Happy Christmas

When I think about that first Christmas many years ago, I am humbled. The King of the World, the Savior of our sins, God Himself in human form … born in a stable, lying in a manger, surrounded by animals.

It’s definitely not the way I would have planned for Christ to enter this world. Definitely not the way I would have hosted the favored guests, Mary and Joseph. Definitely not how I would have wanted people to come and worship at the foot of the King.

A less than suitable housing situation. No medical staff on standby. Animals most likely interrupting the stillness. Unexpected guests arriving to be a part of the wonder of the evening.

It’s definitely not the way I would have planned for Christ to enter the world.

But … God.

God saw the bigger picture. He knew the ultimate ending. He didn’t need perfection in the eyes of the world. He crafted this moment just the way it needed to be … and it was perfect.

This Christmas, you may be playing host to family events, church events, or corporate events. As you plan and implement your ideas of how things “should be,” remember the real reason we are celebrating this December.

Jesus, God Himself in human flesh, lying in a manger filled with hay. It wasn’t glamourous. It wasn’t inviting. It wasn’t the way I would have planned it. But, it was perfect.

Happy Christmas from Ridgecrest Conference Center and the Ministry Serving Ministry team to you! May your season be filled with love, joy, peace, and a sense of wonder as you celebrate the birthday of our Lord.


When Life Hands You Snow

You’ve heard the saying, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” What do you do when life hands you snow? Make snow cream?

As I write this first post of 2017, I am looking out my window into a winter wonderland, coupled with frigid temperatures. I can’t help but think of all the events taking place at conference centers located near my home. Some events have been canceled; others decided to brave the weather.

As an event planner, there are many things you can control—weather is not one of them. Rather than throwing up your hands in despair at impending (and often inconvenient) weather, think of ways you can embrace it and even incorporate it in your event.

Here a few ways you can add to a guest’s experience in the midst of snow:

  • Place hand warmers (the kind that fit in your gloves or pockets) in registration packets guests receive upon arrival. You could also pass these out at the door as guests leave a large group session.
  • If you have extra staff or volunteers, clear the snowy windshields of guests prior to the last session.
  • Set up a hot chocolate bar for guests to enjoy during the evening. Include hot chocolate and toppings such as whipped cream, marshmallows, syrups, chocolate candies, and sprinkles. (For an added twist, serve up a hot chocolate float—add a few scoops of ice cream to your hot chocolate. It’s hard to describe the goodness of such a treat, but I would definitely recommend trying it, if only for a tasty treat for yourself!)
  • Host fireside chats in the evenings. If your lobbies or other meeting spaces have fireplaces, light a fire and invite speakers, worship leaders, or workshop teachers to spend a candid time with your guests. Ask them to share on a more personal level and give guests the opportunity to ask questions. Sometimes, some of your best moments can be in the relaxed, non-structured conversations that take place throughout your event.
  • Most importantly, make sure the walkways are cleared of ice and snow. If you must, grab a shovel and do it yourself.
  • If many guests have to cancel, yet your event is still taking place, consider recording the large group sessions and uploading them for later viewing.

While inclement weather can be an inconvenience and may even lead to canceling an event, there are ways you can adapt your program to incorporate its challenges. And, if you’re all out of ideas and there is fresh snow on the ground, grab some vanilla, sugar, and milk and have a snow cream party!


‘Twas the Night Before My Big Event

In the spirit of Christmas, I hope you enjoy this adapted version of a holiday favorite!

‘Twas the night before my big event, when all through the venue

Not a creature was stirring, except me, still going over the catering menu.

Did I order enough? Will the coffee be hot?

Gluten-free, vegan, nut-free—did I miss an allergy they’ve got?


“Ding” went my text alert—my main speaker just landed.

Fifteen delays later, just grateful he wasn’t stranded.

Sound checks could wait; I’d make time for those.

A panic quickly struck me. What if no attendee shows?


When all of a sudden, there arose such a clatter.

I ran to the auditorium to see what was the matter.

My stage set had fallen, the props in a heap.

How could this happen? It wasn’t at all cheap.


I sat on the floor. Should I cry or should I run?

