Welcome back to the Monday Morning Church Podcast. John Evans is joining us today from McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, Florida. Great to have you on the show today, John.
So, John, tell us a little bit about how you came into your position there at McGregor.
That is a very interesting story. I started here at the church 17 and a half years ago, and I was a member of the church at that time. I was just finishing up college, and was frankly looking to go into a job in law enforcement. My degree was actually in Criminology. But before that, I was to pay my way through college. I was running my own little IT business. A particular Sunday morning, there’s an ad in the church bulletin looking for an IT Director. I saw it, and thought to myself that I don’t really want to be an IT Director. I’m looking probably going to law enforcement. So as the day went on, some people who knew me, came up to me and said, hey, John, I was thinking about it. You’d be good for this position. You should put in for it. I said, okay. Thanks. I appreciate it. Then little bit later, another person comes up to me says the same thing. By the end of that Sunday, no fewer than five other people came up to me and said the same exact thing, at which point I finally said, okay God, I get the point. I’ll put in for the position.
Yes, someone’s trying to tell you something.
So I did. I went in. They asked me to come in to interview. I went in to interview for the position. I got asked the standard question of: Why do you want this job? And I said, I don’t. God called me to be here so here I am. And, well, they hired me. And this was definitely the case of God knew far better than I ever did, because I didn’t think I would ever want to be an IT guy. And it’s been, frankly, I’m in a job that I love. So He knew far better than I ever could have. So that’s how I wound up here.
That’s great. Now, in 17 and a half years, there’s been a lot of change in the IT field. So what has that been like being at the church for this amount of time and seeing all those changes and helping the church adapt to it?
It’s a matter of constantly adapting. IT is one of those fields that you never can stop learning because if you do stop learning, then the entire industry just simply passes you by. It is a matter of constant self-training to be able to educate all those around us. For instance, just today, right now, we’re seeing so many issues with cyber threats and ransomware issues. Our church, itself, got hit last year with a ransomware incident. So right now, we are focusing heavily on security awareness training with our users. We just introduced a new program today where we actually tested all of our users by sending them fake phishing emails to see who would click and who wouldn’t, and it was an eye-opening experience for everyone. We’re now in the process of educating our users on what not to do and what to do when working with email. So everything from little things like that to being able to try to keep up with the latest and hardware innovations. When I started 17 years ago, wireless was a nice idea but it was never considered reliable. And now we have a campus-wide wireless system that is pretty much we have to have it because everybody simply expects it, from our staff to the membership of the church.
I’m curious, what was the response to the email you sent out today? You had done some training prior than to sending this to how people recognize the signs of bad email and everything?
We did. After we got hit last year, we did some informal training. But I was never quite satisfied with that, and I knew that we needed to do more. So today was actually a completely unannounced test. The only other person who knew that we were going to be doing this was my assistant. Other than that, our entire church leadership team and from our pastors going down, no one knew that we were going to be testing them today. And we had a large number of our users who saw — the system we use basically created quite a few random emails, so no one got the same fishing email. They recognized, though, that it was some sort of scams, so they just simply deleted it. A lot of people opened the email and then decided, I better not click on anything. But then we had about half of our users actually went ahead and clicked when they shouldn’t have. Someone were even then still confused a little bit, probably because, well, yesterday was April Fool’s Day, so they didn’t know if this was some sort of joke, which, frankly, if it wouldn’t have been so serious, it would have made for a pretty good joke.
Well, it seems like you’ve got some good material now to back up that there needs to be some further training.
Oh, most definitely.
Now, how do you find that, in general, the response to — because it is this hidden ministry of the church. It serves all of the different ministries, but it just lurks in the dark corners and it’s usually something that’s not very well understood by other people in other departments. How has that been for over the last 117 years? Do you find it easier now that people have a little more access to technology or is it kind of the same story as when you first started?
It varies person to person. With our newer associates who are coming on board, they’ve grown up with the technology more. I had a conversation — we have a K through 12 school here on our campus. And I was having a conversation with one of our teachers the other day, and we were talking about doing a laptop refresh. And she was saying on, oh, I hope you’re not replacing mine. I’ve got such and such processor on my computer and it’s really faster. I don’t really want to move away from it. And I was very surprised like, wow, you understand process or technology. I’m not used to that. I have other users who aren’t as adept. I’m fortunate, my first job doing tech work is — this will show a little bit of my age. It was, I used to computer sales at Circuit City back when Circuit City still existed. The key thing with sales was learning how to be able to take a very complex subject, how computer works, and put it into layman’s terms. So I found that that experience, just over time, has allowed me become sort of a translator for how to take a very complex subject and simplify it to an individual so that they can understand it on their level.
