Every diocese has some sort of Clergy Conference for their priests. I’ve attended them in Maryland (2), New York (7), and I’m now at my third one in Massachusetts. The point is to gather the clergy from throughout the diocese, offer an educational/inspirational program, and allow people to enjoy the ensuing collegial relationships. If you have children at home, it’s also meant to annoy your spouse who’s stuck at home with them for a couple of days by him/herself. But enjoy since you’ll have to pay the piper soon enough.
The venues vary from rustic diocesan conference centers to 1960’s-era monasteries to fancy resorts. Whatever the venue, you’ll always find people complaining (from “I can’t believe they’re putting us up in this dump” to “Would Jesus really want us to be in a place with an Elizabeth Arden-inspired spa?”).
The common elements are generally 1) a big name speaker -- ie. someone from outside the diocese 2) a bunch of clergy toting around varying degrees of ego 3) a couple of bishops – and the usual group of priestly sycophants trailing behind them 4) a cash bar in the evening 5) poorly attended daily worship services 6) a fancy dinner billed as the “Bishop’s Banquet” followed by some form of entertainment – a “talent” show or some musician who couldn’t get a better offer and 7) name tags to help participants remember the names of people they met last year but couldn’t now pick out of a lineup.
Here are a few tips to help you survive your own Clergy Conference, whether this is your first one or 35th:
1) Never, ever wear a clerical collar. This will signal that you are either a total novice or exceedingly pompous.
2) When approaching the cash bar, don’t ever come with cash. This is the time for younger clergy to guilt cardinal rectors into buying them drinks (note: this tip doesn't apply to cardinal rectors with endowed discretionary funds without pesky restrictions about being used for "pastoral purposes only."
3) Toss around the term “clergy wellness” when asked why you took a nap instead of attending the plenary session on health benefits.
4) Don’t sit at the bishop’s table for any reason – it will earn you a reputation for sucking up. If he/she happens to sit at your table for a meal or a workshop, smile politely and try not to spill anything on the bishop. It's bad form and will likely get you appointed to a diocesan committee.
5) Bring your smart phone to all sessions – if the speaker starts droning on and on, remember there’s nothing you can’t Tweet your way through. Stay strong!
6) During the bound-to-be sloppy liturgies, play “Count the Rubric Violations.” This game affords endless entertainment; get a group together and compare notes afterwards for the full effect.
7) During the inevitable evening social hour (cash bar), always carry two drinks with you. This way if an especially wind-baggy colleague corners you to talk about his/her most recent Maundy Thursday sermon, you can escape by pretending you’re taking the other drink to someone else. Repeat as necessary.
8) It’s okay to blow off the occasional session for important work like blogging, napping, banging your head against a wall, etc. Guilt is for the weak.
9) To remove yourself from a mind-numbing workshop already in progress, pretend to answer your phone (it will already be silenced out of courtesy to the presenter so you don’t need to worry about an actual ring) and, with the phone to your ear and a concerned look on your face, exit the room. People will assume you had to answer an important pastoral call.
10) Don’t complain too publicly about anything – you’ll end up on next year’s planning committee.
That's enough for now. I better get back before someone notices I've gone AWOL. Maybe later I'll have a chance to continue working on my new book "How to Blow Off Certain Parts of Clergy Conference While Remaining Canonically Resident."