by Mark Doyal

2020 looks daunting. Start planning now.

For many United Methodist Communicators, 2020 will be “The year of the suitcase.” Depending on the number of events to attend, communicators could spend as many as 40 days or more on the road in 2020. Many of these events will be historic for the denomination, or once in a decade gathering. With such a heavy travel schedule, now might be the best time to plan and prepare before the demands of the fall arrive.

Save the dates.

For communicators, there are five significant events to add to your calendar for 2020:

Jan. 23-24, Nashville, Tennessee: General Conference 2020 Pre-Conference Briefing for communicators and delegations 

General Conference will be held in Minneapolis on May 5-15. However, the Pre-Conference Briefing will take place in Nashville to hold down the costs of attending for general boards and agencies. Delegates and communicators will receive critical presentations on critical issues facing the denomination, information on how General Conference is structured, and what to expect when you get to Minneapolis. The learning curve for General Conference can be steep, primarily if you have never attended the 10-day meeting. Seasoned UMAC members will be offering face-to-face practical training and tips on how to cover this complicated and wide-ranging story. If you are an experienced UMAC member, plan to attend, and if you are willing to volunteer as a trainer, please contact Royya James at UMCOM If you can not participate in this event in person, plenary sessions will be live-streamed and available online.

March 16-18, Arlington, Virginia: UMAC annual meeting

With the Pre-Conference Briefing focusing on UMC issues, the focus of UMAC in 2020 will be on equipping for local ministry with communication tools and how to cover challenging stories. The afternoon of March 16 will feature a local church communicators school with practical guidance on websites, social media, and more. In the evening, UMAC opens with a reception featuring a gallery of UMAC members’ excellent work in 2019. Tuesday and Wednesday will offer networking and info sharing opportunities, practical training, and in-depth panels on a wide range of subjects. Registration opens soon!

March 18-21, Arlington, Virginia: Religion Communication Congress 2020

The Religion Communication Congress is a once in a decade event that brings together communicators from every religious denomination in the world for relevant discussions and workshops. The conference features unique presentations offered by a wide range of speakers and educators from the New York Times to Pew Research. Skip this event, and you will have to wait until 2030 to catch the next one. UMAC and UMCOM are cooperating sponsors of this event. Registration is now open!

May 5-15, Minneapolis, Minnesota: General Conference 2020

The once a quadrennium meeting of global United Methodist delegates converges on Minneapolis for what is expected to be one of the most historic moments in the history of Methodism. The fallout following the special called General Conference in February 2019 has placed the church on a path that many expect to lead to new expressions of Methodism. While plans for those new expressions will develop over the coming year, delegates will need to affirm any action. What happens during the first four or five days in legislative committees will likely shape the outcome and tone of the plenary sessions. Only the final five days of plenary sessions will be live-streamed. The goal of most communicators will be to report what happens during this global event, a context that their audience can understand. If you are able, attend all ten days. If not, consider attending the plenary sessions. Plenary sessions will be live-streamed, but there is much the cameras do not see. Watch for registration information and deadlines to secure media credentials. If you have not received this information by January 2020, be sure to reach out to UMCOM to make sure you are getting the information you need.

May and June: Annual conferences

The number of days will vary, but most communicators will spend up to a week setting up, covering and closing down their annual conference. GC2020 will be influenced by what happens in Minneapolis, and actions during annual meetings may forever change what local church looks like around the world. Most communicators are required to attend.

July: Jurisdictional conferences

Equally impacted by General Conference will be the quadrennial gatherings for jurisdictional meetings. In most jurisdictions, communicators spend up to four days covering worship, fellowship, and plenary sessions. These conferences are often capped off with the election of new bishops and their assignments for the next four years. In some jurisdictions, communicators collaborate and plan well in advance to do so. You may want to reach out to jurisdictional and board/agency colleagues to see what they have organized. If nothing has been planned, consider leading this kind of collaboration. To learn more, contact communicators in the North Central, Northeastern, or Southeastern Jurisdictions where collaboration during jurisdictional events are common.

