Thursday, October 30, 2008

Great Events Give Back

One of the goals of my recent study leave (which after the work related travel and having to completely re-do the budget that I finished in September amounted to about three actual days for reflection) was to evaluate and determine transferable principles regarding what makes a great ministry event. During the month of October I attended the annual Catalyst Conference in Georgia, coordinated and led the Lay Academy of Christian Witness for the North Carolina Conference and participated in Ginghamsburg United Methodist Churches Change the World Conference. From these three experience, combined with notes from other conferences I have either attended or worked during the past three years there are seven factors evident in events that give back that continue to emerge, they are: excellence in everything; engaging environments; exceeding expectations; engage participants; encourage community; embrace challenges; equip for mission.

Across the board the conferences that seem to be making the biggest impact do everything with excellence. They remember the details like fair trade coffee and bottled water, their staff see every problem as an opportunity to excel. The pre-event material is crisp and clear, the directions to lodging, restaurants and local attractions are precise and support materials provided are professional. There is a seeming unwillingness to settle for “good” when “great” is within reach. How many conferences have I attended where the details were left hanging? Where the handouts were poorly copied, the coffee was stale, or the transitions were poorly planned and awkward? The message should never be sacrificed on the altar of mediocrity. Events that give back pursue excellence.

Additionally the leaders of the excellent events understand that engaging environments are absolutely essential. Environment teaches as much as content. In each case the leaders of these events took an ordinary space and created an environment that reinforced and assisted in transferring the information and experience. Whether it was the ability to make 12,000 people feel like they were in an intimate space talking to the speakers at Catalyst, to the fresh baked bread served every morning at Ginghamsburg, the environment welcomed you in and allowed you to relax and receive the teaching and instruction being offered. Additionally, despite the fact that the events were held in rather boring spaces, they were re-made to support the central theme of the conference. Visual elements were added, color was present and music was presented that helped determine the mood and direction of the sessions. So often we attend events in sterile conference rooms or boring lecture halls that presume that environment doesn’t matter, this is far from the truth, everything informs, from the lighting to the choice of graphic image chosen for the PowerPoint slide, it comes together to create an environment. Events that give back create engaging environments.

Not only do powerful events have engaging environments and practice excellence, they consistently exceed expectations. In the book The Starbucks Experience the author talks about Starbucks commitment to “surprise and delight.” Events that give back provide a “wow” factor. Every participant comes to an event with a set of preconceived expectations. Consistently, events that give back keep raising the bar and providing far more than the attendees expect. Whether it was the gourmet box lunches provided at Ginghamsburg that included a vegetarian option, the “experience packs” at Catalyst or simply providing all the materials needed to do a complete church evangelism audit back home at the Lay Academy, the participants indicated that their expectations were exceeded. At the Lay Academy one participant remarked, “this event is so good, I can’t believe it’s sponsored by the Annual Conference.” Providing a few “wow” moments in an event takes careful and intentional planning and execution, but these moments when expectations are completely blown out of the water are what define an event that gives back.

Engaging participants at a higher level is another element of events that give back. So often events and conferences are simply about conveying a large amount of data in a short period of time. The participant is expected to come as a kind of intellectual sponge to soak up the information and, hopefully, go away with something useful. In every one of the events that give back that I have attended, the attendees were engaged in the learning process, often through the use of multiple intelligences, to learn at many different levels. There was active participation, interaction with the presenters and a chance to engage those around you in vital debriefing and processing. Often there was even an interactive website where participants to prepare for their conference learning experience or comment on it when they returned home. These websites become places where they can share their learning and how they applied the information that they received. Engaging participants in their own learning is central for events that give back.

In addition to facilitating participants’ engagement in their own learning, events that give back also encourage community. They establish online communities, maintain relationships and encourage interaction between those who have shared the experience. The most amazing example of this desire to create community was last years “Catalyst Roadtrip.” Two of the young staffers jumped in an ‘80’s era video equipped Volkswagon Vanagon and trekked thousands of miles to connect and build relationships with group leaders across the United States. They called ahead, usually a week or so, scheduled an appointment and showed up with a bag of stuff (pens, t-shirts, etc.), pulled you in the back of the van, showed you the Catalyst promotional video and encouraged you to come back to Catalyst next year. As they were finishing up, they took a digital picture that they printed and stuck some where in the Vanagon and posted online with a quote or insight that you gave them about your Catalyst experience. This kind of community building was sheer genius. Now, the people on the other end of the phone weren’t just telemarketers trying to get you to come to some conference, they were LV and Chad, your friends who you had dinner with and had your picture with on the web. No wonder their attendance jumped by more than 2,000 participants this year…they understood that events that give back encourage community!

Events that give back embrace challenge. They look boldly into the future and realistically at the present and embrace the cultural and functional challenges that the participants face. Most people go to conferences for two reasons, one is to get away and experience fresh ideas, the other is to discover possible solutions to pressing problems. They are seeking answers. Events that give back research and discover the pressing problems of the people they serve and attack them. They provide multiple options for answers, realizing that there is no “one size fits all” solution, even when problems seem similar. They encourage creativity and the community that is formed allows for interactions that may provide the sought after solutions. Being solution focused and embracing challenge is central to every event that gives back.

Lastly, events that give back equip participants for mission. They expose attendees to ideas and opportunities that call them to live and reach beyond themselves. At the Change the World Conference, Mike Slaughter kept reminding us that “Christmas is not your birthday.” His challenge was that we should match our gift giving dollars with dollars for mission. At Ginghamsburg they meet that challenge and in four years have given more than $3 million dollars to create sustainable agriculture and schools in Darfur. Events that give back realize that they live beyond themselves and can equip and empower the participants to become leaders in their own organizations to make the world a better place. This stands in direct opposition to the consumerist nature of our culture and allows participants to envision a better world because of their attendance at an event that gives back.

Colossians 3:23 reminds us that, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” So often those of us who spend time designing and implementing events see them as tasks to be done and not as ministry. Events that give back practice excellence in everything, create engaging environments, exceed expectations, engage participants in their own learning, encourage community, embrace challenges and equip participants for mission because they realize that it is for God that they do this work. They put their heart into their work realizing that the greatest return for their effort is not in the event, but in the eternal difference that will be made because those who attend will leave changed, challenged and ready to do amazing things for God. That is why I remain:

Consumed by the Call,
Marty Cauley
Gracious God help me to never lose sight of the Kingdom reason for desiring to do events that give back. In the name of the one who gave all that all might live, Jesus, I pray. Amen.

We strive to make all of our summer youth events at Lake Junaluska, great events! We focus upon solid United Methodist theology, powerfully mission focused and fun youth retreats.

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