I was frozen, in a stupor, what could be done?

All by myself, I thought, what a nightmare!

If I canceled the retreat, would anyone care?


I heard a door open and in walked my team—

Janet, Peter, Bill, Jim and somebody named Jean.

Tools at their ready with duct tape in hand,

My volunteers in their matching shirts at my command.


They shouted in unison, “Never fear, we are here!”

Jumping onstage, that mess would soon disappear.

Faster than lightning, in the blink of an eye,

That stage was reset and they all said goodbye.


“See you tomorrow,” I said with a smile.

In the morning this would all seem like such a small trial.

I’m sure more things would come my way,

But tonight, I thought, I should call it a day.


Past the registration area, straightening name tags on the table,

I’d try to get a bit of sleep, “Wait, did I remember the HDMI cable?”

As I walked through the front door out to my rental car,

I heard a quiet voice saying from afar:


“You’ve planned, you’ve prepared, you’ve got it all done.

Sit back, relax, and don’t forget to have fun.

Things might go wrong. You’ll figure them out.

For now, Happy Event Eve!” the voice said with a shout.


Hosting a Movie Night

Simple can be fun.  Not every event you hold has to be a feat to plan and execute.  While there are times and places for large scale productions, sometimes a relaxing evening for your guests after a day of conference sessions can be just the thing they need to unwind.  Consider hosting a late-night movie for a time of relaxation and fun.  (In addition to offering this as a late night option, you can also plan a movie night as a simple, stand-alone event.)

Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning a movie night:

  1. Know your audience. It can be tricky to pick a movie for a group of people.  If you are hosting a women’s retreat, it’s probably not best to choose an action based movie.  If hosting a men’s retreat, a romantic comedy is unlikely to draw a crowd.  While you won’t be able to please everyone, pick something age-appropriate and group-appropriate.  It can be hard to draw a line at what movie rating you will hold to, but knowing your audience and the purpose for your retreat can give you a better grasp on where to land.  Two good websites for movie reviews are commonsensemedia.org and pluggedin.com.
  2. Keep it legal. Have you ever read the copyright warning shown at the beginning of a movie?  Movies are typically for private use.  You have to obtain permission to show a movie in a group-setting.  Christian Video Licensing International (cvli.com) is a great website offering copyright coverage for thousands of movies.  For minimal fees, you can show movies at your event without fear of copyright infringement.
  3. Know your venue. Hosting a movie night for a group is not the same as hosting a movie night at your home.  Think big, as in a big screen and big sound.  A simple TV will not suffice.  Work with your venue on a larger projection system and sound system for an impressive movie experience.  In addition, think about seating for your guests.  While you may not be able to bring in couches or large floor pillows, you can still make sure the chairs are padded and arranged in an inviting fashion.  (If possible, hold a contest where the winner gets to sit in a recliner you bring in for the event!)
  4. Kick it off with great snacks. When I think of going to see a movie, popcorn is first on my mind.  Include a popcorn bar with various toppings and mix-ins.  If you have access to a popcorn machine, this will provide a more theater-like atmosphere, but don’t be afraid to pull out the big bags of pre-popped popcorn if that will make things easier for you!  Other snacks could include candy, sodas, pretzels, chips and salsa and more.

By incorporating an evening movie option in your event, you can provide guests with a chance to sit back and relax for a bit.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does need to be well-executed.  You can make it as elaborate as you desire, but in the end, guests will remember the time they had to share a laugh and unwind after a full day of conference gatherings.  Other than set-up and clean-up, there isn’t much you should have to do in between (except enjoy a bag of popcorn), which is a huge plus for you as an event planner!


National Day of…

February 14.  April 1.  October 31.  These are all dates we can easily match to an “official” day – Valentine’s Day, April Fool’s Day and Halloween.  Does September 19 mean anything to you?  Probably not, but if you’re anywhere near a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts on this day, you may run into people dressed as pirates and ordering in a pirate voice.  It’s National Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Krispy Kreme has embraced this as a promotional tool for their doughnuts.  It’s fun.  It gets people excited.  People of all ages participate.

