When she talks about her meeting-planning duties, Alice Steele-Robinson is quick to point out she does not do it by herself; she credits her predecessor and her board — and the person who told her to join the Religious Conference Management Association.
“Dr. Mattilyn T. Rochester, one of the missionary supervisors, said, ‘You're going to be involved in planning; you need to become a member of RCMA,’” Steele-Robinson says.
“I did it, and I've been blessed ever since.”
She had to learn quickly. As executive secretary for the Woman's Home and Overseas Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, based in Charlotte, N.C., she directs the planning of two different types of meetings. Every four years, the society holds its Quadrennial, a business meeting attended by 4,000 people. In between are two Leadership Training Institute retreats, attended by 400 to 600 people. The major one is held in various locations around the United States, with satellite retreats held around the world.
Not Alone in Mission
The society's mission is to win the world for Christ, she says. Organized into six departments, the groups promote growth in understanding God's will for the world and provide opportunities for mission work and ministries. Four departments are organized for women of all ages. The fifth department is for overseas ministry, and the sixth is the Life Members Council.
Any woman of the church — the society counts 800,000 potential members — can be a voting member. Boys and men can be honorary members at every age group.
Her work with the groups doesn't give her a lot of time to work on planning meetings. Fortunately, she isn't alone. She assists the work of Adlise Ivey Porter, PhD, general president, who directs the work of the executive board, made up of the elected officers, as well as 12 missionary supervisors.
“When I became executive secretary, I didn't know it [meeting planning] would be as big a part of the job description as it has become,” Steele-Robinson says. Her main duties include maintaining day-to-day operations of the Society, including communicating with districts in the denomination.
A retired educator with 30 years' experience as a teacher and curriculum director, Steele-Robinson considers herself a lifelong learner. “Every time I get a challenge, I am excited, because it's another opportunity to learn.”
As an educator, Steele-Robinson served on planning boards for conferences, but the society position required much more knowledge. Her RCMA membership has given her “countless” pieces of knowledge, she says. Of particular value have been the legal seminars led by Jonathan Howe, a lawyer and regular RCMA speaker. “They helped me alleviate potential problems, and when challenges came, I had an idea how to address those,” she explains.
Following RCMA's Lead
A second benefit of RCMA training has been learning how to organize an event, from writing the registration form, to providing a variety of programming, to allowing time for attendees to visit the host city.
She also looks to RCM magazine, which she calls her “meeting planning Bible.” Steele-Robinson found the location for the 1999 Quadrennial from reading an RCMA article on Dallas. She read that the Adam's Mark hotel was planning an expansion and that RCMA was going there in 2000. That got her attention. “Because of the confidence RCMA had in Dallas, we went on faith and the reputation of Adam's Mark.”
For the Quadrennial, she tries to find one location that will accommodate at least 1,400 delegates. With women of all ages, it's important that the location be accessible, she points out. That said, Steele-Robinson laughed, the 2003 Quadrennial will be in Rochester, N.Y., where RCMA met in 1988. She will be trying a convention center and using its adjacent headquarters hotels. “Again, we're operating on faith. We are anticipating an excellent first.”
Faith is the foundation of her work. “You never know what to expect. You can plan, strategize, test some plans, but you can still have some unexpected things happen. You have to be able to respond to those, be flexible, and still make members feel they're your first priority.”