Best 3 Youth Ministry Conferences

By Brandon

Many choices out there for you continuing education addicts. As a youth minster, here are my top three choices in the next 12 months:

#3 Catalyst- Next generation leadership from people in ministry. This is not a best of the “has been” speakers. These are thought leaders on the frontier of ministry.

#2 D6- This is the practical strategies conference for discipleship in the local church that is typically in Dallas. Here are links to blog content from D6 2011:

#1 SYMC- Yep, buried under the Group advertising is a conference that struck a cord with student ministers in the trenches. One thing is for sure, Group knows it’s base and will certainly capitalize on what is lacking in other youth worker conferences.

These three would make a well-rounded line-up. If you only had one, SYMC or Orange would offer a great youth ministry bang for the buck.

Anyone else have a suggestion?

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Baucham- Family Discipleship

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Filed in: Ministry Resources, Uncategorized • Friday, April 8th, 2011


Where is Orange? Headed there in a couple of weeks.

D6 was great last year. Some of us are talking about SYMC for next year. Or possibly going with our faith tradition and doing the Goofy run…half marathon one day then the full marathon the next. This would be after the conference.

The NCYM website hurts me every time I look at it. They could find a better free template to work with.

I would love to be at Catalyst. Are you going to all 3 (or 4)?

Orange would be a great one. There are so many overlaps that it is hard to build the perfect conference line-up. The overlap that Orange has with Catalyst and the fact that Orange offers smaller day conferences took it off my list. I think the D6 labs look great and I like to explore. If I had only one, I’d do SYMC. If I could do two, I’d hit Catalyst and SYMC. If I had an unlimited continuing education budget and unlimited time to attend, well, I wouldn’t get anything done.

This past year was my first NCYM. I was impressed with some of the main speakers and loved the Randy Harris morning devotions. The break-out sessions weren’t that good, but I stopped going to them after the David Fraze session and it’s possible that the others were better. Lord willing, I will go to SYMC 2012, I’m registered for Catalyst Dallas, and will get to send some volunteers to D6.

Planning to be at Catalyst this year in Atlanta! If not and I am still living in Atlanta, I want to take some Youth Pastors to lunch one day! Love investing in leaders.

Never been to SYMC, NCYM, or D6.

I might register for NLC (from Newspring Church in Anderson, SC) –

Catalyst is one I want to get to at some point, and I was just looking at D6. I went to SYMC this year for the first time and was really disappointed with it considering all I had heard about it. It seemed great for bringing a team of volunteers to, but maybe it was just this years break out sessions content. I’ll be at Orange in a few weeks and can’t wait.

Since I’ve never been to SYMC, I can’t make a good comparison. I have not been disappointed by Orange and I wonder what Orange is like the second time.

I have stopped going to other conferences. SYMC is the only one I attend now. To me the vibe at this confernce is like no other.

SYMC is by far the best conference. I’ve been in youth ministry for over 14 years. I was a die-hard Youth Specialties so the NYWC was what we always went to. Until SYMC came around. I get everything I need there: Great training, true and meaningful connections with an amazing group of youth workers, authentic affirmation from the speakers and presenters, and spiritual rejuvenation. I’ve been going for the last 4 years, and I won’t miss if I can help it. It truly is a conference for and by youth workers. It’s nice that Group puts their feet where their mouth is. :)

Not sure what you mean by advertising in regards to SYMC. Was there in March and thought it was great. experienced speakers (literally the biggest names in ym), practical content, yet still able to relax in the experience. This one is a definite for next year. Can’t speak on Catalyst, but anything with Stanley is good in my book. D6 looks good but not very accessible for east coasters. Thanks for the heads-up on other conferences!

@Ben Read: What was a ‘disappointment’ for you?

Have been for three years in a row! Incredible content relevancy and heart felt love for youth workers. Not many break out sessions where you can actually talk to and invite the speakers out to lunch and dinner and they say yes.

What kind of content would have made it better?

I’m curious that question with all of you on here. What kind of ‘content’ are you all looking for from a conference?

By David Perez on April 12th, 2011 at 2:12 am

SYMC would be my pick every time. If content is all you’re looking for at SYMC, then you are totally missing out on opportunities to create relationships, connect with other youth workers, and the potential to build lifelong friendships. SYMC is definitely NOT a “from a distance” type of conference. Every speaker, musician, workshop facilitator…whatever…is accessible and will genuinely take their time to have a conversation with you, pray with and for you, and even have a few laughs together. Students are more likely to remember relationships more than our talks. This is why I love SYMC, because they understand that the relationships that are formed after the conference matter.

