Why Gatherings and not conferences?

We at Host Leadership are very excited that the fourth international Host Leadership Gathering will be held in Vienna, Austria next year from 13-15 May 2020. I am sometimes asked why we style these events ‘gatherings’ and not ‘conferences’. This might be a good moment to share some thoughts about why this is an important distinction for a host leader.

What’s a conference for? Well, to confer, I guess. The etymology of conference shows it coming from the Latin word conferre, which means “to bring together; deliberate, talk over”. It seems to me that In the modern world conferences have become more and more talky, programmed and pre-organised. A series of speakers (often with too much Powerpoint and too little audience engagement) parade their thoughts with little time for questions, discussion or emerging topics and issues. In face, the term ‘unconference’ has been coined to promote events which value the latter engagement over the formal inputs.

The word gathering, however, comes from the Old English word gaderung, meaning “an assembly of people, act of coming together”. This is already much less talky than a conference. Firstly, to the English speaking ear at least, there is a distinction between old English-derived words and Latin-derived words. The former are earthier and more homely, the latter are higher-register and ‘fancier’. Secondly, the purpose of a gathering IS the coming-together – for all sorts of reasons, not just talking.

A ‘clan gathering’ is a term in Scotland (where I now live) for events which the ancient Scottish clans organise from time to time. These take place perhaps every few years and attract people from around the world to a varied programme of events – including dancing, music, food, social events, walks, parades, religious services, reconciliation meetings with other clans (really!), discussions, connections and re-connections and, yes, perhaps a formal Clan Society meeting. The purpose of these events is much more than simply talk – it is about meeting others with shared connection in community, about re-establishing relationships, about taking stock, about re-connecting with traditions (and perhaps forging new traditions as well).

I hope that Host Leadership Gathering will continue to be more like gatherings than conferences. Yes, of course we will have speakers and talking – but every event so far has had a social element as well, included in the programme rather than as an add-on. We started with at the first SOLWorld conferences in Bristol in 2002 and 2003 – a conference dinner for all, included in the ticket price, where we could all sit down together and eat. From 2003 we also had a cabaret, with entertainment by the people and for the people. I am still surprised by the number of events to which I go these days which seem to think that a series of speeches is a satisfactory way to bring people together.

So, a gathering is about being together, sharing, doing things that build connections, with as much joining in (co-participating) as possible. Sounds familiar? Host a gathering for your community, and see what difference it makes.

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