Attendees at Christian Leadership Alliance’s national meeting in April packed every bit of meeting space at the Hilton Anaheim Hotel as the group of nearly 1,400 registrants took advantage of more than 100 different educational sessions offered during the three-day event.

The program included 85 workshops, 22 full-day seminars, three one-day forums, four general sessions, and 19 keynote speakers, special guests, and entertainers. Not surprisingly, CLA’s members rank the national conference as their “top leadership training opportunity,” says CLA’s vice president of communications and lifelong learning, W. Scott Brown.

But the meeting is also the centerpiece of the association’s many platforms and programs for serving as a knowledge resource for members. “The conference is more of a launching pad than a landing zone,” Brown explains. “It’s a microcosm of what we do throughout the year, and that is very intentional.”

Taking a Strategic Approach

CLA’s mission is to “unite, train, and equip Christian leaders to think higher for greater kingdom gain.” As such, the association aims to provide lifelong learning by tapping the expertise of thought leaders and presenting that knowledge base through a variety of programs, events, media, and technology. In addition to the national conference, these outreach efforts include an online academy, a professional credentialing program, webcasts, a print magazine, an e-newsletter, and social media.

In each of these approaches, information and education are tracked into eight core subject areas:
• Executive leadership
• Financial management
• Communications and marketing
• Internet and technology
• People management and care
• Resource development
• Board governance
• Tax and legal issues

Moreover, the association has designed a sophisticated framework for connecting with members on a daily, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis. “We promote all the resources that we offer very heavily at the conference,” Brown says. “It’s the place where we share all the ways we connect throughout the year.”

Connecting at the Anaheim Meeting

At this year’s meeting in April at the Hilton Anaheim, there were many examples of how the association brings it all together for attendees, starting with a detailed on-site program guide spelling out various opportunities throughout the year.

Education is the core mission of CLA, and attendees at the meeting could earn up to 18 continuing professional education credits, as CLA is registered with the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy as a sponsor of CPE.

Education sessions at the meeting are also the primary way for members to earn points toward their Credentialed Christian Nonprofit Leader (CCNL) designation. New in Anaheim this year, says Brown, was an effort to elevate the profile of those earning their CCNL certifications. The 22 individuals were honored at the final night dinner. “These are people who are very active
year-round with CLA, and giving them special recognition at the meeting resulted in building more awareness of the program and also more people signing up on site to be part of it.”

Another change at this year’s meeting saw Scott and CLA President and CEO Tami Heim acting as the event’s emcees; in the past, the association hired a professional emcee to introduce speakers and make core announcements at the general sessions. “It was another way to build connection with members,” Scott says, “and something that Tami very much wanted to do as part of her inaugural conference as CEO.” (Heim came on board with CLA in 2012.)

Heim was also instrumental in launching two new forums at the meeting in addition to the popular CEO Forum—one for women in leadership and another for next-generation leaders. “She’s had an impact across the entire association and really propelled us into the social media and blogging spheres in ways that we have never been before, to really take all the knowledge resources and get that to a wider Christian leadership audience,” Brown notes.

CLA heavily tapped social media during the conference, using LinkedIn, Twitter, blogging, Facebook, and Google+ to drive participation. “We’re finding a growing importance to our social media voice in promoting the annual conference as well as sharing daily best practices, ideas, and information,” Brown says. “Social media is not just a marketing vehicle.”

Logistical Challenges

D’Wayne Leatherland, CMP, president and owner of Leatherland Consulting and Management Services, is CLA’s conference manager. Hired in early 2011, he has primary responsibility for event logistics. (Leatherland is also the Religious Conference Management Association’s newest board member, elected at the annual meeting in January.)

With so many educational sessions, the challenge on the logistics side is obvious enough. “The meeting is what the industry would call a ‘space hog,’ and accommodating the various sessions is like putting a giant jigsaw puzzle together,” he says with a laugh. Adding to the challenge is the fact that attendees do not pre-register for sessions so there is a need to adjust on the fly.

“We’re not sure it’s worth the extra hassle and expense of doing pre-registration in terms of whether we’d really get the information we need that way,” he explains. “We compensate by having a staff that has been doing this for years and has a good grasp of the kinds of audience that different topics are likely to attract.”

With so many sessions, the group tries to minimize the number of room resets as much as possible. “It gives us the opportunity to utilize more creative formats in many cases,” he adds.
Another challenge is one many other groups face: finding the budget to get the bandwidth that the association would like to be able to use during the meeting. “It’s frustrating not to be able to provide the kind of [Internet] access attendees are used to. Hopefully, this will change in the industry as bandwidth becomes less of a revenue stream for properties; we are already seeing that trend starting to balance out so we can meet people’s needs. Certainly it will become more and more a part of site negotiations.”

Next year will present a big change: For the first time, CLA’s Christian Nonprofit Leadership Academy, a standalone event typically held in the fall, will be folded into the national conference. The leadership academy is CLA’s “graduate school,” offering in-depth, 10-hour courses in the association’s core leadership disciplines.

Accommodating the additional programming of the academy will be a challenge but not an insurmountable one, Leatherland says. The meeting will be held at the 1,120-room Hyatt Regency Dallas at Reunion, which has 160,000 square feet of meeting space.

W. Scott Brown adds that a strategy is already in place for how to combine the events and give the Academy its own feel and space within the Hyatt.

“It might be a tight fit but it will also offer a new education track for attendees and will give CLA one major national event,” he says. “And it will be an even greater opportunity to make the annual conference the primary place where we can connect more deeply with members, a place to share all the ways we can serve as a resource year-round.”