Assess, meet, and plan.

Few conferences can send their communicators to every single event and training. That means communicators need to prioritize now what to attend in 2020. Schedule time to talk with your bishop or agency leadership to advise or hear what they consider critical to cover. UMAC colleagues can also offer guidance on coverage.

For conference communicators, the job is determining how to provide the best timely, accurate, and, most important, relevant coverage to audiences back home. Schedule meetings this fall to meet with leaders of your annual conference, board, or agency, general conference delegations, and jurisdictional delegations. By October or November, everyone will have a better idea of what to anticipate in 2020. While you need to remain flexible, once general and jurisdictional conferences begin, having an editorial and content calendar in place greatly simplifies coverage. Regarding training, remember that RC World Congress is a once in a decade event. Attend it if you are able, but if you must limit conference training, consider prioritizing UMAC and UMCOM events first. Develop written communication plans for these events and share them with leadership.

Budget now for 2020.

Travel is expensive, and it is wise to budget now for 2020. Consider registering for events early to spread out expenses. Think about how to realign line items in your budget to support travel for you and your team. Consider using continuing education funds to attend UMAC and RCC. Cooperate with other conferences or agency colleagues to provide coverage. Talk to your conference delegation, sometimes travel funds may exist in their budgets that can support communicator travel. The first four to five days of General Conference are critical, but you may need to tell that story from home base so you can afford to attend the crucial plenary sessions. Bring a plan to conference leadership and demonstrate how you can offer better coverage of General Conference and jurisdictional conferences to justify additional funding. Be sure to purchase all the necessary equipment or gear you need in 2019 that will help you tell the story in 2020. Talk to other communicators to see how they budget travel expenses.

Set deadlines now.

For many, the month of May in 2020 will not exist. Communicators in some parts of the nation will jump from two weeks of General Conference directly into an annual conference. That means losing an entire month of production and creative time. Because most communicators must count on others to provide content, begin banging the deadline drum now! Make sure those providing content know they will need to provide materials at least four weeks earlier in 2020. Send out monthly reminders that deadlines are coming earlier in 2020. Earlier deadlines may cause a little grumbling now but not nearly as much as if someone misses their deadline for materials at the annual conference.

Design and plan ahead.

Many communicators create a unique online presence, either websites, pages, e-news, or social media channels for General Conference and jurisdictional conferences. The graphic look and feel of these channels or any other publications can be designed and formatted now for 2020. So far, there is no visual look for these conferences, but materials arrive in early fall 2019. Here are a few other possible communication vehicles you may wish to consider organizing into your plan now and putting into production sooner rather than later:

  • Websites or web pages for General Conference and jurisdictional conferences.
  • Coverage branding for each event customized for your organization.
  • Social media templates and designs.
  • Email templates for events.
  • GroupMe or other group texting systems for delegations.
  • Content calendars for each event.

The 2020 General Conference will be on the radar of national secular media. Once those stories break, statewide and local media will begin to follow the story. Be prepared by developing a secular media plan for your coverage area. First, talk with leadership about what messages you will want to share. Identify, recruit, and train multiple lay and clergy representatives by media market and create a master list. Write press releases now and then fine-tune them in April 2020, letting the media know what is about to happen in Minneapolis. Get media training from UMCOM if you have not dealt with the secular press before. The key to successful secular media strategies is prepared and ready to respond.

Be proactive and ask questions.

You need to be proactive and accept responsibility for staying on top of this busy schedule. Network and get connected early with colleagues across the denomination. Ask lots of questions and remain alert for information coming out on these events. If you are unsure how to proceed, reach out to UMAC in our Facebook Group or UMCOM to get answers. Planning now will allow you to roll with this crazy 2020 schedule and focus on each event, instead of living in the breakdown. 2020 is going to be a wild ride of events—plan your trips now while things are still relatively calm.

Mark Doyal is the Director of Communications for the Michigan Conference and Chairperson of the UMAC Leadership Team. He has covered three General Conferences.