Divine Intervention: Meetings Seek Religious Diversity

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When the Unitarian Universalist Association met for its 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix, Conference Services Director Janiece Sneegas hadn’t planned any events specifically supporting religious diversity. She got one nonetheless.

In the 1990s, the UUA had boycotted the city following Arizona’s decision to not observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Rather than shun Phoenix again—this time over conditions at Tents Jail, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s makeshift jail—the UUA committed for 2012 and chose to hold a witness ceremony outside the canvas lockup as a form of protest.

“We’re a group that very much walks our talk,” says Sneegas, who can tick off a list of causes the UUA often works into its activities wherever the annual meeting takes place. For Phoenix, Sneegas expected a modest but effective prayer vigil. Instead, a crowd of almost 2,000 people, battery-powered candles in hand, showed up to pray, sing and chant. For Sneegas, the surprise was not only the size of the crowd but its diversity, a religious rainbow of Baptists, the United Church of Christ and members of several other denominations and faiths. “It was truly inspirational to witness,” she says.

[caption id="attachment_28861" align="alignright" width="300"]Divineintervention A crowd of 2,000 people gathered for a UUA prayer vigil in Phoenix, Arizona.[/caption]

APPRECIATING DIFFERENCES

Religious diversity crosses all aspects of the meetings industry, regardless of whether the group or event is faith-based. The UUA experience, an offshoot of an ongoing major religious meeting, demonstrates how diverse faith-based factions can come together, using an event to effect change. To make religious diversity work in a secular setting, planners need to understand why attendees might want or need a spiritual element in their meeting and how to make that element fit into the program’s context.

Granted, challenges can still arise. The opening-night banquet features shrimp cocktail and pork loin. Your minister oversleeps for a Sunday morning service. The closing-night speaker makes tasteless jokes about priests and missionaries. While awkward situations can’t always be avoided, planning ahead for a more inclusive, educated environment can produce meetings that not only tolerate different beliefs but embrace them.

Adopting a pluralistic attitude toward religious diversity, if not toward religion itself, is a good beginning.

Women of Faith brings millions of women together from different backgrounds in a series of live events each year. Diversity serves as a cornerstone of the group’s branding, its attendee base and event programming, which mixes prayer, speakers, music, arts and crafts, storytelling and stand-up humor. That said, WOF’s events don’t always happen without certain snags.

“We have to be very careful and strategic in our planning,” says Church and Leadership Development Director Debbie Stuart, adding that different denominational views can present challenges. Some people don’t agree that women should be pastors, yet WOF has women pastors as part of its teaching team. Other issues may crop up as well, from parenting and finance to politics and the use of spiritual gifts. “Our strategy is to focus on and highlight what we have in common and keep low-key on our differences,” says Stuart.

Careful strategizing should be a consideration when selecting meeting partners as well. Giovanna Brandi, CEO of Gioworks International in Los Angeles, has spent much of her 25 years in meetings and hospitality working for either religious groups or clients who have attendees with certain faith-based needs. Her advice to planners when dealing with hotels, conference centers and other meeting venues is the more vendors know about a client’s faith-based needs beforehand, the better chance they’ll create working solutions to those issues.

“Planners need to share unique and vital faith-based information,” says Brandi, including but not limited to food, days of observance and religious/cultural mores that pertain to lifestyle. Given that half of her clientele are conservative Christian groups, Brandi doesn’t waste site inspection time checking out the lounge or bar areas. “They don’t care about having 35 types of tequila because they don’t drink,” she says.

Brandi asks a lot of questions about the values, ethics and education of both a venue and its partners—and recommends other planners do the same. For example, when working with groups that include Orthodox Jews or Muslims, does the venue’s kitchen and catering staff understand the need for restrictions governing a meal’s ingredients and its preparation area? Is the hotel staff up to date on other customs attached to certain religious holidays? Are there dress codes required for meetings and receptions regardless of the occasion?

“From a planner’s standpoint, it’s very important to be thorough or you can lose your client,” she says, adding that the Internet provides a good backup source to check for other potential roadblocks.