Been to a billion conferences (give or take 100,00) over the past 20 years. SYMC is far and away the most personal, heart-healing one I’ve ever attended! Worth every penny!

By Bill Holleran on April 12th, 2011 at 2:15 am

Over the past 15-20 years I have experienced many conferences. Far and away the best conference, for spiritual fulfillment and overall great sessions and speakers is SYMC. Variety, something for everyone, whether you are a volunteer, part time, or full time. This is the conference you need to be at!

By liz simmonds on April 12th, 2011 at 2:16 am

i have heard fantastic things about catalyst, but haven’t ever been able to afford to go.

i am a HUGE fan of SYMC. the genuine & authentic hearts of the leaders for God and for youth workers imprints the conference. they don’t go for controversial or big names when it comes to speakers (tho there are a bunch of ‘famous’ youth worker peeps there and doug fields’ name is on the thing). they go for people that they know and whose hearts and values line up with the core values of the conference. i appreciate that. it’s written into the contracts for speakers that they are available to attendees throughout the conference–i think that is amazing! and when they say ‘by youth workers for youth workers’–they mean it. leadership all are youth workers at heart and they invite input!

perk: they intentionally choose sites in the midwest which are a single day drive for the vast majority of the country. that helps the budget!

for me it’s about refreshing my soul, renewing my love for students and remembering why i answered this wacky call in the first place. i highly recommend SYMC!

5 years running on SYMC. Have gone to conferences 13 years in a row. Have not found one that compares to SYMC. Very relational, very relevant, Great worship, Super conference.

@Brit – I loved the main sessions and everything about the conference with the exception of the break out sessions. The first day I went to two on topics I was really interested in growing in my understanding of, and then the stuff being delivered was such basic stuff, and left me with the impression that though the conference would be great to bring a team of volunteers to, the meat of it isn’t really beneficial to those with a fairly knowledgeable background of Youth MInistry, but again, there were 100+ break outs, I went to 6, so that was just my impression.

Hey Brandon,

Thanks for the post. I wanted to share a quick thought or two. As a 20 year vet of youth ministry, I credit my longevity to two things, a continuing confirmation from God that I am doing what I was made for, and two, the resources, encouragement, and practical learning received from attending youth ministry conferences. I have attend the NYWC sponsored by Youth Specialties for the last 11 years. The training has been priceless.

However, I attended the Simply Youth Ministry Conference for the first time in 2010. This conference blew me away! They called it a conference for youth workers by youth workers, and truly it is. Intimate, practical, and led by youth workers doing youth ministry, not just writing about it; SYMC is designed for the youth worker looking for deeper training, positive relationships, and strong networking and not just a big stage with the latest bands and hottest, most controversial speakers.

I returned this past March ready to reconnect with my God, my craft, and my friends and that is exactly what I was able to do. SYMC will be my conference home for many years to come.

Conferences are like ice cream, many flavors for many tastes. Where one misses the mark for some, it saves a career and a life for many others. I high recommend SYMC anytime I have the opportunity to speak with a youth worker looking for some hands-on training.

I write more extensively about my thoughts for SYMC on my own blog. Just search for articles written about SYMC.

Thanks for your time.

– jay

@ Ben Read:
Thanks man! makes great sense. What were some of those sessions. I to struggle with that sometimes. What are some sessions and walk a ways you feel would make it better?

I’m with you Melissa. I really enjoyed NYWC when I first got into youth ministry, but Orange opened me up to conference exploration. Based on the feedback, I am looking forward to trying SYMC next year. Thanks for sharing.

Andy Stanley is my hero when it comes to holding practical in one hand and biblical in the other. His relevance factor is off the charts.

15-20 years? That is remarkable. I would love to hear about your self-care practices for longevity in ministry.

@ Brandon & Bill:

He surfs way to much!

I am not a fan of speakers who are disconnected from the work we do when I am at a conference with people that were drawn there for a specific purpose. I don’t have the same expectation for Catalyst. What do you think about retired youth minister speakers vs. currently practicing? Professors vs. ministers? I liked hearing Kenda Creasy Dean the other month at Baylor chapel. While her research, articulation and experience make her a great speaker choice for any youth ministry conference, it was her experience with her daughter that kept it grounded.

