Faith-Based Meeting Planners are Scrambling to Find Ways to Continue to Produce Affordable, High-Impact Meetings.

The recession plunged the world into financial chaos at the end of 2008, taking a heavy toll on faith groups and their meetings. As unemployment and foreclosures rose and the stock market crashed, many churches and congregations saw offerings decline, forcing budget cuts and layoffs as well as restructuring.

According to a February survey by the National Association of Church Business Administration, 32 percent of congregations reported financial difficulties related to the economy, and 47 percent had reduced or frozen staffing levels. The Unitarian Universalist Association, for example, announced staff and travel cutbacks in March, as well as department restructuring and a salary and hiring freeze. Executives of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in May eliminated scheduled pay raises for 2010 and stipulated an unpaid weeklong furlough for national staffers. Even long-established ministries, such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, have cut staff and announced other belt-tightening moves.

It's not surprising that many faith-based meeting planners are scrambling to find ways to continue to produce affordable, high-impact meetings and conventions with reduced budgets and staff. Here's a look at how four groups are meeting this challenge, and in some cases, finding a silver lining.

Taking Action Early

Unitarian Universalist Association

In October 2008, as turmoil seized the national economy, Janiece Sneegas, director, General Assembly and Conference Services for the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association, met with the UUA's treasurer, who told Sneegas that her department would have to make some “hard decisions” regarding the June 2009 General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

“[UUA] faced significant budgetary issues,” Sneegas explains, “so we had to reduce the General Assembly's projected budget and make some tough choices.” To trim conference costs, the number of staff attending the June assembly was reduced significantly, the marketing budget was cut, and the budget for the on-site child-care program was reduced by $30,000.

As a result, child care at the 2009 General Assembly was relegated to the hotel, and educational and enriching bus trips to area attractions were cut. With fewer staff members as well as volunteers, there were long lines at the registration area. Moreover, registration fell from the projected 4,500 to 3,300 people. UUA delegates must pay their own way to the General Assembly, and the toughest economy in memory no doubt hurt registration.

The budget for the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis at present is essentially the same as the 2009 meeting, including the pared-down child-care program, Sneegas says. She adds that there has been strong interest in the meeting in Minneapolis, where the UUA has not met for about 30 years. However, the organization will continue to book a very conservative room block.

“I find it's easier to go shopping for rooms than to unload them,” she explains. “And if registration is strong and budgets aren't as tight, it is much easier to add programming and services back than to take them out once they are part of the published program. We don't want to take a chance that we will be badly surprised.”

One positive note: Despite the economy, or perhaps because of it, she says the group made some “significant steps forward” with its green-meeting practices at the 2009 General Assembly. The UUA has long been recognized as a leader in the hospitality industry for pioneering sustainable meetings. When times are tough, Sneegas says suppliers are more willing to work with meeting planners to set up green meetings. “They save money,” she says. “Being green is good for the bottom line.”

Church of God in Christ

A Bold Step for 2010

For more than a century, the annual Holy Convocation of the Church of God in Christ has been held in Memphis, Tenn., where the church is based. But that changed this summer when Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. announced that church leadership had voted to move the convocation to St. Louis in 2010.

“It is with regret that we are forced to leave our founding city,” he said at a press conference in July. “However, this move is all about our members, for whom we have to provide the best possible spiritual experience during very tough economic times.”

The annual convocation draws more than 40,000 delegates, including participants from 58 countries, for a 10-day celebration of prayer, praise, and worship.

In light of the convocation's estimated economic impact of $35 million annually, COGIC leadership felt that Memphis had not been as flexible with room rates and other concessions as it has been with other convention groups, plus COGIC was not able to get a bigger room block. In addition to a better average hotel rate ($120), the move to St. Louis has resulted in various hotel discounts and complimentary services and facilities, according to Superintendent Dickerson Wells, COGIC spokesman.

“The bottom line is that this was a business decision,” Wells explains. He adds that another advantage is that in St. Louis, the group will be able to use one venue for the convocation rather than several, as was the case in Memphis.

