J. Robert Fiol — Bob, if you please — grew up in India in a family of ministers. His parents were missionaries, and his two older brothers are ministers. “We say it's the family business,” he says.
Fiol has seen the world by staying true to his calling, largely thanks to the 30-year career as a Navy chaplain that preceded his current post: assistant to the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church of America in Lawrenceville, Ga. Over 40 years and between the two jobs, there isn't much Fiol hasn't seen — or heard.
“Whenever I say something like that, a situation comes that I haven't faced before,” he says. “So I've gotten away from saying that.”
But consider the man's path in life. He was born in India and remained there for 17 years, through high school, before attending and graduating from Covenant College and Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. When he was 26, he joined the Navy as a chaplain and promptly shipped out to Vietnam with the Marines.
Over the years, he served the military stateside at Quantico in Virginia, joined a destroyer squadron based in Mayport, Fla., and went to Parris Island with the Marines. From there, the Navy sent him to graduate school, and he studied the Middle East at American University in Washington, D.C.
Dizzy yet? Hold on — there's more.
He was sent to Bahrain with the Navy, and then came back to Washington to do another tour with the Marine Corps at its headquarters. From there he went to Norfolk, Va., where he was with the Armed Forces Staff College, providing professional training for midlevel career officers.
Then it was on to Iceland with the Navy. Fiol came back to Newport News, Va., where he joined the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln as part of its pre-commissioning detail. He saw it through its sea trials, eventually coming back to Virginia Beach. He finished three decades of service on the staff of the Commander of Naval Air Forces-Atlantic.
Years of travel and relocation took their toll. Fiol sought something a little steadier and more grounded, which brought him to Atlanta in 1997 and the Presbyterian Church of America.
“It's been a delightful change not to be thinking every three years that I have to relocate and buy a new house,” he says. “When I was in Bahrain, that was 12 months without my family. Or I'd be on a ship for eight to 10 months at a time.”
Fiol's job with the church as assistant to the stated clerk — the institution's senior administrator — involves projects that have to do with documents, interpreting the church constitution, answering questions from member churches, their pastors, and their boards of elders. He's also involved in organizing the annual general assembly.
The general assembly attracts more than 1,500 commissioners, plus spouses and children. It always starts with a Tuesday evening worship service that is open to the public, and adjourns by Friday at noon. The event is almost always held in a convention center hotel so that all attendees are under one roof. Another factor in planning is picking a place where families will find entertainment; many families stay on in the host city for post-assembly vacations.
Meeting planning was an accidental career development for Fiol.
“In the military, I planned training events for other chaplains,” he recalls. “But I was not aware that meeting planning would be part of my responsibilities when I moved here! We had a small office, and I got involved by default.”
He started slowly, participating in site visits to see if venues would meet the national church's needs. Another person in the office helped to plan the annual meetings. But soon a quarter of Fiol's time was spent meeting with local committees and visiting sites with them.
In the past three years, the church hired a full-time meeting planner, so Fiol's focus is on working with each year's local host committee.
Joining RCMA seven years ago and attending the annual convention for the first time was a turning point, not only in the minister's knowledge of meeting planning but also in his professional appreciation of it.
“It's always a delightful experience,” Fiol says. “Once you've attended for two or three years and you keep meeting the same people, a real bond develops, as does camaraderie.”
J. Robert “Bob” Fiol
Born and raised: India
Education: Master of Divinity from Covenant Seminary (St. Louis); master's degree in counseling from Pepperdine University; master's degree in management from Webster University (St. Louis)