Thanks, Jim! You have a better sampling than I do and I appreciate the input. You are a well-read man. I have a high respect for those who maintain a hunger for learning like you do.

Ben, I am thankful that you comment here. I hope that people will click over to from time to time to see what you are doing there. The answers at big conferences are not always in tune with small churches or churches in small towns. You have a unique voice.

I would love to do lunch with you and any others here that are headed to SYMC. It would be good to put names with faces. Thanks Jay!

I should say a word about Mark Holman. He’s the reason D6 makes this list. I think most youth ministries will be speaking his language in 5 years or less.

Brandon that is a GREAT question about speakers (retired vs. practicing) It has to be a well balanced and rounded approach I think!

There are a lot of ‘young folks’ out there doing some awesome things, that said that have no clue theologically or practically how that needs to come across on the ‘big stage’ of youth ministry.

on the other hand there are some ‘older folks’ that worry me with all the ‘research’ being done and simply stating what the stats are and possibly not handing down and out practical ways of making youth ministry better. It is hard for me to take stuff from professors. I won’t name them, but some just rub me the wrong way when all they do is criticize with out letting us know how they are contributing to solving the problem other than saying whats wrong.

One thing I enjoy about Catalyst is the critique along with the context. SYMC is that place to go to be recharged and given those practical tools to take it home and actually do something with it not just think about what ministry could be like. I’ve been to some of those conferences. Dreaming is great, until it sets you up for a nightmare when you get back to your ‘wake’ called your home church.

Great list again Brandon!

I am a conference junkie. I have been in some form of youth ministry for the better part of 18 years. The Center for Youth Studies sites that one of the top three reasons that youth workers leave is because they feel ill equipped and untrained. I was well trained by several mentors who had been in youth ministry for many years. One has been in youth ministry now for 36 years! So my Bible, conferences and training is important to me. So much so that I have become a professional consultant and trainer!

I was given the honor of being a part of several workshops and panels at SYMC this year. I think Catalyst and Orange are awesome but for different reasons. At SYMC it is all about including the participants in the conversation with us. We want to spend time encouraging you the youth worker to be the expert. We are not a bunch of high pedestal dwellers giving our wisdom. Instead we invite you on our personal journeys cand let you know the lessons we learned along the way. You are so right it can be a challenge to include both the basics and the “meat” into the workshops. I know I can tend to ere on the side of basic. Thanks for that feedback. It helps.

That is why I loved the panels though. Those were a place to explore and really learn from each other. Veterans and newbies learning to grow together.

Best of all, not to be cheesy, I made friends at SYMC not contacts. I always go away having “networked.” Then I get home and forget. This time was very different.

Also, please know @MyersBaker, I too am not a fan of the disconnected youth speaker. When the Lord gave me a heart for training it was my greatest fear. I was petrified that I would spend 20 years giving the same talk. So I made a commitment to stay connected. I moved from “professional” to “volunteer.”. I think that anyone with a calling into ministry of any kind makes that commitment as well.

Man theres some great dialogue going on here. As far as takeaways from my sessions, it kind of goes in with @MyersBaker question of are the speakers better if they are practicing or retired. It kind of depends on their experience, whether active or retired. If their experience is/was 18 years of the same thing over and over again, they dont have as much to offer as someone who has seen different contexts, different scenarios, etc.

With that, one of the sessions I was disappointed with was about student leadership, and it was this guy not giving his opinion on it but present what he thought was the only way of doing student leadership because he had seen it work for a few years. It was all about getting rid of leadership teams and just doing mentoring. About halfway through, someone asked “wouldnt mentoring those on a team be even more effective?” and he replied to the effect of “yeah I guess so.” It was just a waste of time for me.

And I guess looking back deeper, Ill say it again, I really did love the atmosphere of SYMC. My frustrations with the break outs never came close to deterring me from attending next year. But with that, I am looking forward to Orange and hoping beyond hope to make it to Catalyst next year.

