St. Louis has historically been the starting point for risk-takers and visionaries — people with big dreams and the will to achieve them. St. Louis, indeed, has been the gateway to excellence for thousands. That tradition continued with Gateway to Excellence, the 33rd RCMA World Conference and Exposition, held January 26 through 29 in downtown St. Louis.

RCMA 2005 was a wonderful experience, logistically flawless, and filled with valuable information that its attendees will put to good use.

Getting Started

The 2005 RCMA conference more than lived up to its theme. RCMA is the only conference developed specifically to meet the needs of religious meeting planners, and the general session speakers, tutorial leaders, attendees, and exhibitors all showed how they are ready to step through their own personal and professional gateways to excellence.

By noon Tuesday of the conference, RCMA's participants in the Behind-the-Scenes experiences already had gained valuable insights into many areas of meeting planning.

RCMA is the only organization that provides attendees with the opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes to make a meeting happen, and dozens of members took advantage of that opportunity.

America's Center, St. Louis hotels, and a St. Louis public-relations firm all offered valuable insight Tuesday morning into housekeeping, meeting-room setup, flower arrangement, food and beverage preparation, and public relations.

At America's Center, the Behind-the-Scenes participants spent an informative, entertaining morning.

Joanne Seeger of JR Plant and Floral Productions of Milwaukee taught planners how to creatively and economically use plants and flowers. The attendees also received a tour of the convention center, seeing all of the work that goes into setting up the expo floor for a major event.

Some of the participants then went to the kitchen, where the planners prepared a meal of steak, vegetables, and potatoes.

The morning culminated with participants enjoying the results of their efforts: a luncheon consisting of food they helped to prepare, at tables adorned by the attendees' floral arrangements.

Many attendees also had the opportunity to see St. Louis sights on Tuesday afternoon's tours, which included the cathedral and Forest Park, site of the 1904 World's Fair.

All of RCMA came together for the first time Tuesday night at the Grand Reception, held at America's Center with a World's Fair theme, complete with a Ferris wheel, scrumptious food, roving entertainers, and midway games. The event gave attendees the opportunity to mingle and become reacquainted with fellow religious meeting professionals.

Tuesday had set the stage for Wednesday's full day and night of activities.

Embrace Adventure

What's the fundamental problem in America today, the one that drives so many people to depression and despair?

It's the lack “refrigerator rights,” according to Will Miller, therapist/minister/comedian and the keynote speaker at Wednesday's opening general session.

Refrigerator rights are a metaphor for people we know and trust, close friends and family, those who have the “right” to walk into your home and spontaneously go to the refrigerator and help themselves.

“Of the faces that you see each day, what percentage of those people have refrigerator rights?” Miller asked.

People flourish in a full-bore family, one in which grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and more live in close geographic proximity and are part of our daily lives, he said.

In America, most people don't have that network of relationships. In fact, each year, 17 percent of Americans move, Miller said. The lack of refrigerator-rights relationships manifests itself in a nation of people who are plagued by shocking rates of mood disorders.

Miller offered a solution for this lack of connection, and the solution lies within the organizations that RCMA members represent.

Congregational life, according to Miller, offers the opportunity to interact with people of varied ages and backgrounds, people who are willing and able to provide “womb-to-tomb affirmation and correction.”

Sometimes we think that affirmation and correction are things for toddlers and teenagers, but we need them our entire lives, Miller said. Congregational life offers the chance to interact with people who can give us affirmation that carries weight and does not come with an agenda.

Miller's speech followed a fun-filled opening to the 33rd RCMA World Conference and Exposition and its theme, Gateway to Excellence.

A singing and dancing troupe opened the breakfast with a high-energy performance. “When we all work together, we can do anything we plan — through the gate- way, you and me,” they sang.

The audience then was welcomed by Carole Moody, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, and Jack Stone, RCMA president. Of America's Center, Moody said: “It's where we are and what we are, the center of America.”

Stone, RCMA Executive Director DeWayne S. Woodring, and the RCMA Board of Directors then “promoted” all the attendees, handing out stickers they could add to their convention badges. The first convention promotion came when Woodring went into the audience and elevated Ruth Adair, Triedstone Full Gospel Baptist Church, Chicago, to the position of queen for the week.

Waking up Our Minds

At Wednesday's luncheon, humorist Jeffrey P. McMullen said that you can cope with life — and even change your life — by developing three key personality traits: a positive mental attitude; consistency; and risk-taking.

McMullen recommends cultivating a positive mental attitude by waking up to sounds that tell us why it's important to get up and look forward to the day. He, for example, starts each day by listening to the sound of a baby's heartbeat in its mother's womb — his son's heartbeat, recorded 12 years ago when the child's health was in doubt.

