Mollie Stewart, president and CEO, Gulfside Assembly of The United Methodist Church, Waveland, Miss., has been planning meetings for The United Methodist Church for 16 years, but in recent years, her attention has turned more toward rebuilding a ministry, the Gulfside Assembly, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“The whole city of Waveland, Miss., was wiped out because the eye of the storm came in and stalled over Waveland,” says Stewart, president and chief executive officer at the Gulfside Assembly, which is part of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. Waveland is between Biloxi and New Orleans, very close to where the massive Category 5 hurricane came ashore on August 29, 2005.

“Up and down Beach Boulevard where we are located, right on the Gulf of Mexico, it took everything out,” Stewart says. “There was nothing left except a sign.” All 13 buildings on the campus, including the ministry center, were gone.

“Everything was down to the slabs. There was not even a wall left,” she says.
Making matters worse, just 20 days before Katrina hit, Gulfside had celebrated the grand opening of a new $2.8 million meeting facility on campus. It was gone before even one group had met there.

Rebuilding After Katrina

Stewart wasn’t with Gulfside at the time Katrina hit. She was working with a United Methodist Church in North Carolina and was a member of the UMC’s Commission on General Conference, which is responsible for planning the quadrennial conference. However, she was brought down on an interim basis to help with the rebuilding process and joined Gulfside full time in January 2009.

Since she has been with Gulfside, her focus has been more on rebuilding and less on meetings, but she still oversees about eight meetings annually.

Stewart began planning meetings for UMC in 1992 when she joined the Commission on General Conference. Since then, she has had a hand in planning every General Conference.

Now, the meetings she runs at Gulfside range from about 15 to 500 attendees—
all taking place in the Southeast Jurisdiction of the UMC in places such as Huntsville, Ala.; Greensboro, N.C.; Jackson, Miss.; and New Orleans. The meetings she runs are generally workshops, retreats, educational conferences, board meetings, or youth gatherings.

When booking meeting sites, she considers cost, convenience, and comfort. In other words, the destinations must be accessible by air, not too expensive, and have the right space requirements and amenities for the particular group. “It’s really important to know your group and their needs,” she says.

Before Katrina hit, they had facilities to host local meetings and retreats on the Gulfside campus. Now, they book space in a hotel for local meetings. Stewart and her staff work out of a house that they bought in Waveland that serves as the temporary headquarters for Gulfside while they prepare for the future.

Plans are in place to rebuild the Gulfside Assembly bigger and better than ever. The $17 million project will include the construction of a four-story ministry center that will include meeting space, training facilities, and an auditorium. The campus also will have retirement condominiums/villas and assisted-living facilities, Stewart says. There will be facilities equipped with the technology to conduct distance learning as well, which will make it easier to get access to nationally recognized educators.

Gulfside leaders tentatively plan to launch a capital campaign this fall to raise funds to supplement insurance money and rebuild the ministry. They are also waiting for the real estate market to improve before selling the retirement villas and assisted-living units. There is no timetable yet for when construction will begin.

“We’re taking our time. We’re not rushing it. We want to make certain that we are on sure footing when we get there,” Stewart says.

The Value of RCMA

Stewart has been an RCMA member since 1996, having heard about it through Stella Beene-Venson, a colleague and friend at UMC. Stewart says that the annual conference is invaluable to her as a meeting professional for the education, networking, leadership development, exhibits, and fellowship. She has missed only one meeting since she joined 14 years ago. “It [the conference] has everything you need as a meeting planner,” she says. “You can’t get that kind of connection anywhere.”

When she’s not planning meetings or rebuilding the Gulfside Assembly, Stewart is working to improve the lives of the less fortunate. The Gulfside Assembly has partnered with a group called Move the Mountain, which is launching a national campaign to fight poverty in the U.S.

It’s been a long road back for the Gulfside Assembly as it picks up the pieces after Katrina, but under Stewart’s leadership and guidance, the future is bright.