I think you would be shocked by how many evangelical Christian conferences are held every year. Most denominations have national and regional conferences, there are national and regional conferences for every perceivable demographic (ie. college students, women, married couples, youth), and there is a myriad of conferences for pastors of all sorts–worship pastors, church planters, multi-site pastors, youth ministers, etc. Even if we didn’t count the little retreats that individual churches put on for 50-200 people, the number of conferences with 1,000+ attendees is likely in the hundreds each year.
We Christians love our conferences. And there’s a reason for it. It’s a great chance to get away, fellowship, and learn under godly teaching. It can serve as a breath of fresh air, especially for leaders who are usually pouring into others. It’s also a great time for leaders to pool their creativity and ideas. Working together we can accomplish more, and I fully support that.
There is an element to this trend, however, that I find troubling. While these conferences are indeed edifying, the teaching is often led by the same general pool of men (and a few women), many of whom have young children. In addition to leading churches, these men are traveling around the country during the month speaking at conferences, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is healthy. Given the technological advances that not only allow us to upload weekly podcasts from these men, coupled with video broadcasting, the number of conferences would seemingly decrease, not increase. Given our options, should we be asking pastors to take that extra time away from their families?
I did some research this week to find out how much time American fathers spend with their kids. The studies I found all indicated that the average father spends about 2 hours with his children every week day (that is, interacting with their children in some direct capacity) and about 8 hours on the weekend. Out of a 168 hour week, that constitutes about 15% of a father’s time. In comparison with their wives, men spend just over half the amount of time with their kids that mothers do during the week, but they nearly equal the time their wives spend with the kids (around 90%) on the weekend. And keep in mind that these statistics only account for families in which the parents are married. In other words, this average has not been lowered by custody dynamics or absent fathers.
Now psychologists argue that this 15% is enough. In that small amount of time, fathers can do a lot for their kids, especially if they’re intentional with their time. But this does lead me to wonder what it looks like for a Christian father to put family ahead of work, as they are frequently taught to do. Realistically, dads have to work and support their families, but if they’re spending a minimum of 40 hours a week working each week (in comparison with 26 hours a week with kids), is time any sort of indicator of one’s true priorities?
The issue gets even stickier when you throw ministry into the mix. Ministry is a noble calling, so if God has called a father to preach around the world, shouldn’t he heed that call? Perhaps the most famous example of this tension is found in the person of Billy Graham. He famously spent weeks at a time away from his family following his call to preach the Gospel. Millions of people around the world have been saved because of him. Was it worth it?
In a biography of Billy Graham written by Roger Bruns, there seems to be regret from everyone in the family. He writes,
“For the Graham family, the dynamic was always the same–weeks at a time without the father and then a few days at a time with him. Ruth once told Billy that he missed the best part of his life–watching and enjoying the children as they grew. Graham’s daughter, Anne, often said they were raised by a single parent, ‘and giving your father up when he spends more time with a secretary or a news reporter that he does with me–that hurts…We knew he preached and he went and served Jesus, so I was glad to let him go because of that.’ Later in his life when Graham looked back, he said that his constant travel away from his family made him poorer both psychologically and emotionally. The children, he admitted, must have carried even greater scars. And as for Ruth, Billy wrote that if she ‘had not been convinced that God had called her to fulfill that side of our partnership, and had not resorted constantly to God’s Word for instruction and to His grace for strength, I don’t see how she could have survived.’”
While wives may have the spiritual resources to bear their husband’s absences, Graham’s words highlight the main problem with a schedule that pulls men out of the home: children aren’t similarly equipped. How, then, can a calling out of the home be reconciled with a call to protect one’s children?
Now rather than point a finger at pastors (I am in no position to judge how a family heeds God’s calling on their lives), I do think that as a Christian community we need to start thinking outside the box. With technology today, we can get the info out there without the conferences. I’m not saying we do away with conferences, but maybe we should start restructuring them. We should, for instance, consider only having one speaker present, and the rest are video feeds. A great example of this was the Nines video sponsored by Catalyst and Leadership Network last month. It was a wonderful day of information and vision casting that allowed the speakers to stay at home. The hours they would have wasted flying to one location could instead be spent with their kids.
As the Church, we should be leading the way in prioritizing family, and we certainly have the resources to do it. If the national average is 2 hours every week day, we should be above it. It would be an incredibly powerful witness if pastors only spoke at a handful of conferences a year, and instead focused on producing podcasts and writing as a means for disseminating information without leaving their families in the mean time. The conferences will always be there, but fathers only get one shot at raising their kids. As my own pastor, J.D. Greear, put it to me, “Conference speakers are a dime a dozen, but my children only have one daddy.”
My hope is that the prestige and flashiness of these conferences and the big names they draw will not lead us to sin. I fear these conferences have so thoroughly come to define us as a culture that, as Matt Chandler once stated, God will speak to us with the same words he once spoke in Amos 5:21: “I take no delight in your assemblies.” As a church, we must have the faith to keep our priorities in place, knowing that our faithfulness and the integrity with which we guard our families is one of the most powerful witnesses we can have in the world.