Recently, a friend invited me to a special event at her church, which was being sponsored by her women’s group. It sounded like a great way to check out the church and meet some new people, plus childcare would be provided.
When we arrived, we left our kids in the preschool room with a dozen other children and two adults. After the event, we returned to pick up our sons. The caregivers were chatting with each other while my friend’s child busied himself with toy trucks. I didn’t see my child. Not yet concerned, I checked around the room, but he wasn’t there.
When it became clear the caregivers had no idea when he left or with whom he’d left, my anger was second only to my terror. Imagining my three-year-old abducted, or wandering into traffic, I began to panic. Fortunately, he was found roaming the hallways. But the damage had been done; I never set foot in that church again.
Whenever churches open their doors to the public they expose themselves to both opportunity and risk. A well-run event maximizes the opportunity and takes precautions against the risk.
Communication is key
How do churches ensure the success of their promotional endeavors and protect themselves from liability? Tracy Baer, Event Manager for Christ Community Church (CCC) in South Elgin, Illinois and Don Corbisello, Business Administrator for Christian Life Center (CLC) in Bensalem, Pennsylvania shared their insights.
Tracy has managed many large-scale events including one featuring a 13-foot-tall cucumber named Larry—that’s right, Larry the Cucumber of Veggie Tales fame. Others have included hosting contemporary Christian artists such as Superchick, Salvador, and the 33 Miles/Avalon concert. Tracy’s church regularly hosts a comedy club, which has been a sold-out event for three years at all three Christ Community Church campuses.
Don’s church has hosted the well-known Women of Faith conference, and authors/ speakers Gary Smalley and Tim LaHaye among others. The church is also used for local events such as high school graduations or performances by the Delaware Valley Philharmonic. In addition, a local television forum is broadcast from their location.
Bench-style seating accommodates up to 1800 people in the auditorium at CLC. Smaller events may be held in the gym, foyer, coffee shop, or classrooms. The church is equipped with a full-service kitchen and prepares food on-site.
Christ Community Church is a 160,000 square foot facility with room for 1900+ in the worship center. Theater-style seating including balconies make this an ideal place for large events. The gym serves smaller crowds of up to 800, or converts to a banquet hall for 500. In addition, the chapel seats 400.
Though the churches are similar in size, their approaches to event management differ. Christian Life Center relies on their website, paper forms, and verbal communication. Christ Community Church employs a computer network with event management software for in-house planning as well as using their website to publicize events. Both agree on the bottom-line to a successful event: communication.
Choose events that advance ministry purposes
Hosting events is one way churches reach out to their community. But not all events are worth sponsoring. Approval should be based on the purpose of the event. Any events you sponsor should adhere to the values of your church and advance your ministry purposes.
At CCC, sponsoring ministries must evaluate the experience in terms of how it meets the core values of Belonging, Growing, Reaching, and Serving. If an event passes this test, an “Event Approval Form” is submitted for review and approval by three parties: the team captain, administration director, and finally, the executive pastor. The approval form begins the planning process by asking the questions: what is the target demographic (school-aged kids, college, 30s)? What is the potential attendance? How will you promote the event? How will you measure a win? Will you use volunteers? What is your estimated budget? What is your estimated income? Which ministries will you call upon for assistance? It’s preferred that this form be completed and submitted 18-24 months, but no later than 6 months, prior to the occasion.
At CLC, a “General Request Form” is submitted three weeks prior to the proposed event. The Logistics Committee evaluates the request in terms of how the event promotes the Kingdom of God or growth within the church. Don points out that just because an event is labeled “Christian” does not mean it receives automatic approval. For example: Christian Life Center turned down the request from a Christian wrestling association not because there is anything particularly wrong with wrestling, but because they saw no connection to furthering the kingdom or growing in Christ.
This policy becomes the deciding factor should there be conflict in scheduling. Though it’s rare for two events to compete for the same space, if it happens, the event that most closely aligns with the mission of the church is chosen.
Determine the Needs
The “General Request Form” used at CLC is a four-page document that also addresses facility and equipment approval, provides space to diagram the room layout, and includes sections for requesting vehicles, finances, food service, and childcare. It’s a one-step process. The custodial staff is assigned the task of making equipment available, while it is the responsibility of the sponsoring ministry to set up and clean up the rooms used.
At CCC, once an event is approved, it is entered into Event Management Software (EMS). EMS is populated with inventory, room availability, memory-jogger questions, and checklists to assist in the planning process. As decisions are made, the information is entered into the software and available to all involved. Tracy has also created an Event Planning Guide that is available through a wiki on-line document system accessible by staff members from any computer in the network. This handy reference keeps everyone up to speed on the process of planning.
Events are a team effort at Christ Community Church. Planning meetings include the event manager, facilities manager, and representatives from all involved ministries such as Creative Arts, Sound, Technical Support, and Communications.
Once approval has been granted and needs identified, it’s time to talk with the featured talent.
Negotiate the details upfront
Three months before the event, Tracy expects to receive a contract for negotiation. The negotiation stage is the time to nail down every possible aspect of the event—liability, payment, cancellation fees, volunteer needs, resource needs, catering needs, bus stock, sound and tech support, merchandise proceeds, additional traveling sponsors with the group, stage requirements, and so on. The largest contract rider Tracy has dealt with was 37 pages long. “Everything has to be nailed down in writing before a contract is signed, all the way down to who is expected to clean up,” says Tracy.
