Jonathan Laabs can't understand whywould want to profile him.
“I'm not a typical planner,” he says in that gentle, unassuming Laabs manner.
While that may be true, Laabs — as anyone who has met and spent time with him at the annual RCMA convention or other events over the past decade will attest — is not a typical anything. He is the quiet voice in the room, unintentionally commanding respect with a calm, friendly demeanor and well-considered comments and opinions.
He may not be a “typical” religious meeting planner — but who is?
Laabs — pronounced “Lobbs” — just finished his 10th year as executive director of the Lutheran Education Association, which is headquartered in River Forest, Ill. He spent 20 years as a teacher, administrator, principal, and college professor before taking over LEA, the professional organization for educators in Lutheran ministries.
If the job seems tailor-made for him, that's because it barely existed before him; he is only the second person to have the job, and the first professional to have the post lasted less than a year.
Before that, the now 65-year-old organization was run by a series ofleaders.
“It was just a real neat opportunity for me,” Laabs says. “I felt the call was well-suited. It helped me to move to another level to support the people with whom I had already been working. It meant looking at the organization and its future through new eyes.”
Laabs tailored LEA to his strengths, reorganizing its structure and how it was funded, and rewriting its mission statement — all by the end of his second year. The new mission statement supports linking, equipping, and affirming LEA educators in Lutheran ministries.
“The span of people whom we serve starts with professionals working with children at the youngest ages and continues all the way through higher education,” he says.
LEA membership ebbs and flows; typically, it numbers in the 3,000 range, but as major conferences approach, the ranks often swell to as many as 5,000 people.
“We're constantly out there seeking new members,” Laabs says. “But because it's not school-based but individual, it's a lot tougher. A good percentage of our membership fees are paid by schools or organizations, but membership is by the individual, not in the name of their school.”
There are several different Lutheran church bodies, but the one with which LEA is most closely affiliated is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. “But we are also in partnership with a number of other church organizations in the United States, Australia, Asia, Canada, and Brazil.”
LEA is planning its triennial convocation, which will take place April 24-26, 2008, at the Minneapolis Convention Center. This will be the ninth event of its kind over the last 27 years. The citywide convention brings people together from all over the United States and around the world; attendance is typically more than 4,300 people.
There will be 210 sectional speakers during five scheduled time slots (breakout sessions) — 30 in each time slot.
A popular element is the, which attracts 200 vendors. “It's by far the largest event that most of our educators ever get to,” Laabs says. “Our vendors are happy because if they want to get into the Lutheran system, this is the place to be.”
Among the improvements and changes this triennial: LEA is expanding participation of international attendees with a one-day event before the convocation. “We'll try to bring in 100 people from outside the country to join those from the U.S. through the International Lutheran Educators Symposium,” Laabs explains. “It will be a regular event from this year forward. We've had international representation at all of our conferences in the past, but the purpose this time is to create an international community for Lutheran educators. I've been very active in participating in some of the international association's events in past years, so I'm making it a priority to understand our global connectedness. We're also talking about establishing an international Lutheran educators conference.”
LEA — which also organizes multiple training and board meetings each year — does not have the capacity on staff to handle all the elements of its large convocation, so for the last four triennial events, the organization has retained an independent meeting-planning service and has outsourced some elements, including video production.
“We're all about finding the right people and groups to do the right things. We don't take on housing and contractual stuff, but we do what we're best at.”
A Vital Resource
Given his responsibilities with LEA, where does his RCMA membership fit into Laabs' professional plans?
“We have major events that we sponsor; that's why my association with RCMA has been so critical,” he explains. “First of all, [RCMA] is an educational opportunity. My role [with LEA] is not exclusively as a meeting planner, so I am always picking up ideas and insights that help me better as an executive director to understand the industries represented. I'm the first to admit what I don't know.”
Not surprisingly, then, Laabs points to the annual RCMA convention tutorials as the most valuable part of being a member.
“It's the place where all those things come together. It has everybody in one place and makes it easier to identify what we all have in common.”
Family: Married 28 years
Education: Ed.D. from The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1994; M.A. from Concordia University, River Forest, Ill., 1980; B.A. from Concordia, 1977
Hobbies: Golf, still photography, travel