Ken and Mary Jean Knoll say they’re retired, but their calendars demonstrate otherwise.
The couple, who are in their 70s and live in Eugene, Ore., have devoted this chapter of their lives to serving the Church of God (Seventh Day) and planning the denomination’s conventions. The former pastor and his wife, a retired educator, were appointed by the faith’s board of directors in 2012 to lead a team of eight who plan the entire General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day) biennial convention.
Ken had assisted in program planning in previous years, but as soon as he joined his wife of 49 years in retirement, Mary Jean says the conference president approached them about stepping into a larger role.
Though they serve in a volunteer capacity, the Knolls invest the same time and energy as any full-time event planner. They take phone calls from CVBs, correspond with hotels and lead conference calls with their various planning committees. They facilitate every aspect of planning, from selecting host cities to hotel contracting to marketing.
The five-day conventions are held in cities across the country. Albuquerque, New Mexico, will host in 2019. The event went to Springfield, Illinois, in 2015 and was in Milwaukee in 2013.
“We like to move around because it gives [local] people a chance to attend,” says Mary Jean. “But we also have a strong group that’s committed to the process regardless of where it is.”
The conventions, open to all church members, are family-friendly with programming for children and teens as well as adults. Average convention attendance is 1,000 people. The Knolls coordinate team leaders for each age group and assist with programming plans.
“Because it’s a family conference, we keep costs as inexpensive as possible, with convention registration costing around $100 and hotels about $100 per night,” says Mary Jean.
The registration fee does not cover meals, but various ministries within the church opt to host meals at the host hotel, using the mealtime to share ministry-specific updates. Convention attendees can choose to prepurchase tickets to whichever ministry meals they’d like to experience, with meal attendance ranging from 50 to 400 people.
“We’ve worked with hotels to get those dinners around $25 instead of the usual $40,” says Mary Jean, reinforcing their dedication to keeping the experience as affordable as possible for families.
The conference schedule typically includes daytime business sessions for members, as well as breakout sessions on topics ranging from parenting to theology. An exhibit hall gives ministries within the church another opportunity to share updates on missions and the denomination’s Artios Christian College. Children are engaged with their own activities during the day, and the congregation is invited to a worship service each evening. A separate worship service for youth and young adults is available as well.
“Late-night options are available for teens, young adults and senior adults,” says Mary Jean. “We try to allow lots of time for visiting and fellowship.” Ancillary group gatherings and reunions happen after hours also.
The couple says they’ve learned that upfront, honest communication with hotels and other vendors has been crucial to their process, and developing relationships with each has been important as well.
“We are going to be honest about our needs,” says Mary Jean. “We want it to be a benefit for them and for us.”
Ken agrees. “When we’re courted by a vendor, that’s one relationship,” he says. “Once the contract is signed, that’s another relationship. Relationships are messy, and we have to be prepared to deal with those kinds of things.”
The Knolls say that staff at the Eugene (Oregon) CVB have been helpful as they’ve navigated the industry. “We’ve had good counsel, and they’ve helped us develop courage,” says Ken.
Currently the Knolls are fielding calls from CVBs and exploring location options for the 2021 convention, which will be announced at the 2019 event. However, they are hoping to modify their involvement moving forward.