Busy isn’t always better

The schedule of a conference or meeting is the curriculum. Unstructured time allows introverts to escape, active sorts to move, and external processors to get a cup of coffee together and make sense of the sessions.

I recently attended Faith Forward, a children’s and youth ministry conference with two-hour lunch breaks and 45 minutes between the plenary and breakout sessions. When I saw these breaks, my efficiency brain kicked in and I wondered what I was going to do with myself. They aren’t long enough to hunker down and get real work done or escape into the nearby art museum. They are so long they might be a waste of time.

But then on the first morning, I googled a coffee shop a few blocks away, ordered a drink, and took a stroll around the city. I didn’t have an objective but to move and be moved a bit. On the lunch break, I wandered through a small art exhibit, walked to a restaurant a mile away, and read a bit of a book.

In addition to being able to keep my inbox under control, the schedule allowed me to be actually experience being away from home and take time to reflect on what I was learning with others. During a plenary session, as I doodled some notes, I started dreaming up an outline for a related workshop I will give in a few weeks. During the break, my creative process kept going and I made significant progress on that nagging task.

So often when we create disruptive learning experiences (i.e. conferences and retreats), we look at the hours in the schedule with our efficiency brain, packing every square inch with something for each body to do and every mind to think. Attendees leave the multi-day event more exhausted than when they arrived, with an inbox full of messages awaiting response. A week after the event, attendees wonder what was learned, how to put it into action, or if it was worth the cost of the fees, the travel and the meals.

At the Duke Youth Academy, we often quip that the schedule is the curriculum. Sure, we have written a curriculum for our leaders to use for discussion times, but we believe that the way we spend our time teaches our staff and students about themselves in important ways. That’s why, when we redesigned the program, we took out some afternoon programming to make way for a more substantive post-lunch rest time and late afternoon play time.

Not every disruptive learning event, conference or retreat can or should emulate a meditative retreat, but some reflection on the ways we create our schedule may be in order. Schedules are a powerful vehicle of implicit curriculum -- communicating our theologies of personhood, knowledge and learning through unspoken rhythms, movements and expectations.

Jam-packed schedules insist that the intellectual information the presenters impart is the most important learning that will occur at the event and that more important speakers imparting more important information is best.

Jam-packed schedules are skeptical of the attendee’s ability to participate, failing to trust the attendees to create their own learning experiences with each other in response to the planned sessions.

Jam-packed schedules insist that intellectual absorption of knowledge is the highest priority, disallowing the attendees to digest all that the speakers offer in the session. They can also inadvertently impose a sense of guilt for skipping out on a session (especially for those of us who never learned how to play hooky in high school).

Busy isn’t always better. Unstructured time allows introverts to escape, active sorts to move, and external processors to get a cup of coffee together and make sense of the sessions.

By offering more time for conference attendees to eat a leisurely lunch, wander through the streets of the city, read the book just purchased in the exhibit hall, or process the session with a friend, conference attendees become participants in and even contributors to the experience, engaging the material and one another in new ways. They participate in learning, rather than simply consuming the conference product.

When we plan disruptive learning experiences, we must bear in mind that time away from ministry is about more than consuming information, though this is often the attraction. In addition to offering an opportunity to learn new things, conferences and retreats create a time and a space to reprogram the heart, mind and body to process new and old information and inspire imaginative responses to the challenges at home.

When we honor this possibility, participants notice. I know I did.