Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Free Advice: great conferences on a budget

I'm currently attending the annual Presbyterian Ministry Conference at PTC Melbourne. I'm benefiting from the conference, learning things I wouldn't have learnt at home, connecting with old friends and making new connections. However I thought I'd better use my University Fellowship of Christians experience and offer some free advice to the powers that be, about how to run a great Christian conference on a small budget. This is because we don't want to put barriers before people hearing good preaching and we must resist entropy and embrace beauty.


  • Online payment and registration, don't forget to provide a tax invoice, have an automatically generated email with PDF attachment
  • Provide details about accommodation, meals, wifi, location etc online.
  • Have a conference picture/design: this gives the conference an identity it also helps bless Christian designers 


  • Have Printed postcards made, go for 300 gsm designed as an actual postcard
  • Send out emails more than six months in advance through a reputable email source, eg the denomination's email list, this alerts people to put it on their calendar
  • Then post out the postcards, this prompts people to make a decision to go
  • Recruit well-known or influential pastors to promote the conference, this builds word of mouth


  • Does the main venue have enough seating space, so people aren't squished together? 
  • If it's a College, remove the tables, people can use tablets or pen and paper
  • Make sure you have a working sound system (clear, no annoying noises) and a person to operate it. This is where you should spend some money of your meagre budget.
  • Is there enough space for lunch and break-out spaces?
  • It's OK not to have a data-projector, but if you do make sure you have an operator and everyone can see the screen. (Use handouts instead of a data-projector, encourages kinaesthetic learners.)
  • Consider the beauty of the location, is there pleasant space to wander around in, a landscape to look at during morning tea? 


  • If you have spare cash, time and energy, set up a guest Wifi, make the password known. 
  • Provide lunch and snacks
  • Recruit volunteers a local church to be servers
  • If you have the cash outsource the catering, volunteer food preparation costs a lot of social capital
  • Spend a bit extra a provide lanyards, then people can wear them session to session without having to worry about those fiddly 'Mormon badgers'.
  • Layout, simple things like space for people to mingle, linger or hide?  


  • Explain the purpose of the conference
  • Make housekeeping short and interesting
  • Have different geographic groups put up their hands or stand up at the beginning(this is an interesting and fun ice-breaker and better than groups by work or rank) 
  • Have one or two short, interesting book reviews or short well-researched reviews of popular books so that you don't have to read them yourself
  • Have several electives run by interesting/passionate B-listers/amateurs. This achieves two things, gives people a platform for their ideas and provides you with a chance to learn something (ensure quality by giving the presenters lots of notice) 
  • Have a Bible reader who reads the passage and then prays for the speaker
  • Interviews of the speaker are not strictly necessary, but can warm up a crowd for an unknown key-note speaker but keep them short!


  • Conferences are about learning new things and networking (in the positive mutual beneficial/interest sense not the slimy building an empire sense) so provide opportunities to network, this means well arranged tea and coffee areas and one session where people are grouped in a way they don't usually work in, but isn't weird. 

Keynote Speakers

  • Pick key note speakers who will preach interestingly on familiar passages or plod wisely through difficult passages. Two things that a difficult to find listening via podcast on your own. (This isn't just a Christian dilemma, notice how hard it is for TED talks to do this as well.) 


  • Make some or all of the material available online, as a gift to the community and to whet people's appetite for next year. 

Naughty suggestions

  • Have a sponsor, offset the "your selling out to commercialism" by having the MC say we've got this sponsor because of these expenses so that the conference will be worth your while. Being upfront about it and having a fun sponsor will make this easy to do. 
  • Give away books. This gives attending the conference in the flesh an added incentive. 

Planing Outline

Team: Logistics person, MC (they should be separate roles), sound, volunteers to serve and take registrations etc

2 years out
  1. Book key note speakers
  2. Draft a budget and ask the powers to be for that money
1 year out
  1. Book elective leaders
  2. Create advertising plan
  3. Create logistics plan
  4. Draft the program
6 months out
  1. Set the advertising and logistics plans in motion
  2. Publish the program
3 months out
  1. Visit the site
  2. Tweak the plans
If you don't have much money, as you can see time is your secret weapon. Encourage attendees to prepare for the conference by seeing it as an opportunity to learn new things and make or strengthen connections. :-)