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Planning a Celebration

Step Two: Make it happen

Many people don't think that history is relevant to a forward-looking, active church. It is the job of the church historian or History Committee, in cooperation with the pastor and church staff, to change people's minds. If possible, the historian should be included in planning for the church year. He/she should have some input into the Christian education programs, United Methodist Women's plans, and the planning for worship on special Sundays like those listed above.

If your church does not have an historian or a History Committee, you should think about filling those positions so that history can be given an appropriate emphasis. Persons selected for those jobs need to realize that history is more than care of the church archives (although that is a critically important task). History should be part of the church's whole program!

There are many small ways to incorporate history into the life of your church. These don't require a great deal of planning or organization, although a number of persons need to be committed and to follow through on any idea. One person, or even two or three, cannot be expected to do it all! This is especially true when your church anticipates a major heritage event, such as a centennial celebration, which requires long-range planning and involvement by a large, dedicated committee.

Start Early!

When should you start planning? Many churches devote as much as ten years to the process, particularly when they plan a large project like the publication of a history.

In general, planning should begin at least three or four years before an anniversary. For less complicated events (such as an annual observance of Heritage Sunday), start working at least six months in advance. Remember that things always take longer than you expect, and that there will be unforeseen delays and problems.

It is important for the committee to meet regularly, but it is also important not to meet too often, especially in the early years of a long-term commitment. At the beginning, it is enough for the whole committee to meet once or twice a year, although smaller subcommittees may need to meet more frequently, especially as the event draws near. The chair may want to do an occasional mailing to keep committee members up-to-date, and she/he should also call the members periodically to keep them informed and enthusiastic.

The Committee:

The most important decision you will make is the selection of persons to serve on the planning committee. For some events, the History Committee can handle the tasks. However, once-in-a-lifetime events call for churchwide representation on the committee.

The committee should reflect the diversity in your church. You will need input from the Worship Committee, Christian Education, the youth, the choir, and so on. It is important for the whole church to feel some ownership of a major event. The committee will also need to work closely with the pastor and church staff as plans develop.

As with any effective committee, the members should take their responsibilities and assignments seriously. However, we all recognize that even the best-intentioned people can be overcommitted and forgetful. The chair(s) will need to be aware of all assignments and deadlines, and be willing to push a little when that is needed.

The chair or co-chairs also need to be considerate of the committee. Members should be notified of meeting dates well in advance, and meetings should be run efficiently. Nothing will kill interest faster than the feeling that time is being wasted. Committee members also need to know that their participation is valued and needed.

Set Goals:

One of the committee's first tasks will be to set goals. Spend some time answering general questions: Why are we celebrating this anniversary? What do we hope to accomplish? How can this celebration support the ministries of our church?

After some dialogue, move on to deciding how the committee will meet its goals. Your decisions will be based on the particular circumstances and needs of your church, and on the abilities and interests of your committee.

Heritage celebrations come in all shapes and sizes. It is easy to be carried away by enthusiasm and realize too late that you have been overambitious and unrealistic. The planning committee needs to think seriously about what kind of heritage celebrations are appropriate for your church.

What are your congregation's strengths? For instance, if you have a strong music program, you should consider activities that will take involve your musicians. If your church has many active long-time members, an oral history project may be a wonderful success.

What are your congregation's interests? If your church stresses youth ministry, or work with the homeless, or evangelism, then the committee should work on creative ways to make the celebration relevant to those interests. You may want to tie a current ministry of the church to the heritage celebration. For example, if your church supports a missionary, consider some programs or displays that highlight the history of that mission field. If you have a ministry to the homeless, make a special fund raising drive for that ministry a part of your heritage celebration.

What are your congregation's needs? Some conversation with the pastor and lay leader(s) may help you answer this question. If your church is located in a changing downtown neighborhood, you may want to plan events that will bring new residents into the church. If your members move in and out of the area constantly because you are near an army base or a major corporation, you will want your heritage celebration to foster feelings of community and connection.

What talents can you tap for your heritage celebration? It is important to think about the skills and interests of specific persons on the planning committee and in the congregation. We've already mentioned using your talented musicians. Think about others who can help:

There are more subtle skills as well:

You'll need them all, and their participation will turn "your" event into "our" event. The celebration should involve as many people as possible. This is a family event, not a program for a closed circle of history buffs.

Encourage people to volunteer their skills, but also seek out those quiet people who may be a little shy about volunteering. Part of the ministry of history is the realization that everyone is a part of the story. The story of your church is the shared story of all of its people.

Deadlines and Dollars:

It will take at least one full meeting to decide what your goals will be and how you plan to reach them. The committee's next major step will be to develop a realistic timeline. You will want to allow plenty of time for everything: remember that people will miss deadlines and that there will be unexpected snags and delays. This is especially true if your plans are tied to a special event like the construction of a new church building.

Your timeline will also need to take the church's schedule into account. For example, you do not want to plan an event for the same weekend as a churchwide retreat! This is one major reason for working well in advance of the anniversary or event.

At this stage, it is also critically important to develop a realistic budget that is approved by the pastor and the church's financial officers.

Publicize the Celebration:

One of the committee's most important tasks is promoting the heritage celebration. Publicity should begin almost as early as the initial planning. People appreciate knowing about events far in advance. It is also important to be gently persistent; the message needs to be repeated again and again, in thoughtful and creative ways, to insure that it is understood by the largest possible number of people.

How can you spread the word?

Tap the committee's creativity as you think about publicity. What are some imaginative ways to promote the celebration?

Don't be afraid to act a little silly! Remember that many people think history is dull and dry; it's up to you to liven things up!

Who is the audience for your publicity? The primary audience is the congregation, of course. Also try to include former church members and pastors in your audience. It may take some time to track these persons down, but send them special invitations to this important event.

Be sure to spread the word in the community and in the annual conference, as well. Remember that your church is part of a wider fellowship, and other people will want to know about your heritage events.

As you begin to plan the celebration, develop a promotional timeline and decide which specific media outlets you will use (TV, radio, conference newspaper, local newspaper, and so on). Does anyone in the congregation have experience in public relations or advertising? Put that person on the committee!

Remember to document your activities with photographs and video. They are not only an historical record, but can be used to promote your heritage event. Good, clearly identified photographs will be welcomed by newspaper editors.

United Methodist Communications and your conference communicator can give you good advice about publicity.

Summing Up: There are so many good ideas for heritage celebrations!

Your celebration will be a success if you:

This resource packet will help get you started. Adapt our ideas to suit your circumstances, or come up with something entirely different!

Above all, as you prepare your celebration....

As you...

As you plan, worry, hope, and dream...

Remember why you are celebrating your heritage: to remember, to honor, to teach, and to minister. May your celebration truly be "a festival to the Lord"!