When planning an event, you might need a little extra “something” – this may be an activity, a giveaway, an evening event or just an extra from the stage.  Depending on the dates of your event, it might just fall on a “national day” you can integrate.  A simple search on the website nationaldaycalendar.com (or other national day website) can give you detailed information on fun days you can celebrate throughout the year.

Here are a few I found that could easily be incorporated into event planning:

  • January 19: National Popcorn Day (How about a popcorn bar after the evening session?)
  • February 10: National Umbrella Day (Use umbrellas as a giveaway with your event logo on them.)
  • March 23: National Chip and Dip Day (Serve a variety of chips and dips for your afternoon break.)
  • April 20: National Look Alike Day (Let your guests know ahead of time and have a look alike contest during your event.)
  • May 14: National Dance Like a Chicken Day (Nothing says “wake up” in your morning session more than having your entire group get up and dance like a chicken!)
  • June 23: National Pink Day (Let your guests know before the event to wear pink, and serve pink lemonade and other pink snacks during your break.)
  • July 23: National Vanilla Ice Cream Day (If you’re serving lunch, have ice cream for dessert.)
  • August 12: National Middle Child Day (During a large group session, have all of the middle children stand up and clap for them; trust me (as a middle child myself), they will appreciate it!)
  • September 12: National Day of Encouragement (Leave slips of paper in chairs for guests to write an encouraging note to the person sitting next to them.)
  • October 28: National Chocolate Day (Chocolate fountain?  Chocolate bars?  Chocolate pie?  The possibilities are endless!)
  • November 17: National Take a Hike Day (As an afternoon activity, plan a hike for your guests – don’t forget the trail mix!)
  • December 28: National Card Playing Day (If you’re looking for a late night activity for the night owls, have various card games for guests to play at their leisure.)

While these national days may seem a little far-fetched, they can add a fun element to your event!  Once you plan your dates, do a quick search and you may find an activity perfect for your group!

What’s in Your Bag of Tricks?

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about icebreaker questions to help spur on conversation among attendees in a group. Last week, as I began our small group discussion at church with an introduction time (we had a lot of new faces), I was put on the spot for a fun question to have each person answer as they introduced themselves. My mind drew a complete blank, and we ended up answering an awkward question about our Christmas holidays, weeks after the decorations have been put away. I remembered the post I wrote, but not a single question came to mind!

How can you be prepared for situations like these? I’ve met group facilitators/event planners who often have what they call a “bag of tricks” (figuratively speaking) – things they know they can pull out anytime that will help get people talking, fill in a spot that may be lagging or just break the monotony of a lecture or presentation. The main component of these ideas is simplicity – no set-up or special supplies are needed so you can use these at anytime, anywhere.

What do you have in your “bag of tricks”? Here are a few ideas:

  • Icebreaker Questions: These are designed to facilitate discussion and help people begin to feel comfortable speaking around each other. Some examples include:
    • If you could eliminate one thing from your daily schedule, what would it be?
    • Would you rather be three feet tall or ten feet tall?
    • How many pairs of shoes are in your closet?
    • What is in the trunk of your car right now?
    • What is the most unusual thing you have ever eaten?
  • Stand Up and Stretch: Sometimes all your group needs to stay focused is a small break to stand up and stretch. Leading your attendees in a few easy exercises (or even breaking out in a small song and dance) can get the blood flowing and even bring a few laughs!
  • Jokes or Funny Stories: Commit to memory a few funny (and appropriate) jokes or stories. Use these sparingly and only if you can tell them correctly!
  • Teambuilding Games: Have one or two teambuilding activities you can do with various size groups with no set-up involved. “Knots” and “Never Have I Ever” are two good options, though a quick Google search can give you many more ideas.

Hopefully, by having a few things in your “bag of tricks” you can avoid awkward moments of silence and be a more dynamic group facilitator/speaker as you interact with your attendees. If you have trouble thinking of things on the spot, keep a list of these on your smartphone or other device you might have with you for a quick reference before your session begins.

What’s in your “bag of tricks”?