I am a YM leader from Brazil and I really have to choose 1 Conference to attend each year because a airplane ticket would cost me about U$ 1000! And since 2009 I’ve chosen SYMC and as far as I am in Brazil I think I am not influenced by what you call “Group advertising” . For me SYMC is for real and I can apply what I learn there in Brazil. Is is not a show, the speakers (practicing or retired) are close to the attenders, even to the only Brazilian attender. And you can have a lot of options during the Conference to attend. Actually, the variety of options is the only thing that makes me mad about this Conference because I come so thirsty from Brazil where there is nothing to YM that I want to attend everything and in the end I realize it is impossible. If you decide to attend SYMC 2012 , I am already saving money to be there and I would like to meet you.

Youth Ministry Lab at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas is the best ministry conference I have ever been to. They have breakout tracks for full time youth ministers, part-time, volunteers, ministers wives, Hispanic youth leaders, and even Korean youth leaders. It is a truly great conference for equippping yourself as a youth leader and your entire ministry team.

Haven’t heard of Youth Ministry Lab. I’ll look into it. Thanks!

D6 has graciously allowed us to give away 6 tickets to the conference. I will post details in one of the locations I have inserted into this blog post.

Thanks D6!

wow–this is great dialogue!
First–thanks Brandon, for opening this up in a transparent, honest fashion. Conferences are a big investment, I think it’s so important for people to explore the unique distinctives of every conference/training opportunity and pick what fits their needs. Just like church, there is never a “one size fits all” and realizing that we’re all for the same ulitmate goal is key.

As the director of SYMC, I obviously have a bias towards the event I know and love, but I’m also grateful for the excellence and passion that’s behind Catalyst, Orange and D6 (as well as many others), and 100% support them. Each one is unique and fits a need.

Although I’ve not been to Catalyst yet, I’ve watched them closely and believe they’ve raised the bar for creativity and next-level thinking. This has been needed in church leadership for a long time. I hope to go this fall.

As for Orange, I went last year, and feel that their philosophy is clear and strong, and an agent for building collaboration between ministry teams within the church. Because I went to Orange alone (and met a few other loners) it can be an isolating experience if you’re not there with a team who’s all “in” and drinking the “Orange koolaid” together. For the teams I saw there, they seemed to be loving it– oozing unity and collaboration– and that’s needed for a healthy church!

I’ve not been to D6, but it too has an incredible reputation and driven by authenticity. Their emphasis on the family is another key distintive for healthy ministry that’s essential. D6 is on my list to attend.

As for SYMC, my biased voice doesn’t really count– I’d rather listen and learn from the voices we serve. It’s awesome and affirming to hear the positive comments, but I also appreciate Ben’s perspective and details surrounding his experience. He makes a valid point, and I’m excited to dig into some of these breakouts and rethink how we can improve. Every sliver of feedback matters, and SYMC has grown into the event that it is today because there’s amazing insight and ideas coming from folks in the trenches. Youth workers are brilliant–they come up with all of the good stuff! The more we “event people” can hand over the reigns to the ones we’re serving, the better it gets. (and by the way, the question of well-known speakers in the author/prof circle vs. in-trench YM folks is absolutely a balance we continue to wrestle with. Adding new, fresh, relevant, in-trench voices is a goal each year, but there is also a tremendous depth of wisdom and excellence in the “Yodas” that’s valuable.)

Bottom line–I’m a big fan of youth workers gathering together to learn from experts as well as each other, to worship together, to have their passion refueled, to have their souls refreshed, to just breathe. Wherever, whenever you can find a conference that fits your needs–just go!

Thank God there is more than one option–you guys deserve it.

I feel like a big jerk right now. Just to clarify again for all, I loved SYMC, i just didnt love the break outs. Just because they weren’t what I specifically needed this year doesn’t mean they didn’t reach others. My disappointment was just in that aspect. Kami, you and your team have done and are doing a great job with the conference.

Thanks, Kami! Sounds like the intentionality and thoughtfulness with respect to your audience is paying off. I am looking forward to SYMC 2012. Although you will probably be swamped, I hope to meet you.

By Leland Sawyer on April 12th, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I went to SYMC this year in Chicago for the first time. I found the resources to be incredible, but single-focused. Since it is a conference put together by a publishing company, they only had available resources from their company. So books, missions opportunities, etc. from other publishing companies were absent. In a couple of cases, they had speakers and presenters that didn’t have their resources available because they weren’t published by Group.

I will say that the speakers were phenomenal. The breakout sessions were great and rich with depth. I did find it difficult to choose because of so many great options and too little opportunities. I did gather that many of their presenters come back for a few years to present the same materials so you could possibly get them at future years. Worship was phenomenal and Christ-centered.

