“A convent is on the Saint Mary's campus, so peace, quiet, and solitude are prominent characteristics; those qualities might not meet the needs of a faith group that wants to make a joyful noise.”



There might have been a time when religious groups wouldn't have considered a meeting site operated by a different denomination or religion. Meeting planners probably feared this response: “Why should we go there when we can choose from locations within our own denomination?”

Ecumenism seems to be gaining in the religious meetings scene, though, as planners realize that going to a site outside their faith tradition holds marvelous opportunities for spiritual growth. Meeting planners, of course, also choose nontraditional locations when they're the best fit for meetings.

Mark Milligan, director of conference center and facility scheduling for the Andrew Conference Center at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, believes meeting planners representing non-Catholic organizations may think about faith differences when considering Saint Xavier, “but it's not an obstacle.”

In fact, many meeting planners feel that their groups are more comfortable at a faith-based site than at a secular location, because their attendees share the core values of the institution. Recognizing common ground can be an exciting experience, according to Richard Baxter, director of special events at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind.

“The more sharing and communication we do, the better we understand each other,” Baxter says. “We're devoting our lives to similar goals. We're all headed in the same direction, but we might have taken different trails.”

Share Your Faith

Holding your event or conference at a site that's outside your tradition can present unique opportunities for sharing your faith with others.

“It can be a growth opportunity,” says Mark Hafner, director of conference services at Evangel University, a school in Springfield, Mo., that is affiliated with the Assembly of God. Hafner recalls when Evangel hosted youth gatherings from Word of Faith, a Detroit Pentecostal congregation. He says cultural and religious differences existed between the youth and the Evangel community, but the exuberance of the youths' faith quickly overcame those potential barriers.

“The group left a lasting impression on the Evangel community through its profound respect and love for everyone they encountered, including groundskeepers and maintenance staff,” Hafner says. “They just communicated that ‘Jesus is Lord, and we're all brothers and sisters in Christ.’”

Hafner remembers that the youth groups were more demonstrative in worship than the people at Evangel were, and that was a lesson, too. “They [the youth] were just giddy with excitement that they had received the thumbprint of God upon them. It was a wonderful experience,” he says.

Sharing faith stories also can take place when groups from different denominations are on a campus at the same time, according to Judy Bruce, conference services manager at Seattle Pacific University, an institution affiliated with the Free Methodists. For example, a group of Episcopal clergy and a group of Presbyterian clergy recently shared the same dormitory. “It was neat to see them mixing with each other,” Bruce says.

The Best Fit

Regardless of the benefits of sharing one's faith, no religious meeting planner would choose a site if it didn't meet the event's needs. “We're evaluated like any other location,” says Milligan.

Conversely, it would be foolish not to consider a location if it does meet your group's needs. Colleges and other nontraditional meeting sites can offer terrific locations and tremendous value, so they're a natural for many religious meetings.

Michael Baker, for example, is conference and events manager at Messiah College, a Grantham, Pa., school with an Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan tradition. Baker says Messiah attracts meetings because of its beautiful setting and its eastern Pennsylvania location — convenient to cities throughout the East.

Similarly, Saint Xavier University in Chicago is attractive to religious meeting planners because of its location and its good prices, Milligan says.

Some meeting planners, such as Charlene Johnson Ugwu, director of event management for the General Board of Discipleship with the United Methodist Church, are looking for unique amenities, and it makes sense for her to look beyond denomination labels.

Ugwu is planning a 2003 meeting for the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Arts. “The main priority for that group is a worship space with a great organ,” Ugwu says. She's considering sites in Illinois and Minnesota and has been offered worship space by Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian congregations.

“We're willing to go into different churches, if they would allow us,” Ugwu says. “The welcome we've received has been very warm. We don't expect any problems.”

An institution with a different faith background also is the perfect fit when a specific denomination is sponsoring, organizing, or hosting a nondenominational conference, according to Brian Hallahan, director of conferences and summer programs at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. For example, if a Catholic group is hosting an event that is being marketed as interdenominational, holding the event at a location of a different faith may help the event's credibility. “It sends a positive signal,” Hallahan says.

Unique Cases

There seems to be more common ground than ever among people of different denominations and religions, but communication still is necessary. Consider the unique challenges that Sherry Moore faces.

Moore is national conference hotel coordinator for the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. Her group's annual conference is held each year in a city that has a Messianic Jewish congregation, because members of the local congregation make up the event's volunteer staff.

Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Moore says her group often feels as if it is outcast — with members viewed as traitors by some Jews and with skepticism by some Christians. So Moore is happy when her group is met with enthusiasm, as it was several years ago when it met at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

“Many people have not heard of Messianic Jews,” Moore says. “When we go to a location, we usually have a talk with the staff people who are hosting us, to explain who we are.”

Similarly, Richard Baxter at Saint Mary's College always explains to meeting planners right away how his campus looks and feels. A convent is located on Saint Mary's campus, so peace, quiet, and solitude are prominent characteristics; those qualities might not meet the needs of a faith group that wants to make a joyful noise.

A Proactive Approach

“I realize that God is bigger than my denomination. It's a wonderful expansion of my own faith.”
— Mark Hafner, Evangel University



If you are a meeting planner who is wondering if your group is ready to convene at an institution of another faith, it's a good idea to propose the question first to your group's administration.

Charlene Johnson Ugwu says her music and arts group is open to meeting at non-Methodist locations, but that she would consult her administrator before moving ahead with a meeting of the church's leadership at a non-Methodist location.

While that's a good idea, you also should listen to your instincts. Richard Baxter is of the opinion that meeting planners have a good sense of what their attendees are comfortable with, and you shouldn't ignore those gut feelings.

A shared mission

The prevailing opinion is that, in a society that sometimes seems faithless, attendees of religious meetings appreciate being at a faith-centered location — regardless of whether they agree with all the institution's beliefs.

“When a religious group is coming in, we know that they're going to come to us with a sensitivity and appreciation for who we are,” says Richard Baxter. “Is this group that's coming in going to be compatible with our mission? Of course they are.”

“I encourage meeting planners to experience sites with other backgrounds,” says Mark Hafner. “When I worship in a church of a different denomination or experience a different faith, I realize that God is bigger than my denomination. It's a wonderful expansion of my own faith.”

Checklist

Faith-based colleges, universities, and similar facilities have unique characteristics. If you are unfamiliar with the institution's traditions and customs, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Get approval. If your group never has used a facility from another denomination or religion, make sure to receive approval from your organization's leadership before you getd too far into the process.
  • Communicate your uniqueness. Your group might have special requirements (food or worship space, for example). Identify those needs to the facility and make sure that they can be met before you sign a contract.
  • Share your mission. Take the time to let the facility know your organization's mission. It's unlikely that your mission will be incompatible with the facility. In fact, staff might work harder for your group because of the values you share.
  • Check the policies. Many faith-based facilities have no-smoking and no-alcohol policies. Ask about these policies and make sure they're compatible with your group's needs. For example, if a facility has a no-alcohol policy, would you be allowed to use wine in communion services?
  • Welcome others. Use your meeting as an opportunity to share your group's faith with others. Prepare materials for facility staff explaining your group, and invite staff people to your special services.