Managing publicity and ticket sales
Both churches have in-house graphic design capabilities for the production of advertising materials such as posters or flyers as well as tickets. In addition, both churches promote events through the church websites, bulletins, and announcements.
Registration and ticketing are handled in a variety of ways. At CLC, interested patrons may phone in registration, register on the church’s website, or sign-up on site. Tickets are available at the church following services.
Depending on the size of the event, CCC may use their internal database for registration, or for larger crowds, the second option is external ticketing software by ServiceU – TicketU. This method allows for sales of tickets online or through the on-site box office.
Communicate to Avoid Problems
According to Tracy, “one of the biggest challenges with this many people is making them feel welcome while maintaining a level of security.”
Christ Community Church staff and volunteers are organized into teams, each with a particular area of responsibility.
The First Impression Team’s goal is to make visitors feel welcome. It begins in the parking lot. CCC has a quarter mile driveway and approximately five acres of parking lot. Traffic Team members, in bright orange coats, wave flashlights to direct drivers to designated parking. Use of cones, signage with arrows, portable lighting, and friendly, smiling parking attendants helps visitors find their way and reduces anxiety.
Once inside, greeters welcome guests, have them sign-in and procure nametags before handing them off to ushers, who help them find their way to the auditorium and seating. Signing in and out and wearing nametags is standard security protocol at CCC. In the event of an evacuation or shut-in, they need to be able to account for all persons in the building.
During the event, the Security Team ensures safety by prohibiting admittance to those without tickets, and by patrolling the interior to encourage guests to stay in designated areas. Once the event is underway, Traffic and Security Teams monitor the parking lot for suspicious activities. The Security Team consists of off-duty and retired police officers, and they are ready to serve as liaison with the police department, should any interaction with them become necessary.
The safety of guests is a responsibility CCC takes seriously. The Medical Response Team is on-hand to attend to any medical emergency and to act as point person with the local fire and rescue department. As an added measure of protection, each staff member, medical or security personnel as well as ushers and greeters are assigned a number from the paging system. This number is flashed on a screen near the stage if management needs to alert them of an emergency.
Additional Maintenance Team members are on hand to monitor restrooms for trash, cleanliness and supplies, and dispose of trash accumulation in the auditorium and hallways.
At the end of the event, guests are bid a warm good-bye and pass once again into the care of Traffic and Security team members as they exit the grounds.
At Christian Life Center visitors are no less valued than those at CCC, but logistics differ based in large part on the differences in their facilities. CLC is surrounded by parking, and guests are always within 40 yards of an entrance. This close proximity to the building eliminates the need for parking attendants.
It is the responsibility of the sponsoring ministry to recruit volunteers to greet and usher guests.
During events, custodial staff does double-duty as security. In addition to maintaining a healthy environment, custodians walk throughout the building to redirect people who have wandered from the event and monitor the parking areas. In case of emergency, 9-1-1 is notified and police and/or fire and rescue personnel intervene.
When small churches host large events
What lessons can smaller churches glean from the procedures used by large congregations like CCC and CLC? How does a small church manage activities that involve welcoming the larger community to their facility?
When Fellowship Church of Carol Stream hosted a Bible Quiz Meet that included teams from nine Midwestern churches, Anita McFarlane worked with a team of volunteers to insure that the event went off without a hitch.
Before the actually planning began, Anita telephoned the church office and proposed several possible dates for the event. The event required physical space throughout the church, so she also contacted various ministry leaders to ask permission to use those rooms. With the date and space established, it was time to plan.
Announcements ran in Sunday bulletins asking for volunteers-volunteers to provide and/ or prepare food, volunteers for set-up/tear-down, and volunteers to house quizzers and coaches.
Registration was handled by e-mail. Each church was responsible for providing a list of registered quizzers and coaches and details about those needing to be housed.
Once a headcount was established, a volunteer set the lunch menu and provided sign-up sheets with specific food items needed.
A small fee was charged to pay for awards and (hopefully) cover the cost of any food that might be purchased if donations fell short. For the small church, volunteer help and donations are critical to the success of an event.
The smaller the church, the greater the risk?
According to Anita, the biggest risks in hosting a large group event at church are in the area of food and housing. Volunteers were cautioned to use food safety precautions, such as hand washing, to avoid unsanitary conditions when preparing and serving lunch. They were careful not to leave food out for an extended period of time.
If families volunteer to open their home to host an event or house a visiting guest, they assume the liability for this. In this case, it’s a good idea to know what your homeowner’s insurance policy coverage includes.
The problem with small churches hosting events is that they may forego some of the steps that larger churches take, such as having signed contracts that relate to the event, a security team to monitor people and property, and a medical team that’s on-site and ready to go in an emergency.
No matter the size of the church, Tracy, Don, and Anita agree-communication is the key to successful event management. If you think you’ve asked someone to do something, ask again. If you think you’ve told someone a particular date or time, remind them. Be specific in instructions and document decisions. Plan ahead and require accountability along the way.