Ridgecrest Summer Camps Thrive

Director Art Snead talks about the success and growth of their summer “discipleship through adventure” camps

Nestled in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, Ridgecrest Conference Center has so much going on these days they purchased a drone, with funds from a donor, to help capture some of the activity across its 1,300 acres. The Conference Center is a big operation, sleeping up to 2,000 people and hosting events and camps year-round, including many LifeWay student and kids camps (Fuge Camps, Student Life, CentriKid, Student Life for Kids). Less well known, however, are the residential camps for boys and girls that take place outside of the main conference center location and run for eight weeks during the summer (four two-week sessions).

“The first boys camp was in 1929,” says Ridgecrest director Art Snead, who first attended a Ridgecrest camp when he was 9 years old. “And last year was the girls camp’s 60th summer. So, they’ve been around a long time. But the last 10 years, the way God has blessed and used our camps has exploded.”

Camp Ridgecrest for Boys and Camp Crestridge for Girls run concurrently and are located across the interstate from each other. And while they do some functions together, they’re mainly separate operations with separate facilities.

“Separate sites allow ‘boys to be boys’ and ‘girls to be girls,’” Snead says, “which helps our campers focus on growing in a Luke 2:52 manner.”

Both the boys and girls camps combine intentional discipleship with adventure for individual campers rather than church groups.

“Our camps’ mission statement is ‘impacting lives for God’s glory through discipleship and adventure,’” says Snead. “One of the differences between us and Student Life or Fuge is we have individual kids come, not church groups, and they’re with us for at least two weeks. That allows us to have an extended, intentional discipleship focus with them. And then we’re in touch with them the other 50 weeks of the year, too.”

The year-round camp team stays in touch with campers through social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and vlogs (video blogs). “As we looked at God’s future for the camps, we asked how we could impact these kids and their families outside the two-week mountaintop experience they have at camp. So, that’s where the parents blog and the boys blog and the girls blog all came in,” says Snead. “We have a very active and impactful two-way social media presence. We’re not just sending stuff out; we’re getting feedback in from campers, parents, and alumni, too.”

In addition to year-round staff, the camps employ carefully screened college students to serve as counselors.

“It’s a high priority that we hire folks who love Jesus and are passionate about pursuing Him and helping impact kids’ lives,” says Snead.

That’s the consensus among the camp leadership—the student counselors are key to the success of the camps.

“This will be my 40th summer working with the camps,” says executive director Ron Springs. “It has been a privilege to serve alongside these college-age young men and women and watch them interact with our campers. They are such wonderful role models and Christian mentors for the children and youth we serve.”

Boys camp director Phil Berry agrees: “There’s nothing quite like watching hundreds of boys and young men interact with college students who love Jesus like crazy. It’s amazing how quickly they are changed when they see Jesus in a loving adult.”

Girls camp director Sharon Aylestock adds: “I am so thankful to be a part of what God is doing through Ridgecrest summer camps! It’s evident He is at work in the lives of our campers and staff.”

Massive expansion underway

Up until 2008, the camps had 200 camper beds at each site. Then in 2009, five cabins were added to each camp, boosting the number of beds from 200 to 250.

“At the time, the leadership involved thought, Man, if we can ever fill those cabins, that would be awesome!Well, they filled up almost immediately,” says Snead. “So we’ve continued to add a cabin or two each year.”

About three years ago, leadership began looking at the long-term future of the camps, asking what the master plan is and working with consultants who specialize in camp expansion, says Snead. This resulted in a four-year expansion plan beginning in 2015.

“Our girls camp’s capacity is going from 280 last summer to 420 this summer,” Snead says. “So, we built 14 new camper cabins. We’ve doubled the size of the dining hall and chapel because of how many more kids we’ve got. And we’ve doubled the footprint of the girls’ camp to about 65 acres.

“We’ve been intentional about not only making camp bigger, but also making the experience better. We’ve added some new program elements, some of which will benefit the Conference Center guests, too. For instance, we’ve put in a new high-challenge course that all three entities will be using,” Snead says.

The boys camp will see a similar expansion next year, and then the following two years the plan is to add additional space and program elements as needed.