The only other negative I had with SYMC was that there was a sort of “club” mentality to the leadership and just a general feel. Everyone who speaks, presents, or leads anything is a personal friend of the leadership team. While that ensures cohesiveness, it also creates an exclusive aura that seemed to bleed down throughout some of the attenders. I didn’t really like that.

But I would go again and I would wholeheartedly recommend it for others.

I would also highly recommend NCYM, especially from a relationship aspect!

RE:Leland [Club Mentality] That’s interesting. Wonder what affect the Chicago venue may have had. Thanks for your feedback. It was your excitement about SYMC that put it on my radar for next year. Hope you’ll be there.

Hey Leland–
Thanks for your input–but to just to clarify–at SYMC we offer hundreds of other resources besides Group/SYM stuff. Although we don’t have the massive exhibit hall like some other conferences, we do have 20+ ministry partners (Dare 2 Share, Christ in Youth, Homeword, Interlinc, etc) who set up large booths with resources, services, missions, etc. We also invite every single speaker to ship in whatever books they’d like to be sold in the bookstore regardless of their publisher–sometimes think Zondervan might actually have as many books at SYMC ast Group/SYM! With 75+ speakers, some of whom have mulitple books, there’s a lot of great YM stuff–and certainly not just our own. Our keynote speakers are rarely even Group authors–this year Intervarsity press and David C. Cook were absolutely tickled they got to host booksignings for Ruth Haley Barton, Louie Giglio and Glenn Packaim.

I’m also intrigued by your persepctive on the “club mentality”. Honestly–it’s not the first time I’ve heard that criticism, which really makes me pause, and could bring about some good discussion here. We (myself, Doug Fields and others on the team) certainly don’t want it to feel like a “club.” Our desire is to avoid bringing in “hired guns” just because they were a popular name. We bring in folks who share similar DNA, are accessible, willing to hang out to listen and love on folks and not “be a speaker.” (that’s what Doug is all about) Although many of the speakers do happen to be long-time friends of Doug’s, every year we seek out dozens of potential newbies–and someone on the leadership team will go on a “relational mission” to visit them in person, get to know them and make sure they fit our culture and values.

But “perception” is a significant part of communicating, and based on your experience feeling a “club” mentaltiy, it sounds like our heart/intent isn’t always coming through. That’s a red-flag moment for our leadership, because “exclusive” is the opposite of the goal. I’d love your thoughts (and others) on how we can avoid the “club” feel, but still communicate that we brought in the folks we did because they are known and trusted. (or is that even necessary to communicate? Maybe it’s overstated too much?)

And sorry Brandon–feels like we hiiacked your blog–but at least you’ve provided a great forum! Thank you! And Ben–I totally hear your heart–you’re certainly not a jerk! This is all great dialogue.

Catalyst though I have never attended is a good thing. One of my youth worker friends went and came back on fire.. so much so we worked the catalyst theme into a senior high spring retreat which was on target.
SYMC is another story.. anything that has Doug Fields is going to be relational, encouraging, challenging and rewarding. I like the conference from several points.. one is your not required to attend the break outs if you would rather connect with a small group on the sack chairs.. it is also refreshing to know people with more ministry than my 15 years are still willing to invest in me through material, words, music not for my money but because we are in the trenches together.
I often come to the conclusion… we will get out of any conference what we are hoping, expecting and trying to get out of it…
I am not sure about the other conferences mentioned

Jon, thanks for the feedback. I think D6 is worth looking into. If you’ll read it I’ll send you a free copy of “Church + Home” by Mark Holmen. This practical, heuristic book is a good primer/intro to what I think marks the current shift in ministry, especially to young people.

Here is how you can score free D6 Conference Tickets:

The Youth Pastor’s retreat by The City Church / Generation Church in Seattle is a great conference. This year was my first but I’ll be going back. I think it’s usually in January – There were about 120 YP’s from all over the world. Great resources for “how to” on ministry to 12-24 year olds.

Also, the Urban Youth Workers Institute – puts on the “RELOAD” tour all over the country throughout the year. They’re usually cheap, convenient day-long service/workshops. Good for networking and great resources~



About Brandon

I'm Brandon Baker, Youth Minister at the Western Hills Church of Christ. More...