Thinking About Conferences?

Paul NealThe CACE Roundtable2 Comments

I just finished reading a blog suggesting a number of good books published in 2017 that I should consider for my summer reading. I usually look for these lists both at the beginning of the new year and the start of summer as a shortcut to finding work to include on my vacation. I enjoy reading and like to use holidays or summer vacation to binge read. However, I don’t like to do a lot of research on what to read or miss out on books that everyone is talking about. So, I tend to turn to bloggers that I trust for recommendations.

This led me to think about similar lists that could be useful for many readers. I thought one valuable list at this time of year would be a recap of worthwhile conferences that I personally attended. My plan here is not to harshly review the conferences that I list. Nor is it exhaustive–in fact, if you have suggestions that I’ve missed, feel free to comment. Rather, I thought I would offer the strengths and advantages of adding each conference to your schedule in the future and suggest items that I wish were included or considered at each.

Regional Conferences

Regional conferences in Christian education can be particularly valuable and unique. They have distinct feels that vary from place to place and often have unique elements that work for them. I attended and presented at one that was done really well last fall at Dordt University, called the Heartland Conference. What was particularly valuable about this conference was the obvious relationships that existed between so many of the attendees and the opportunity that these relationships brought for further collaboration and support. Regional gatherings can fill the much-needed gap in providing opportunities for collaboration, experimentation, and professional development. The organizers of the Heartland Conference take the program and topics seriously and deliver great value to all attendees.

These events allow for topics and speakers to be much more focused on regional realities which can be a big help to school leaders in the region. I wish there were more of these as I think regional gatherings can do a better job of spreading the word about them—maybe CACE could take up that task. Without effective communication, regional conferences risk having the same cast of usual suspects and don’t benefit from new attendees or presenters.

International Conferences
International Christian education conferences are quite distinct from what we often experience in the United States. First, most of the schools are proprietary. This results in some great conversations around quality and customer service. I had the opportunity to present at the Paideia International Conference in Panama last year. I’m not sure what the plans are for that or similar conferences in the future but conferences like this are worth exploring.

The schools you interact with at international conferences have very similar problems, yet very different ones. The majority of the schools are operated on a for profit or proprietary model so they often discuss business and financial issues with a degree of sophistication and importance that we don’t often see at US Christian school conferences. It would be great to see more of these leaders at US gatherings so that there is greater interaction here in the US as well. However, in many ways, they are the international equivalent to the regional conference.

Council for Educational Standards & Accountability

CESA is also a very valuable conference. They have done a great job of demonstrating the value of providing excellent presenters as well as good opportunities for networking and collaboration. It is a worthwhile model for others to follow.

If I had one criticism or regret of the CESA conference it would be to find thought leaders from our best Christian schools to present rather than rely so heavily on the independent school world. My guess is that they are merely responding to demand and that we promote this phenomenon by assuming that the Independent school world is more experienced and professional—which I have found is far from the actual case.

Global/Major Gatherings

The Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS) was probably the most important Christian school gathering in recent memory. CACE leadership was involved in convening early discussions about the idea of execution where so many organizations were involved, it truly was global and much more than just a conference. The sessions were diverse and outstanding and provided enough opportunity and value for everyone. The opportunities for networking were significant!

Perhaps since the GCSLS was so big there are a few things that I wish were different. First, I think it has to continue to be produced by multiple groups as no one cares that one group played a larger role in organizing the conference – what mattered most to attendees was that it wasn’t just one large organization running it, but rather multiple groups. I wish the main session speakers were new or up and coming or that the time was used for something else. I wish the research that was conducted was meaningful and shared with attendees in a more effective way. One suggestion to those who attend in the future is to take advantage of the opportunity to connect and plan meetings with others while you are there—there’s no better place for groups to get together to connect and collaborate.

Best Practices Conference

Wheaton Academy’s (WA) Best Practices Conference is always worth attending—as are each of the ones covered in this blog. Gene Frost and his team do a great job of selecting the best topics and holding presenters to standards that require results. Gene demonstrates customer service by responding to conference surveys—a best practice in marketing. I’ve presented before and had Gene provide feedback that was critical in order to make sure that future attendees get the best results. It’s a great way for many to end the year.

I wish there was more time for easy collaboration. It may be that one of the realities of having a conference at school rather than at a conference center/hotel is that you have to be more intentional to connect. WA is a great place for the conference so attendees just have to plan other ways to collaborate or catch up. “Best Practices” may be a stretch for the conference title. But, if it is understood that everyone associated with the conference has that as an end goal, then it fits. It is worth the effort.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these or other conferences. Continue this discussion with your colleague to see what they think. Share with CACE or me personally the things that you look for or have experienced in a great conference. The wisdom of the crowds is powerful!


  • Paul Neal

    Paul T. Neal serves as the Director of Operations at CACE. Paul brings years of experience in marketing research and enrollment management expertise to the team. Paul has presented and been published on the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities, and respondent quality. Paul joined the team after serving as Senior Vice President for Advancement and Communications at Cairn University. Prior to founding research firm Charter Oak Research (now part of CACE), Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.

2 Comments on “Thinking About Conferences?”

  1. Paul,
    Appreciate your perspective on the conferences available to us as Christian school leaders. I believe you fairly assess both the strengths and weaknesses.
    My personal response is that a continued missing element in most, is the lack of cheerleading the message and ministry of Christian education to the many that are growing weary, and making a Scriptural, emotional, promotional presentation as to why do we do what we do, and why should we continue…
    I feel we are moving too much to the practical, clinical, or researched based presentations…”not that there’s anything wrong with that.” But we need a balance and I do not see it.
    Internationally, I would suggest attending a regional conference (ACSI Romanian teachers conference in Budapest) for that instructional and inspirational balance.
    My continued concern is both the inspired encouragement we head’s need from one another, AND the element Paul talks about in Titus and I/II Timothy of the elder training the younger…not seeing or feeling it. Perhaps I’ll see it as we swing back passed the middle ground.
    Our conferences need to be that balance between the practical and the pastoral. Not hearing the voices I was “raised on” back when I first joined this Kingdom work, and the reason I stayed at it for 37 years…

  2. Thank you, Paul. I have found that in addition to the information gleaned at conferences, the most valuable “take-away” is the connections that are made and the professional networking that results.

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