Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lessons in Event Planning

On Sunday, September 26 McDougall United Church celebrated the 100th anniversary of their current building (the congregation is 139 years old). I was one of three people involved in planning for the centenary, and I must say, it is a relief to have it over. It was the first such event I have been involved in, and I learned a number of lessons, which I thought I would share.

1. Start early

It might seem like common sense, but the earlier you start the more you can do. We decided to have a bake sale at the church in April to raise money for our event. We had a high turnout and were able to raise almost $700. We also reprinted cookbooks as an anniversary-related fundraiser (which I have already talked about). The cookbooks took much longer than anticipated to get scanned and printed, so again, I’m glad we started early. Starting early also gave me the opportunity to develop an exhibit in the church’s “Heritage Corner” on anniversary celebrations at the church, using documents and artifacts from the church’s archives. The amount of work that needs to be done is usually more than you’ll anticipate, so start early.

2. Open the lines of communication

Although the Anniversary Committee was small, it was important to communicate our ideas and progress to the church staff and council. Not only were they indispensible when it came to the actual event, but they had their own ideas on what we could incorporate.

3. If you don’t ask, then you don’t get

In other words, think big. We created a list of all the organizations in the city that have been involved, or we hope to be involved, with McDougall and sent them invitations. We also invited local politicians. Partly because of these invitations, we had nearly 200 people come out to celebrate with us, including the Mayor of Edmonton and Premier of Alberta.

4. Do your homework

I was asked to say a few words on the history of the church near the beginning of service, so rather than regurgitate the information that everyone seems to know, I went to the archives and did some research. Good thing I did. Turns out that I was the last of several people to speak that morning, after the Chair of Council, the former Moderator of the Alberta and Northwest Conference, two MLA’s, the Mayor and the Premier. And of course, everyone addressed some aspect of the church’s history. Because I went the extra mile and spent a few hours in the archives, I not only spoke of aspects that no one else covered, I told stories that most people in the building were completely unfamiliar with.

5. Call the media

Like the speakers, it served us well to think to think big and contact the media. As a result, there was an article written in Saturday’s Edmonton Journal about the upcoming event, two articles (Journal and CTV) on Monday morning about the event, and even a short piece on CTV News on Sunday night.

6. Ask for help

When the big day comes, you may need help getting everything done, so don’t be afraid to ask for some help. We relied on volunteers to usher guest inside, a few outside in the parking lot to help our dignitaries find a spot and then find the chapel where they could wait for service to begin, and a small army in the kitchen to prepare the food and drink for after service. We found willing volunteers and worked to their strengths, with great results.

The above were all painless lessons to learn, as it went great. However, like every event, there were a few hiccups (although I may be the only one who noticed them).

7. Inclusivity without tokenism

About a week before the event, someone suggested we have an Aboriginal blessing to begin our service. This would be a nod to the church’s past involvement with Aboriginals in Alberta as well as our current involvement with inner city ministries. I contacted the Aboriginal Relations Office at the City of Edmonton and asked how I might proceed. An Aboriginal Relations Officer made some enquiries, and while a local elder said he would do it, the Aboriginal Relations Officer decided that there was not enough time to go through the proper protocol and squashed the idea. I’m glad he did. McDougall United Church currently does not have a strong relationship with the First Nations, M├ętis or Inuit community in Edmonton. To ask someone from that community to come and speak, and then when they are done shuffle them aside and keep going would be tokenism, and would trivialize their contribution to our history. Yes, we want to be inclusive, but true inclusivity starts with building bridges in the community.

8. Involve yourself in everything

This is particularly important for public historians, who know bad history when they see it, and who have an obligation to correct it. As odd as it might have seemed, I should have asked to see the minister’s sermon and prayer before the service to check for historical inaccuracies. While it was fine for the most part, I did have a cringe when in the opening prayer he discussed how happy the First Nations peoples were to see settlers on their land. The helpful Indian is a common stereotype that allows us to acknowledge their presence without acknowledging the guilt and injustices of our past. Had I asked to see it before hand, I could have helped him rewrite it. The worst part is that I was one of the few people who likely even noticed. I great opportunity to challenge people’s notions of their past was missed.