Consistency is the learned ability to perform at the same level every time we do a task.

“As leaders, the consistency of your results depends on your consistency every time you step into the spotlight,” McMullen said. “People judge our consistency by what we say, what we think, and what we do.”

Risk-taking is a challenge, McMullen said, because human beings resist change. “Explore each new day with new possibilities. Stop waking up on the right side of the bed; wake up on the right side of your minds.”

Shirley Jones on Stage

Throughout the day Wednesday, there was an air of excitement as attendees anticipated the evening's entertainment: a performance by Academy Award — winner Shirley Jones, preceded by ventriloquist Jay Johnson.

Performing in the Ferrara Theatre within America's Center, Jones treated the audience to a succession of beloved songs from American stage and screen. In between, Jones engaged the audience with stories from her celebrated career. She told the story, for example, of how she and the director of The Music Man kept Jones' pregnancy a secret during production. The “secret” made its presence known, however, when — during the film's sole kissing scene — Patrick in the womb kicked leading man Robert Preston.

Back to Class

Class was in session Thursday morning at the Kollege of Kongregatin' Knowledge, RCMA's extremely distinguished institution of higher learning.

A panel of professors, led by Dean Melvin Tennant (San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau) presided over an “examination” of the kollege's assembled student body. (For the questions, and the answers, from the exam, see page 26.)

Armed with handheld audience-response devices provided by Swank Audio Visuals, the students answered multiple-choice and true-false questions on a range of meeting-planning topics.

The percentage breakdown of answers given was displayed on a video screen. Faculty members gave the correct answers and provided detailed explanations when necessary — and some-times when unnecessary.

Upon completion of the exam, students received their hard-earned diplomas, which read, in part, “for having met the highest standards of meeting management as demonstrated by exceptional examination performance.”

Center of Activity

The expo floor, always a favorite meeting place for attendees, was abuzz with associate-member convention and visitors bureaus, hotels, convention centers, campus and nonprofit facilities, and the full range of religious-meetings service providers.

The sold-out expo offered more than 300 booths. Many attendees had studied the December issue of Religious Conference Manager, which contains the complete exhibitors list, so they could target the people they wanted to visit. Others strolled the aisles in search of the new venue that could be the right fit for their meeting.

Equally important to attendees were the invaluable tutorials, held Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. The tutorials offered advice on an array of topics, including contracts, putting CVBs to work for your meetings, and marketing.

RCMA members were attentive and involved, taking notes, asking questions, and sharing ideas, and they left the sessions anxious to put the advice to use. By Thursday evening, attendees were discussing with fellow planners the valuable information they had learned.

Honor Bestowed

RCMA gathered Thursday night in the ballroom of the Renaissance Grand downtown for a superb dinner and the night's program.

The highlight came when RCMA President Jack Stone, general secretary/HG operations officer, International Headquarters, Church of the Nazarene, Kansas City, Mo., presented the 2005 President's Award. The honor went to Tom Jackson, United Pentecostal Church International.

Each year the President's Award is given to an individual who has rendered distinguished service to RCMA and the field of religious conference management.

In his remarks, Stone noted that Jackson can trace his relationship within the organization to its very founding. In 1972, Jackson was seated at the table with three other ministers when the conversation turned to developing a society for religious conference planners.

Out of that discussion, RCMA was born, and the first RCMA conference was held in January 1973 in Louisville, Ky.

“Through the years, he has given outstanding support to our association through member recruitment, as a tutorial leader, and presently as a member of the board of directors,” Stone said.

Jackson grew up as a preacher's son in a rural town and accepted the call to ministry at age 15. Two years later, he took over for his father as pastor of the local church and continued in that service for 10 years.

He went on to become director of promotions for a denomination youth division, and then president of a Bible college. Today he serves as the senior administrative assistant in church administration at the international head-quarters of the United Pentecostal Church. Jackson is responsible for the general conference, which attracts 15,000 to 18,000 delegates annually.

Looking West

The 33rd annual RCMA came to a close Friday morning with breakfast, the annual business meeting, and general session sponsored by next year's RCMA host, the San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau. San Jose set a festive mood for the breakfast, with a mariachi band entertaining during the meal.

In a panel discussion during the closing session, RCMA grappled with the new reality of religious meetings. The panelists said that it is the job of both planners and suppliers to make themselves attractive to each other. Why? Because both sides need each other in order to deliver meetings that are valuable to attendees. (See story on page 13.)

As the breakfast came to a close, Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach lookalikes performed “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” It should be fun.