serving side-by-side stands out at this event like everything else he does. Let me explain.
When I was at the Beeson Pastors School I had sweet dialog with people across an entire theological spectrum. I shared fellowship with United Methodists, mainline Presbyterians and Episcopalians and, of course, Southern Baptists. I also enjoyed coffee with a Roman Catholic priest from Philadelphia who had attended my seminar on ecumenism and loved it. I asked him why he came and his answer surprised me: “I read Christianity Today. I want to know and understand my evangelical brothers and sisters better and learn from them all I can. I pick one event each year to attend that is hosted by evangelicals. I have found this is the best one of them all.” (He had attended several times I believe.) I also shared fellowship with godly women who were pastors in mainline settings and who hungered for an event like this one which invited them to participate equally and also held a strong emphasis on Scripture and unity.
This year’s event has the theme: “Reality.” How does a pastor face the reality of the modern era and remain faithful to their calling? Preachers at the Beeson Pastors School this summer include an administrative pastor from Shades Mountain Baptist in Birmingham (Dr. Bryan Gunn), Dr. Frank James III, recently from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and now the provost at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Dr. William Willimon (photo at left), formerly of Duke Divinity School and now bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Dr. Robert Smith, Jr., professor of homiletics at Beeson. (If you have never heard Willimon and Smith preach then these two alone are worth the entire event! And they are both approachable, humble servants.) There is a daily morning Bible teacher. This year that role is filled by Dr. Douglas K. Stuart, professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The keynote speaker for a women’s track is Carolyn James, the wife of Frank. Carolyn is an extremely gifted teacher and writer. In addition numerous speakers will do workshops. A full schedule is at the Beeson Web site. A pre-conference event will include Dr. Robert Smith, Jr., and Dr. Tal Smith, a member of the Beeson staff, teaching on the subject: “Exegeting Text and Culture.” (I know no professor of preaching that I have ever personally sat under who does a better job in dealing with this subject than Dr. Robert Smith, Jr. (photo at right). I would love to have him do this event in Chicago and am working in it.)
The older I get the less interested I am in “movement-driven” events or “big bang” gatherings built around huge personalities and their groupies or loyal followers. (This is a huge problem in evangelicalism since so much of the movement is marketed and built around a central figure who leads people by great gifts and highlights huge events.) I find a richness and depth to the Beeson Pastors School that makes it truly refreshing and genuinely unusual. “Thank you,” Dr. George for hosting this event for the last twenty-one years. I hope you keep it going for a long time to come. Pastors in the trenches need such an event in times like these. So do their families. You are providing a great service to those who are able to attend. Audio recordings are available from this event but nothing can replace being there and mingling with speakers and people who attend. There is a lot of time for this to happen.
If you are a pastor, and cannot attend this year’s school, save the dates (they are almost always the same week if I remember correctly) and go in 2010. If you are not a pastor then help send your pastor to Birmingham. You will do your church a great favor by supporting your minister in this way.