And that’s an interesting skill because lot of times, when you are in charge of any kind of IT Department, a lot of it is just, as you said, communicating in a way that people can understand the severity of the topic and the seriousness of it, and also just understand enough of the technical portion to appreciate it.
I’m very fortunate that my boss here is our Lead Pastor, Pastor Russel Howard, and his first job in the ministry, when he was much younger, was being the IT Director for Bellevue Baptist., under Doctor Adrian Rogers back then.
That’s not very common to have a senior pastor with IT backgrounds.
He knows enough about it, even to this day to where he fully understands the need to support it and be able to basically be my chief cheerleader and especially with my work. Like today, when we introduced the security awareness training, he was the first one to talk about and said, yeah, we don’t want to do this, but we need this. So I am very fortunate and having a staff that appreciates what we’re trying to do to assist all of our ministries. As you said, we are very much an invisible one, which in the IT world, I’ve always said that we’re doing our best when nobody knows we exist. Because the only time that you hear about IT is when something goes horribly wrong.
Yeah, that’s true. On the other side of horribly wrong, what is some kind of best practice that you have, especially in your IT department there at McGregor, that you really found success with?
One is basically creating a system of standards. I’ve always approached IT at more looking at it from an enterprise level and not just a small business level. And what I mean by that is a small business, when they need a computer, they go out to Best Buy and they buy whatever is on sale. We don’t do that. What we do is we have established partnerships with specific vendors so that there’s a particular model of computer that we buy, for instance. When we have to call tech support that way, we have one number to call. We have one support portal to use. We’ve made it a point to try to standardize as much as we can across the board. Everything from the systems that we buy, to the vendors that we use, to how do you report a service call. We put an inventory system in place that also operates as our help desk. So if someone has a problem, I can look up on one screen and see exactly what systems they have, see what software they have installed, see what updates need to be run on their computer. And trying to look at IT from very much a big picture perspective, instead of just fixing it where you need it and get the cheapest thing that’s available, that is what has kept us, frankly, we’re on task. We have roughly 200 computers on this campus, along with 200 mobile devices like iPads and things of that nature. I run 700 users, including all of our students, and we manage that entire process with me and I have one assistant. So the only way to do that at that level and to try to keep things running is to keep it as organized as possible.
Now, is your assistant, is that a full-time position or a part-time?
It is a full-time position. Yes.
Okay. Because it’s such a huge task. Do you have any kind of volunteer team underneath you? And if you do, what does that look like?
I wish we did. We tried using volunteer teams a couple of times, and unfortunately, volunteer teams, if you can make them work, they can work great. Unfortunately, also requires the right person and it’s hard in the IT world because you also need someone with a very specific skill set. So, we’ve never been able to make that work quite right, because all the people who have the right skill set, typically are working full-time jobs in IT. And so, we’ve never been able to really have a model that’s worked for us in this particular ministry, but if there was the availability and we had the right person, I’d be all for it. We just haven’t been able to make it work on our end yet.
Yeah, I’ve heard from another IT director that it’s a challenge because a lot of IT folks, since they do it 9 to 5 every day, it’s not really the area they want to volunteer in on the weekends.
And I don’t blame them.
Yes. Yeah. Certainly. So maybe it’s the volunteers, but is there any other area that has been a challenge that you guys haven’t quite found a solution for within the IT Department?
I wish I could say there was, and that we had great difficulty, and we’ve been managed to overcome, but frankly, God has blessed us here. I’ve got a great team of people from our regular associates, to our leadership team, to my assistant who keeps me on task. Whenever we have a problem, we deal with it as a team and we work through it. There’s not been — I can’t recall anything in any sort of recent memory where I’ve just been so frustrated, where I throw my arms up, and just discussed. It just doesn’t happen.
That’s a great thing that you can’t recall anything like that. Tell us a little about your assistant. Is that a position that you were a part of the hiring process for? I assume, since you’ve been there 17 years, this person came on at some point after you. What kind of person were you looking for? What kind of person in general do you think it makes an ideal IT Assistant?
She was actually the exact opposite. My assistants been working for the church upwards, I believe, of around 22-23 years.
So she was there before you.
