When many Americans think of March 2020, likely the first thing that comes to mind is COVID-19 and the fear of this disease which caused nearly all facets of American society to grind to a screeching halt. But even in that month of insecurity, God was present and alive.
One of the ways God was working within the U.S. Mennonite Brethren community during that season was through the launching of LEAD Pods, a podcast dedicated to leadership development and spiritual growth for Mennonite Brethren.
USMB is committed to equipping local churches so they can reach people with Christ’s gospel through church multiplication, disciple-making and leadership development and LEAD initiatives are key to this effort. Before March 2020, the LEAD initiatives included LEAD One events, one-day training sessions that happen across all districts; LEAD Cohorts, which meet every other week for 10 weeks to dive deep into leadership; and LEAD Coaching, a one-on-one development setting that allows for higher intensity and accountability.
For the past year, however, the LEAD program has had another tool in the bag. Last March, the USMB staff launched LEAD Pods, which has a larger target audience than any of the other branches of LEAD and reaches as many different individuals and groups as possible.
It took the work and creativity of many individuals to get LEAD Pods off the ground. Two of these individuals are J. L. Martin, USMB social media coordinator and pastor for children and families at Hesston (Kansas) MB Church, and Matt Ehresman, media director at First MB Church in Wichita, Kansas. Martin handles much of the background work while Ehresman serves as the podcast’s host and performs all the editing necessary to create a final product.
According to Martin, LEAD Pods is the brainchild of USMB National Director Don Morris, along with support from other USMB staff members, including webmaster Lori Taylor. Ehresman bought into Morris’s vision quickly when he and Martin collaborated to start building the technological framework of the podcast. It then became clear to Martin that Ehresman would be the host.
Ehresman has served at First MB Church for eight years and works with graphic design, social media and operates the Sunday morning live stream. He graduated from Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas, in 2010 where he met his wife, Tillie, and they have a 3-year-old daughter, Heidi, and a 2-month-old daughter, Sadie.
Ehresman loves podcasts in general. “I think it’s a fun medium; it’s one that is growing really fast, and it is a great way to consume information,” he says.
Ehresman possesses a brief history in journalism, which he considers a valuable asset in adjusting to his role as an interviewer and host. Interviewing guests is one of his favorite responsibilities within the podcast because he gets to learn along with the listeners.
Ehresman also loves the ideological, topical, ethnic and geographic diversity that he gets to be a part of through the podcast. He is grateful that he can communicate with a variety of people, whether they are in leadership positions or not, about a variety of topics. When asked about being the host, he says, “It’s a privilege and an honor because these issues are things I want our denomination to be talking about.”
LEAD Pods a team effort
Ehresman would be the first to say that it takes more than a host and a guest to make a successful podcast. Martin handles most of the behind-the-scenes work such as contacting guests, setting up interviews and developing advertisements. Ehresman performs a few of the off-camera tasks which include editing content from the interview and preparing the episode for launch.
Morris, along with input from Ehresman and the USMB staff, covers the vital step of brainstorming episode topics and guests. Martin says that Morris is skilled at making connections across the USMB family and at pairing topics with the right guest(s). The staff keeps their eyes open for “people in our USMB family who are doing unique things and have something to share that we want to highlight,” Martin says.
Any objective overview of LEAD Pods’ first year will report that the podcast has seen unique success. According to Martin, listeners have downloaded the podcast 2,715 times, which calculates to over 120 downloads per episode.
Martin is surprised that the downloads have been incredibly consistent. He thinks that this consistency comes from the flexibility of podcasts in general.
“People can listen to them in the privacy of their own home, and they can still feel a connection to the conversation that is happening,” says Martin.
Ehresman believes the podcast’s success is directly related to its content and its style. He points out that the topics covered in the episodes are not topics that are typically spoken about in churches from the pulpit, and that this helps listeners step out of their theological, ethnic and geographical bubbles.
“Every episode, our goal is to be better leaders and to be more educated about cultural and theological issues,” says Ehresman.
LEAD Pods episodes have also remained conversational in style, which Ehresman is proud of. He believes that podcasts with natural conversation are easy for listeners to stay engaged with.
“My favorite podcasts are the ones that are very conversational,” he says. “We have an idea of where we are going, but we try to keep it open and free.”
The podcast accomplished another one of its initial goals, which is to reach a variety of groups. People across the country and across the world have downloaded LEAD Pods, including people in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America.
Some of the topics that LEAD Pods has covered are very different from what the USMB staff envisioned a year ago. Martin said that COVID-19 and the toxic nature of the presidential election were not issues that they saw coming.
Podcasts empower listeners
However, this has blessed the podcast because many listeners have heard valuable insight into these sensitive issues from a Christian perspective. Martin says that the podcast has empowered listeners by offering a consistent, biblical voice that cuts through the cultural noise.
The podcast also empowers listeners by giving them practical takeaways that are relevant to issues happening around them.
“Hopefully this gives people an easy tool to develop leaders, and also to share with their church family, so that we can have a voice in those important conversations,” says Ehresman.
Another way that Ehresman sees the podcast empowering others is by providing guests with a platform to tell their stories.
“It’s beneficial on both sides, for the people who are telling their stories as well as the people who are hearing them,” says Ehresman.
Looking ahead to new 2021 episodes
After an action-packed first year of episodes, the LEAD Pods team is ready to start their second year strong. An episode addressing the topic of grief will drop March 5. This episode will dive into all levels of personal grieving and how to encourage those who are grieving. March 19, the team will release a conversational episode featuring Tabor College President Jules Glanzer. Glanzer will give his testimony of his battle with COVID-19.
The team will launch two more episodes in April. One will feature pastors from the Congo. Ehresman hopes to invite American churches to partner with Congolese pastors and churches. The other episode will take a comprehensive look at the effects of COVID-19 on churches from all five USMB districts.
Amazingly, after diving into deep, sensitive topics for a year, the feedback from listeners has been overwhelmingly positive. Both Martin and Ehresman say they have received no negative feedback, not even from those on social media. Martin said that he sees a high number of likes, shares, tags and retweets across all USMB social media platforms. Martin says USMB staff invites suggestions for topic ideas and guest recommendations. If listeners have ideas, they can email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ehresman has received encouraging comments on social media and has had the opportunity to connect with non-Christian friends through the podcast. Reflecting on the response to LEAD Pods, Ehresman says, “When we have a chance to share our stance and it is positively received, that is encouraging to me.”
Ehresman, Martin and the USMB staff have enjoyed bringing creative content to the domain of podcasts and will continue to offer great topics and ideas. Listeners can find LEAD Pods on Apple, Google and Spotify.
Toby Penner is from Elbing, Kansas and is a junior at Tabor College majoring in communications and English. In addition to serving as an intern at the Christian Leader for the spring 2021 semester, Penner is a member of the college track team and is the editor of the Tabor View , the student publication.