Donald Ehler has been serving God and his faith for more than 35 years and has earned the right to use his e-mail handle, “chman1,” as in “church man number one.”
Ehler's religious beginnings go back to his childhood in Sheboygan, Wis. His parents — Alex, a building contractor, and Wilma, a homemaker — instilled in him faith in God and the importance of doing the right thing.
After he graduated from high school, Ehler earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian education from Appalachian Bible College in Beckley, W.Va. He knew his call was to God, and Ehler answered it: After graduation, he started a small church in Sparta, Wis. “When we opened the doors in 1965, we had 19 members and I earned a salary of $100 a month. Five years later, we had 100 members and I was being paid a full-time ministry salary.”
After growing the church in Sparta, Ehler headed to Hillsboro, Wis., where he has served as pastor for the past 29 years.
But that's not all he's been doing. He's also the assistant fire chief in Hillsboro, deputy sheriff, chaplain for the Wisconsin senate, and the annual meeting coordinator for the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, based in St. Paul, Minn.
Ehler started coordinating the annual meetings in 1991 to inspire and uplift his denomination's ministry and families. The meetings now draw 500 to 600 people from 40 states and up to 10 foreign countries.
“Each year, I plan the annual conference in a different part of the country,” Ehler said. “I respond to a steering committee, and we work together to see where we can benefit the most people, keeping the expenses to a minimum. We could be considering 26 cities at a time, but it usually comes down to which hotel will cut us the best deal and provide us with the most bang for our buck.”
This year's national conference took place in Spokane, Wash.; next year it will be in Lansing, Mich. Ehler is in the process of finalizing the 2003 conference at Founder's Inn in Virginia Beach, Va. “We choose the city based on cost and proximity to the needy churches that really need guidance and uplifting. RCMA has been very helpful at narrowing down our search.
“We get to speak to many of the hotel representatives at the RCMA conferences and gather the information we need without having to take the time to actually fly to the city. In fact, I met the people that we dealt with in Spokane at the RCMA conference. I might not have considered that city otherwise.”
Ehler was introduced to meeting planning when he started his career. “You would be given the title ‘program chairman,’ handed a packet of information, and asked to put together a conference. The task got so big that I rewrote the job description and realigned the job responsibilities with the needs of the church.”
Ehler's meeting planning work has become a family affair. His wife, Darlene, a teacher, helps with the annual conference's children's programs.
“The annual conference is really three different programs geared toward pastors, laymen, and their families. We offer an adult conference to the pastors and laymen, we have a full youth ministry reaching about 75 to 100 or more high schoolchildren, and we also have a full children's ministry from nursery school right up through junior high. This year my wife taught the choir for the children's ministry. In the past, my three children always attended.”
When Ehler is not sharing the word of God, he is living it. “I don't have too many hobbies. The church is really my life.”
His advice for fellow religious meeting planners is succinct: “Enjoy your work. Remember how many people's lives you'll have an impact on.”