By Nancy Mann Jackson
As the Director of Housing and Convention Services for the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), Vicki Johnson is an old pro when it comes to organizing events. She is responsible for planning eight meetings each year, including three national events and five departmental events. But this year, as COGIC celebrates its 100th anniversary, her task is unprecedented. While the organization’s annual conference, held each November, typically draws 35,000 to 40,000 attendees, more than 75,000 are expected for the Centennial Celebration. The sheer number of expected participants requires strenuous planning efforts, but the distinction of the occasion also means that unique new event components must be developed and organized as well.
One of the most obvious challenges of planning a meeting that’s about twice the size as normal is finding enough space. To solve this problem, Johnson has stretched her meeting across the entire city of Memphis, TN, the denomination’s hometown, and into the surrounding suburbs and neighboring states. Her room block, which has almost tripled this year, represents a true citywide meeting. “Normally, we’re just in the city of Memphis, with 2,500 on peak night,” Johnson says. “But this year we’ve blocked rooms in Memphis and all surrounding towns up to 30 minutes out, even into Mississippi and Arkansas. I’ve reserved about 7,000 rooms on peak night.”
In addition to having attendees housed all over Memphis and the outlying areas, COGIC’s centennial events will take place in a number of different venues across the city. “For our Centennial, the schedule will be a little different,” Johnson says. “For instance, we normally open on Tuesday morning, but this year we’ll hold opening services at our historic location on Monday. We’ll have a 12-hour prayer time and service on Monday at the Historic Mason Temple, which was built by Charles Harrison Mason, the founding bishop of our church. Then we’ll have the official opening on Tuesday at the Cook Convention Center, which holds about 7,000 more people than the historic temple. We’ll open with lots of pageantry and a big celebration, and at that opening rally we’ll acknowledge all the states and foreign countries that will be represented.”
In fact, delegates from 59 nations are expected to be present at the celebration, and their presence warrants a special International Night, which will be held on Thursday evening at yet another venue, the FedEx Forum. On Sunday morning, the COGIC worship service, which will include a message from newly appointed Bishop Charles E. Blake, will be simulcast in four different locations to accommodate the crowds.
While the Sunday morning worship service – also known as the meeting’s “official day” – is the highlight of the conference, the weeklong celebration also includes a number of other special events. The G. E. Patterson Morning Manna, an early morning prayer service, is very popular, Johnson says, and COGIC is known for its Midnight Musicals. In addition, a large youth service will be held at the Cook Convention Center, Tuesday and Friday nights will be “Spirit Nights” and the COGIC Charities Banquet will serve as a fundraiser for various causes.
“We always use multiple facilities, but this year there are more events and more people in each facility,” Johnson says. The changes have created a need for a detailed, strategic plan to transport delegates from across the city to various events at different venues throughout the week. The citywide transportation plan that Johnson and her team have developed utilizes local shuttle providers and is “much like the one they use for the Super Bowl,” she notes.
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The Centennial Celebration requires not only increased planning efforts, but increased marketing efforts as well. For this year’s gathering, COGIC has conducted a global advertising campaign and sent out collateral materials to members and descendants of members around the world. “You have to understand that this doesn’t just attract COGIC people, [it also attracts] people from lots of other religious organizations,” Johnson says. “The Church of God in Christ is the granddaddy of all Pentecostal organizations, so a lot of people have their heritage here, even if they’re not in our church now, and a lot of those people want to come back and celebrate their roots.”
To help get the word out to the masses, COGIC staged a Pre-Centennial Celebration for the first time in September in Detroit. According to Johnson, the event included three major components: The COGIC Reunion brought together sons and daughters of COGIC members and former members; the Founders Day Celebration was held outside of Memphis for the first time; and the Presiding Bishop’s Summit featured two days of historical and focus sessions.
“The Pre-Centennial Celebration is just an additional event to get everyone hyped up about November,” Johnson says. With more than 75,000 people expected to descend on Memphis for November’s Centennial Celebration, the strategy seems to be working: COGIC is hyped up and ready to celebrate.
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