Be careful in election years, Lerry Fogle cautions other meeting planners. Plans can change at the last moment.

He learned that lesson this summer when President George Bush campaigned in Charleston, S.C., during the Church of the Brethren's annual conference.

Fogle, the Brethren's conference executive director, learned of the visit less than a week before the conference. At first the president was to be within blocks of the conference. “The president's event was moved to 10 blocks away, but it still affected us,” Fogle says, mostly in the shuttling to and from the convention center and routes for field trips.

“The impact was fairly minor, but it certainly reminded me to expect the unexpected and to make contingency plans,” he explains. With meeting planning, “there's never a dull moment. I guess I thrive on that.”

Fogle has had this job for only two years, but he believes that the combination of a business background (he was a software development manger for GEICO Corp.) and 15 years as a pastor are immensely helpful.

“I believe the search committee was looking for a person with a strong administrative background. … They were also looking for someone who was a church man, who understood the work of the church,” he says.

Student to Teacher

Since then it has been mostly on-the-job training. “After two years, I finally feel I know what meeting planning is all about,” he says. He has had a couple of advantages in learning his craft. One was being able to shadow his predecessor, Duane Steiner, for six weeks, including attending a Brethren annual conference.

Another advantage was Steiner telling him about RCMA. “He was very impressed with the organization and said it was very valuable in professional development and networking,” Fogle says.

Fogle recommends that other meeting planners do as much networking as possible. “RCMA provides good opportunities” for that, he says. “The more you can touch base with others who have gone through this, the better.

“I have found RCMA to exemplify what meeting planning is all about,” he adds. “I appreciate the meeting-planning aspect, but also showing how to be hospitable to all who come.”

Fogle will share some of his experiences and advice when he takes part in a panel discussion at RCMA 2005.

From Humble Beginnings

The changes in meeting planning are especially evident to the Church of the Brethren, with its 218 years of annual conferences. Up until the last 30-40 years, events were held by district in tents, with attendees sleeping in barns and camping on farms, Fogle says. Now the conference goes to major cities, mostly east of the Mississippi, where three-quarters of the church's 130,000 members reside. But every five years, the meeting moves to the Northwest, Southwest, or Plains states. The church's 1,000-plus congregations are divided into 24 districts. Meetings are planned five years in advance.

The annual conference is the church's highest legislative body, when for five days in July as many as 5,000 church members gather. About a quarter of them are delegates, the others nondelegates and family members. “It's very much a family experience,” he says.

Planning the event is the full-time job of Fogle and his assistant. Another conference assistant works part-time, except from February to May, when she is also full-time.

“It's an ongoing process,” Fogle says. “On any given day, I could be working on three to four years of conventions, with negotiations, business agenda, site selection.”

Travel takes up 10 percent to 20 percent of his time, including going to future sites to meet with volunteers. In late September, Fogle was visiting Peoria, site of the 2005 annual conference, to meet with the volunteers, begin the orientation process, and get them energized. It takes hundreds of volunteers to make the event run smoothly.

His background has been put to good use. “I find a great deal of reward applying the skills and talents I have in administration, planning, and meeting and working with people. All of it helps me to grow professionally and as a person.”