The United Methodist Church

Trimming Hotel Meetings

Attendance at the 2008 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, held in Fort Worth, Texas, wasn't affected by the economic crisis, says Alan Morrison, business manager for the General Conference and director of support services for the General Council on Finance Administration. UMC's General Conference is a quadrennial meeting that lasts two weeks and draws participants from 50 countries. Delegate expenses are paid through the church budget, Morrison explains.

The economic crisis, on the other hand, has had an impact on many of the other 70 or so UMC meetings that Morrison manages. These are corporate-style meetings, he says, which are held in hotels or retreat facilities. They range in size from 10 to 300 people. Attrition is not normally an issue, since the church pays the expenses of the attendees for the majority of these meetings.

“For these meetings, we are tightening budgets, looking at frequency of meetings and their length,” he says. For instance, if a meeting typically lasts four days, a three-day meeting might work instead. Or if it's a twice-a-year meeting, it might be possible to meet just once but add a day to the schedule, Morrison says. “We're also making more use of conference calls and webconferencing.”

In a broader context, Morrison says that while church donations are still strong across UMC, overall they are down, and he notes that the recession has affected some communities much more deeply than others. Moreover, churches might not yet have felt the full impact of the recession.

“Secular entities get hit in an immediate way with recessions,” he says. “The effect on nonprofits tends to lag three to nine months later. For churches, the full impact might not be felt up to two years later, because people will keep up church-giving as long as they can.”

Presbyterian Church USA

Economy Quickens Pace of Change

For several years the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been losing members, and as a result, downsizing and cost-cutting are nothing new to Deborah Davies, manager of meeting services for the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination.

“We've always operated on a shoestring, and our budgets have been declining for several years. The current economy has exacerbated that trend, and we essentially moved up the cutbacks we would have been doing anyway,” she says.

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After a spring 2009 round of cutbacks and staff layoffs, Davies' department was, she says, extraordinarily lucky to have had staffing affected minimally, with one full-time administrator reduced to part time. However, gearing up for the General Assembly in 2010 in Minneapolis, “We have to look at big and little things, even sacred cows, like tote bags for attendees.”

Nonetheless, 2009 saw the initiation of a new meeting for the denomination. The Big Tent conference, held in Atlanta this past summer, brought together 10 regional conferences of the church, replacing the separate meetings each would have held that year. Given the economy and the church cutbacks, it was an extraordinary time to launch a meeting, but the outcome was very positive, Davies says.

“We had hoped for a turnout of 1,500 people, and we got 1,450,” she says. However, many of the registrations came in at the last minute, which presented challenges and created anxiety for the staff. “We're hearing from other meeting planners and from hotels and CVBs that registrations are coming in last minute for a lot of organizations,” she notes. “It's a function of the economy.”

Big Tent offered an early-bird registration fee, but it didn't seem to help the number of registrations. The organization then decided to keep the early registration rate in place for all registrants, Davies says, noting that attendees paid their own way for the event.

“We really worked very hard to keep this meeting as affordable as possible for attendees,” Davies stresses. “We got a great rate at the Hyatt, and the hotel was near public transportation from the airport.” The upshot: It has been decided that the Big Tent meeting will be held every other year.

“We are looking for a venue for the 2011 meeting,” Davies reports happily.

If You Have to Make Cuts…

  • Act promptly. Don't wait until your conference is around the corner to make difficult budget decisions. “It's much easier to add programming and services back than to take them out once they are part of the published program,” says the UUA's Janiece Sneegas.

  • Book room blocks conservatively. You might find it much more difficult and costly to unload rooms than to shop for them if you need them, Sneegas says.

  • Scrutinize all expenses. For Deborah Davies of the Presbyterian Church (USA), no line item can be too small or big to consider cutting.

  • Look for opportunities to tweak. Alan Morrison of The United Methodist Church looks at whether a meeting can be cut by a day, or whether a twice-a-year meeting can be offered only once. Consider using technology for meetings that can be done online.

  • Shop around: If you don't feel that you're getting best deal, look somewhere else — even if it means breaking traditions. That was the case with the Church of God in Christ, which moved its annual convocation to St. Louis in 2010 after holding it in Memphis, where the denomination is headquartered, for more than 100 years.