Preparing for the 2004 Wesleyan General Conference was one of the “sharpest learning curves I've ever been on,” says Ronald Kelly, general secretary of the Wesleyan Church, Noblesville, Ind.

Indeed. After being elected general secretary, Kelly had 3½ years to prepare for the conference, held every four years, as well as taking over the other duties: record keeping, archives, public relations, and care of church world headquarters in Noblesville. During those first years he also oversaw moving the headquarters into a new building.

An ordained pastor, Kelly's previous experience was 15 years as a pastor in Allendale and Owosso, Mich., and 16 years as district superintendent in the Western Michigan district, working with 50 churches.

But, by a “fluke,” information about RCMA came across the table five months after he was elected. “We joined RCMA; it was very, very valuable,” Kelly says. He attended his first RCMA convention in Milwaukee with his assistant; the next year he also brought his wife. They attended separate tutorials, to cover as many topics as possible.

With that and advice from the previous secretary, Kelly's staff undertook the 2004 convention in Grand Rapids, Mich., with “three of us brand new, feeling pretty good,” he says.

His wife, Tana, was his secretary for 20 years, and joined him at the denomination office. She is a detail person, he says, so she arranged meals and rooms.

More Than Just Meetings

During the first convention, “we overlooked some things; it cost us a little, so we're still learning,” Kelly says.

The General Conference is the church's governance and business meeting, involving 500 delegates and their families, for a total of 2,000 attendees. It usually begins on Father's Day weekend and runs from Saturday to Wednesday, with “not much downtime.” While he plans the general conference, he doesn't plan activities for spouses and families. However, “one of the things I look at in a site is shopping in the area. In Grand Rapids, three museums were within walking distance. So I do look for some of those things.”

The General Conference usually heads toward second-tier cities because it's very price-sensitive, he said. First-tier is beyond what they can afford, but second-tier has its own challenges. While finding a convention center is no problem, finding a hotel with 500 rooms can be very difficult.

Making contacts, including national representatives of major hotel chains, is invaluable, and it's one of the reasons that he appreciate RCMA conventions.

He also reconnects with contacts. “In this industry there's a lot of nice people. It's like seeing old friends. I've made a lot of friends with CVBs and convention centers.”

Now Kelly is leaping into another unknown: serving on the RCMA board.

He shares this advice to new meeting planners: “As soon as you can, get to one of [RCMA's] conventions. I don't know where else you can meet other religious meeting planners and get together with the people you'll be working with.”

Relationships Matter

He also says to “make sure to get everything written into the contract the way you want it. As someone once told me, ‘What you get before the contract is signed is negotiating; what you get after it's signed is begging.’”

However, the relationship you have with people you're going to be working with is as important as the contract.

“If you don't have a good relationship, you get the letter of the law. Try to get to know them, find out how they function, let them know how you function. I probably wouldn't go where I didn't feel comfortable,” he says.

Kelly is working on 2008's General Conference. With four years between meetings, his second conference may be his last. He'll be 65 in 2008 and probably looking at retirement. He's planning ahead and writing a convention-planning manual so that his successor experiences a smooth transition.

GETTING TO KNOW

Ronald Kelly

Born: southern Delaware

College: Eastern Pilgrim College, (now closed) Allentown, Pa.

Seminary: Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky.

Family: Wife Tana, two sons, two granddaughters

Hobbies: Traveling and cars