[inlinead align="left"]“Our strategy is to focus on and highlight what we have in common and keep low-key on our differences."

—Debbie Stuart, Women of Faith[/inlinead]FOOD FOR THOUGHT (AND FUN)

Producing a menu that balances nutrition with faith-based needs can test the creativity of even the most seasoned meetings veteran. Ruth Marion, CMP, of MarionMeetings and Marion Associates, has prospered as a professional planner for more than 20 years. Still, she finds herself continuously juggling food requests to sate the palates and dietary requirements of various faith-based attendees.

“Because of many of our meetings’ religious aspects, we often can’t do a plated dinner,” says Marion, who turns to buffets instead. Observing kosher presents another challenge. As many hotels are not set up for kosher observance, Marion ends up ordering out for those meals, with mixed results. “I’ve had this happen numerous times, where one or two people are eating off plastic plates and utensils,” she says. “They feel uncomfortable and it’s embarrassing.”

When Marion’s meetings end on a Friday night, which happens often, she’s faced with another dilemma for observant Jewish attendees. “It’s Sabbath, and if dinner is a bus ride away then those people can’t attend,” says Marion. Her solution: making closing dinners within walking distance of the hotel to be more inclusive.

Scheduling around holidays and holy days can prove another juggling act. Rosa McArthur, CMP, is not against gently but firmly reminding clients that certain holidays are meant for celebrating, not meeting. “If you want to do an early fall event, then be sensitive around your final dates because of the Jewish holidays,” says McArthur, president of Meeting Planners Plus in Costa Mesa, California. Ditto for year-end holidays and spring’s Easter/Passover period, especially with menus and overall preparations. By saying nothing, planners and their clients risk paying a price during and after the meeting. “Their numbers may be impacted and they could get attendee complaints,” says McArthur.

Sensitivity to certain faith-based customs is also critical when scheduling entertainment. As president of Spotlight Events Consulting, a California destination management company, Maile Akana, DMCP, views her job as creating content that appeals to a diverse audience: clients, attendees and even spouses and family members. She’s more than willing to have a conversation on appropriate themes with a client if she feels they’re veering into risky territory.

“You can’t do anything that might offend anyone,” says Akana, who’s constantly alert to programming activities that, while fun, might be perceived as offensive to faith-based feelings. “You want to do a themed event that excites and engages people,” she says, but be respectful of their sensibilities and cultural parameters.

INSPIRED CHANGE

The most effective ways to add religious diversity to a meeting are often the simplest. For starters, consider setting aside a spiritual hospitality suite at the convention center or host hotel where attendees can enjoy time out for reflection and renewal. For group participation, faith-based breakout sessions and organized inspirational services allow attendees to engage in religious conversations and worship together without having to leave the physical meeting environment.

[inlinead align="left"]“You can’t do anything that might offend anyone."

—Maile Akana, DMCP, Spotlight Events Consulting[/inlinead]The National Association of Counties offers a nondenominational worship period at two of its larger conferences. This member-created service runs early Sunday morning, before the meeting itself, with 75 worshipers, says Kim Struble, CMP, former director of conferences and meetings for NAC for more than 13 years. The School Nutrition Association has long held a similar Sunday morning service slanted toward Christianity at its annual meeting, drawing up to 500. The association may end that service this year, though, choosing instead to provide attendees with a list of places of worship available locally. The reason: sensitivity to greater religious diversity. “If you’re offering Christian services but not services toward other groups, what do you do?” says former Staff VP of Meetings Cheryl Thompson, CMP, who was with SNA for eight years, adding, “We’ll probably have a little bit of pushback on that.”

Tapping into the local religious community can also provide planners with speakers and clergy for ceremonies, and give attendees personal avenues to express their faith via prayer walks, Bible classes, community service and ongoing local church activities like bazaars and suppers.

Finally, a little levity goes a long way.

“We laugh hard and worship big,” says WOF’s Stuart, who claims her women respond accordingly. “We routinely hear back about how welcomed and loved they felt—not judged or looked down on,” she says.

Photo credit: Nancy Pierce