Oh yes, she was here before me. And when I started at the church, I did not have an assistant. I and the Security Director at the time were assigned a basically an Administrative Assistant to just simply help us both. Eventually, she just became my Administrative Assistant until we have been working together in that capacity for about a year. And I finally said, I don’t need an Administrative Assistant. I need another tech. And I said, if you’re willing to learn, I’ll teach you. And she was willing to learn. So for, frankly, probably the next three, four years, I started teaching her as much as she could handle, and she’s now become — she is my primary help desk support. Anything that is desktop related, she handles, which has freed me up to handle more of the big picture stuff.
That’s really neat. You don’t hear about that very often, someone who doesn’t have an IT background ending up working as the true IT assistant.
She’s done a great job and has really helped to just keep this place operational, especially for how busy we stay.
John, I want to ask this in two parts. First, what kind of encouragement would you give to just other IT professionals within the church?
I would say the key thing for an IT professional and probably the hardest thing for IT people, in general, is the ability to communicate. You have to be able to communicate, not just with the machines, which frankly is the easy part, but be able to communicate with the users. It is very easy to, even if we don’t intend it, but we can come across as being a know-it-all, full of ourselves, because we do have a very particular skill set that a lot of people just don’t fully understand. And it’s a matter of being able to communicate that we are there to surely serve all the others. Because if we didn’t have any of the other ministries, there wouldn’t be any need for us. So we operate purely in a service capacity and it’s critical that we don’t just simply hide in our offices and do our jobs, but that we actually interact with people. And for a lot of IT people, that can be very hard to do. I know it was hard for me. I am not the same person that I was 17 years ago and I’ve had to learn to become a better communicator. And that is probably the one thing that I would say we all have to learn, we all have to strive to be better at. And the good news is that we can all do it. It’s just a matter of taking time and just being with our fellow human being and being empathetic to what they may be going through. And it doesn’t make us just a better IT person, it just makes us a better Christian and better human being, in general, and being able to learn to work with other people.
That’s great. I want to ask another side of that question, which is, what kind of encouragement would you give to church leadership when it comes to interacting with their IT department?
When I started with the church, this was before we had the Lead Pastor that we have now, any purchase that I wanted to make that was over, I think, about $500 had to be approved by a Finance Committee. Now, problem is in the IT world, every purchase is typically over $500. There’s not much we can do when the Finance Committee would only meet once a month.
That’s a lot of waiting for approval.
So, it made trying to get anything expedited very difficult back then. I remember a particular instance where I came up with a full report of saying we needed to go this route to try to fix this problem, and it went to committee, and the committee said — and I even gave them a second report that said this is another option that’s going to be twice as much money and just so you can see the price differences. And the committee came back and said, yeah, we decided to go with the second option. I was like, no, that wasn’t really an option. That was just so you could see the price difference. The similar instance to that same type of idea was is that the church came to me and it was right after I first started. Literally, the day before I started, the church got hit by a lightning and fried everything. And after that hit, and I came in and fixed everything, they basically came to me and said, yeah, that was an expensive repair. What can we do to fix that? And I said, well this is a big campus here. We sit on about 120 acres. I was like, we need to put in a fiber optic backbone across our campus, so that way we can isolate lightning strikes, when they happen, to a particular area. So they don’t spread across the entire campus. And they said, how much is that going to cost? And I figured it out and said, okay, it’s going to cost X number of thousand dollars. And they said, oh, that’s way too much money. We can’t spend that. So a year goes by and we get back down here to the summers in Florida, —
Lightning never strikes twice, right?
— take another lightning stroke. They come back to me, what can we do to solve this? Well, it’s going to cost you so many thousands of dollars. But, inflation. It’s gone up a little bit. We still can’t afford that. Okay, that’s the only thing we can do to try to isolate this. So year three goes by. Guess what, we take another hit. They come to me finally and say, yeah, can we still do that fiber optic project? Sure enough, we finally did, and that was because they couldn’t afford the insurance hikes anymore. So, the key thing is it all comes down to what I said before, it’s developing relationships. I have a boss who trust my judgement and I trust him even when he says no to a particular issue. I know he’s got a good reason why we can’t do it. And that trust goes both ways.
Now that makes a lot of sense. John, I really appreciate you and your wisdom today. Especially after having 17 years in this field, especially at the same church, what you’ve been able to walk through to that, I appreciate you sharing that with us today.
Happy to do so. Thank you for having me.