How the Presbyertian Church in America Planned an In-Person Conference During a Global Pandemic

The denomination’s annual conference in June 2021 was one of the largest events held in the city of St. Louis since the COVID-19 shutdown.


By the time the Presbyterian Church in America’s General Assembly happened in June 2021, PCA planner Amanda Burton says she was on Plan C.

“We joked that we planned three separate conferences,” Burton says. After canceling the organization’s 2020 convention, initially she and her colleagues planned for a normal 2021 event—assuming COVID-19 wouldn’t be an issue a year later. “We couldn’t imagine otherwise,” she says.

But in February 2021, they discussed postponing again. However, her contacts in St. Louis encouraged PCA to keep the date, saying they felt confident they could facilitate the meeting safely. The General Assembly was one of the largest business convention anyone had proposed to the city since COVID began in spring 2020, so city officials required PCA to submit an experience plan detailing their ideas.

“At that point we started planning a fully socially distanced event with temperature checks and thorough COVID protocols,” she says. The America’s Center Convention Complex and PCA staff began planning for health screenings, and tripled the space allotment to allow every chair to be socially distanced. “We needed the entire convention center in order to keep people safe,” Burton explains.

Then, in late May—just before Burton flew to St. Louis for her final site visit—the city adjusted COVID restrictions again. The new policy stated if people were fully vaccinated, they didn’t need to wear masks or socially distance.  

The final result was a conference with both normal and socially distanced seating areas, plus tweaks here and there to minimize the spread of germs. More than 4,000 church leaders and guests attended, representing 967 churches across the country.

“People seemed so glad to see one another,” says Burton. “They were all just fatigued and so glad to see a smiling face, unmasked and in-person.”

Burton says she learned a lot through planning multiple iterations of the convention.  

“COVID made us think about things we’d never had to think about, like staffing an attendant for every food station and planning room layouts with only four people per 10-top table,” Burton says. Thankfully, the convention center staff was willing to make accommodations to make the event possible and safe.

“The convention center staff were so patient and hardworking,” she says. “They were very dedicated to our event’s success and making it a smooth process.”

Her advice to planners working on in-person events?

1. Communicate regularly with venue staff.
“Stay in constant communication with your contacts at the venue. They’re the experts at the facility, so they know what they can and cannot do,” she says. Being as clear and specific as possible about goals and expectations made for a positive working relationship between Burton and venue staff.

2. Proceed with caution, remaining open to doing things differently.
“Your event won’t look exactly like it would have before COVID. Be flexible,” Burton says. Holding ideas loosely and having backup plans for your backup plans is helpful.

3. Set expectations for your attendees.
“In our pre-conference communications, we reminded attendees to be patient,” she says. “Thankfully, none of the lines were too long, but with the city-wide staffing shortage and our need for attendants at every food or drink station, we wanted attendees to be prepared for possible delays.” She issued a specific know-before-you-go communication explaining the rules that would apply.


Photo by: Allison Shirreffs