Whether driving to work or working out, people can listen to podcasts just about anywhere. Among the more than 2 million podcasts to choose from are podcasts from U.S. Mennonite Brethren.
The Christian Leader spoke with three MB church staff members with podcasts, including Coalt Robinson, lead pastor at Bethel MB Church in Yale, S.D.; Matt Ehresman, media director at First MB Church in Wichita, Kan.; and Andrew Wuerffel, associate pastor at Zoar MB Church in Inman, Kan., to learn how podcasting has provided a platform through which to share content with their congregations and to hear their advice for others wishing to start a podcast.
Starting a podcast
For Ehresman, who also hosts the USMB podcast LEAD Pods, podcasts provide easy-to-consume content in a busy world.
“What I love about podcasts is it’s a great way to consume information (and) you don’t have to be actively paying attention,” he says. “It’s great for when you’re driving in the car, when you’re on a run (or) when you’re in the kitchen doing dishes.”
At First MB Church (FMBC), Ehresman uploads the audio from lead pastor Brent Warkentin’s weekly sermons to the church’s podcast for those who might not be physically attending church or who want to re-listen to a specific message.
Meanwhile, for Robinson, who listens to podcasts during his 30-minute commute in rural South Dakota, knowing his own podcast-listening habits helped him recognize an opportunity to serve his local congregation. He and Jay Wipf, a friend and seminary student, started the RenewalCast podcast in 2018, when podcasts were still relatively new, for others who might listen while in the car or on the tractor, with the goal of edifying and building up listeners based on Romans 12:1-2.
For others, like Wuerffel, the coronavirus pandemic prompted a new strategy using a podcast ministry. While unable to meet with his youth group, Wuerffel started the Trajectory Podcast as a way to provide 10-minute Scripture lessons for students twice a week.
“In some ways I think podcasts (are) the new radio,” Wuerffel says, “I wanted the kids to be able to receive easy to understand Scripture, spiritual information, with the least amount of effort on their part as possible. Oftentimes, I think, especially in high school, you’re so busy. It’s no excuse, but time in the Word is hard.”
Have a plan
While the reasons for starting a podcast are as varied as those who produce them, one thing is certain—it is important to have a plan.
“If you’re going to start a new podcast, you have to have a really clear direction of what you want it to be,” Ehresman says. “Don’t start one just to start one because they’re cool. Because people won’t listen. They’re only going to listen if it’s good.”
FMBC has tried a number of podcasts, including a focused, daily devotional podcast with guided prayer during a church-wide 21 days of prayer and fasting, a seasonal standalone podcast by Warkentin and a year-long Midweek Rewind during which Warkentin and Ehresman recapped the weekly sermon.
The devotional and Warkentin’s podcast were well-received and never intended to be ongoing, although they may be repeated, Ehresman says, adding that Midweek Rewind never caught on.
“We know there’s a ton of upside potential,” he says. “There’s a lot of really cool things we could do with it, but so far we haven’t really hit the head on what exactly it’s going to look like. We keep trying.”
Robinson, who has recorded more than 115 weekly podcast episodes, agrees it is important to have a clear direction from the start. For Robinson and Wipf, that meant committing to a 12-week book study at the start.
“I think the vision for the future is pretty important,” Robinson says. “If you’re struggling to think of a topic to talk about—what are we going to talk about next week—that gets pretty hard.”
At one point, Robinson says he took two months off to re-evaluate the purpose of the podcast, resulting in a change of format, adding John Goodell, pastor of New Life Fellowship Church, the USMB congregation in Grant, Neb., to the conversation, adding guest interviews and broadcasting live on Facebook and YouTube in addition to putting an edited version on the podcast.
Wuerffel, meanwhile, started his podcast with a series on the woman at the well and then began working through Jesus’ parables. He now uploads one episode a week.
Find your niche
With the number of podcasts available, a person might wonder if he or she has anything to add to the conversation. But, Ehresman says pastors and staff have a unique opportunity and audience.
“People are increasingly looking for very specific content,” Ehresman says. “They want to hear from their leaders that they know and they trust—people that they see on Sundays, that they can interact with. There’s kind of an ‘in’ that you don’t get with the big national platforms that everyone’s watching and listening to.”
Robinson has found this to be true. While admitting that if given the chance to do it over again, he may not start his own podcast given the number of quality podcasts, RenewalCast provides an opportunity for his local congregation to hear his perspective on relevant topics.
“Yes, there are people that do it better than us, I’m sure,” Robinson says. “But for our church community and the people that know us, I think they like to hear our perspective on those things.”
At the same time, podcasting can benefit the podcaster.
“Doing a podcast will really sharpen you,” Robinson says. “If you’re going to talk to the world about a subject, you feel the need to be somewhat of an authority on it, at least kind of know what you’re talking about. You don’t want to just make stuff up on the fly, so I think that that’s good for ministry leaders to be exposed to those different things and be forced to study them and to be up on the issues of the time.”
For Wuerffel, podcasting has been fulfilling, allowing him to share what he’s learning and encouraging others to do the same.
“We receive a lot of spiritual content, but we’re not given a lot of opportunities to practice what we learn, so for people like me and people who want to make podcasts, it’s an opportunity to do something with what we’re receiving,” Wuerffel says.
An opportunity for churches
For church leaders who would consider starting a podcast, the three offer practical suggestions. Ehresman encourages churches to start with a practical need and take advantage of what they’re already doing well.
“If you can be known as a voice in your community that can help answer some of those big questions that we all have, that’s probably the best way to get new people to come to your church or get to know you,” he says. “If you know that your kids’ department is just excellent, take advantage of that, and use the people in your church who are good communicators or good teachers and have them share what they’ve learned, share what they know.”
Wuerffel and Robinson emphasize the importance of having quality equipment.
Robinson, who now records podcast episodes via Zoom, says he regrets initially starting by recording his conversations with Wipf at a restaurant.
“One of the things that we learned really fast is that the quality of it will turn people off right away,” he says. “I think it was a really poor decision for us to start in a restaurant. Don’t start until you’re ready. Do some testing and editing and make sure that your quality’s right.”
While there is a monthly hosting fee, the cost to start a podcast is minimal, so there’s not a lot of risk in trying.
“Getting it out to iTunes and Spotify isn’t that hard, (and) it’s not very expensive,” Ehresman says. “You want to start with a clear goal and know what you want to do, but it’s not a huge risk to try.”
After all, the goal isn’t perfection, according to Ehresman.
“You don’t have to actually go back and edit out every imperfection,” he says. “The best podcasts are the ones where people are just completely transparent and open about whatever they’re talking about.”