“The four-year plan is under way and there’s a lot of construction involved,” says Snead. “God is doing something very special. And for those of us who are a part of the camps and have prayed for their future and now seeing that future being realized, it’s an exciting time.”

The growth of the residential camps is not the only good news coming out of Ridgecrest. There are big changes ahead at the Conference Center, too. “A lot of exciting things are going on at the Conference Center,” says Snead. “It’s been a blessing to serve both places. Thinking back to my first summer here as a 9-year-old camper, and now seeing how God is blessing the camps and being a part of helping guide that has been an incredible experience.”

“We’d love for more people to send their kids to camp,” he says. “We want people to know about the one-week Starter Camp, our Family Camp (Labor Day Weekend), the Mother & Daughter weekend, and the Father & Son weekend. Those camps are growing, too, and we’re getting great feedback on them. It’s amazing the impact all these camps are having on people’s lives.”

The regular price for the two-week camps this summer is $1,750, which is lower than most residential camps.  Pricing for the family events can be found on the camps’ website: RidgecrestCamps.com.


LifeWay employees talk about their experience with Ridgecrest camps

“I think the experience can best be summarized by a short story about our oldest grandson’s first year at camp. Jeremiah was somewhat apprehensive about going away for a two-week camp to a place he had never seen, with people he had never met, disconnecting from all of his electronic devices, and knowing he would have severely limited communication with anyone outside of camp. However, my wife, Sherry, and I were confident that not only would it be an experience that would help him mature physically, mentally, and spiritually, but it would be an experience he would enjoy. Our expectations were certainly fulfilled, but the most telling and immediate indication of his evaluation of his first two-week camp session was his first question to us when we picked him up: “Papa Jerry and Nana Sherry, could I stay for another two weeks?”

—Jerry Rhyne, vice president of Finance and Business Services

“When my son was about 4 years old, we read The Berenstain Bears Go to Camp. He was immediately fascinated with the idea of going to camp. When he was ‘finally’ old enough to attend Camp Ridgecrest after completing first grade, we signed him up for Starter Camp. When I picked him up on Friday, he said he was so glad I was there to pick him up, but he wanted to go back for a full session the next year and stay for two sessions when he was older. Two and four years later, my middle and youngest children attended Camp Crestridge (the girls camp) for the first time. Now they each claim Camps Ridgecrest and Crestridge as the highlight of the summer—the one thing they look forward to all year long.”

—Kimberly Phegley, internal audit director

“My daughters bug me all year to go back to Crestridge. It’s now a part of our summer routine!”

—Ed Stetzer, vice president of LifeWay Insights Division


Written by Matt Erickson, managing editor of Facts & Trends and LifeLines.

Are We There Yet?

It’s a question that’s been asked by millions of children (and adults if we are being honest) over the years. “Are we there yet?” At some point in our lives, we have all been guilty of asking this timeless travel question.

sad kid tired of trip

As an event planner, you spend countless hours planning the activities your participants will experience during your program. But, have you ever thought about what you might plan for your guests to experience prior to the event, such as during their travel to the host location?

Constructing travel kits for a family camp or family-friendly conference is a great way to provide an extra personal touch, a chance to get your guests engaged before their arrival and something fun to do while traveling. You can easily ship these in small boxes a few weeks prior or hand them out if your participants are coming from a single location.

Here are a few ideas of items to include to make your family travel kits a great success:

  • Car window markers: Prior to their arrival at your conference, families can decorate their car windows. You can even give out prizes to the “best decorated windows” during your opening session.
  • Travel games: Include copies of fun travel games such as a “Road Trip Scavenger Hunt” or the “License Plate States” game. Again, these are things you can award prizes for during the opening session if you let your attendees know to turn these in upon their arrival.
  • Snacks: Simple bagged snacks such as pretzels, crackers and candy are easy to include in travel kits. Be mindful of any special diets and/or allergies your guests may have.
  • Team storytelling: Include a few story prompts where each family member can add a line. A possible example is, “There once was a family who took a trip to camp…” Then let each family member add a line to the story and see how it unfolds.
  • Discussion questions: Include a few questions to help engage families in conversation as they travel. These could be funny questions and also questions relating to the theme of your event.
  • A few extras: In addition to these things, you can also provide small items such as stickers, paper, pens, etc.

Traveling can be a stressful part of attending a camp or conference. By providing something as simple as a travel kit, you can help alleviate a bit of the “are we there yet” syndrome and hopefully have families arrive ready and excited about the event.

A New Take on Gift Exchanges

White elephant Christmas parties. Dirty Santa gift exchanges. Secret Santa gifts. I’m sure at some point you’ve been invited to take part in something like this and might have even fretted over what type of gift to bring. Is it in the price range? Is it too tacky? Not tacky enough? Does it fit the person you are buying for? Will everyone like it?

Assorted colored shopping bags including yellow, orange, red, pink, blue and green on a white background

Recently I came across a new idea on gift exchanges called a “My Favorite Things” party. While this idea can work for Christmas parties, it can also be a fun fellowship idea for a smaller women’s retreat. In addition, this is a great “get-to-know-you” activity.

Here’s how to host a “My Favorite Things” fellowship gift exchange:

  • Each participant brings five gifts – each item the same. The gift should represent one of the participant’s favorite things. Set a per gift price limit (very low) prior to the event. These gifts can include anything from a favorite type of candy or cooking item to a favorite type of household essential or a handmade item. (For example, if one of my favorites things is a certain type of pen, I would bring five of them to exchange.)
  • Place these gifts in a gift bag and have all participants sit them on a gift table.
  • Each participant writes her name on five slips of paper and places them in a basket.
  • In order to exchange the gifts, each participant will come up and tell about her gift – why it’s a favorite thing, what it means to her, etc.
  • The participant will then draw five names from the basket, and each of these people will receive their gift.
  • So, you bring five of your favorite things and leave with five gifts representing the favorite things of others!

In order to make this event a success, you must send out detailed instructions for your guests prior to the event. As with many women’s retreats, a lot of attention is given to the “cute” details, so include a fun invitation to this in your registration material. Decorate your fellowship room in a similar fashion. (As a side note, this can serve as a retreat activity or as a stand-alone event.)

As gifts are exchanged, women will undoubtedly learn new things about others in their group. And the greatest thing about this type of gift exchange is that you don’t have to worry about what someone else might want – you bring gifts you like instead!

Event Prizes to Fit Your Budget

Drawings, contests and raffles for prizes can be a fun element added to a conference.  Depending on the types of prizes you secure, these giveaways can be a high-energy, exciting part of your large group session times.  After all, everyone likes to win a free gift!

You might have been to conferences where they are giving away things such as iPads and hotel stays.  How can you obtain prizes for your events that won’t break your budget?  You would be amazed what people will donate if you just do one simple thing…ask.

Here are some tips to utilize as you ask organizations, companies and/or individuals to donate gifts to be given away at your events:

  • Make a list of restaurants, stores and attractions to call to request donations.  Often these types of places will donate gift certificates or smaller items to be used as prizes.  Recruit a team of volunteers to call or visit these places, as this can be a time consuming process.  Think about the dynamics of your group as you seek out giveaways – if the participants are coming from many different locations, make sure these places are not local to one specific area.
  • Utilize social media such as Facebook and Twitter to reach people who may have ties to different organizations.
  • Ask your speakers and band for copies of their books (if applicable), CDs, t-shirts and other merchandise they may sell.
  • Ask people on your team to seek out people they may know that can donate items.  It’s surprising to find out who people might have connections with among your team.
  • Suggest to donors that their business or organization will be advertised as you give their prizes away.  You can include this in a “thanks to our donors” section of your conference information and from the stage as winners are announced.
  • If individuals or organizations donate money, use this to purchase larger prizes such as an iPad.
  • Have an idea of what you might want someone to donate, but don’t be discouraged if the donation does not match your expectation.  On the other hand, you might be surprised at what some places are willing to donate.  (For example, I once called a chain restaurant for donations, and they gave 100 $10 gift cards to their restaurants for prizes!)
  • Always, always, always send thank you notes after you receive their donations!

As I have been told all of my life, “You never know unless you ask!”  What’s the worst that could happen?  Someone might say “no”, and then you move on!