Welcome back to the Monday morning church podcast. Today’s guest is John Freeland from Mount Bethel United Methodist church in Marietta, Georgia. Great to have you today John.
Thanks, good to me with you.
John, if you would start us out just giving us a little background about how you came into your position as executive pastor there at Mount Bethel.
Probably not the usual route. I had been in small churches for the last 20 something years, in fact the largest church I’d been in had 116 attendants on Sunday morning. But I had been friends with the senior pastor here for a long time, Dr. Jody Ray senior pastor at Mount Bethel. And I actually was good friends with his dad and watched Jody grow up. So I’ve known Jody since I was 17, and he was about… I guess he was 5 when I first met Jody. So I’ve been a friend of the family and on a few different occasions I had counseled him when he was having a tough time at one church or another, and we would talk about those situations. And so it just kind of came to this. And I came on staff here. His dad’s also on staff as the care pastor. He was on staff before Dr. Ray, before Jody came here at Mount Bethel. And so it was just kind of a natural thing for me to come in here and come alongside him. And I kind of made it my goal that what I wanted to do here was to make sure that Jody had a life with his family, so his kids didn’t grow up regretting the fact that Jody was a pastor and to make sure that he was successful. So I worked pretty hard to take as much off of him as I can.
Now, I have a lot of questions and from what you just said, yeah. We all know big seat church is a big seat church. We’re talking about these small seat churches. There’s a huge difference between a church of 116 members and how many does Mount Bethel run on the weekends?
We have about 2200.
Okay, so what’s that been like for you? Just the logistics of ministering in small charge versus a church of over 2000.
The problems are the same, there’s just a lot more of them. So I don’t see too much difference in the way that membership acts or even staff acts. It’s just instead of having 4 people in staff, I have 70 that are under me. We have total… we have 330 staff , about 120 of those work for the academy, our Christian academy, the others work for the church and about 70 of those work under me. So it’s the same thing. It’s just bigger and it’s a lot more to hold together. So I spend a lot of my time meeting with each of my direct reports, my team members to make sure that everybody’s on the same page.
Now, tell me a little more about what falls under your responsibility. You mentioned being a strong support for the senior pastor, and then these 70 staff are under you. Who are these staff? Are they ministerial staff?
Yes, all the ministries, front line ministries come under me. So I have several direct reports, and then each of them have a team under them. So the ministry areas like discipleship, children, students, missions, care, multi sites, some multi campuses and worship. All of that comes underneath me. Then we have an executive team that reports to the senior pastor and we, with the senior pastor, we all work together to make the major decisions. Jody really does not make too many decisions by himself. It’s all in count. So with the executive team, and so the finance person that’s over finances on that executive came, the person over the building and grounds, the person over the connections and communications like video and sound, sport graphic design. They all report directly to the senior pastor. So I meet every week with probably 10 different people and I meet with them individually to talk to them about what’s going on in each of their areas, make sure that they’re working together. Sometimes I’ll bring two or three of those together if I feel like they’re not exactly working on the vision in the same way, and we need to going some unity and there.
So in some ways, you’ve gone from churches of 160 to a church of 70 that you’re leading.
In a way. Yeah, that’s true. When I left my staff in the other church, which I had 4 staff members only 1 full time when I left that church and came here, they were laughing that I would have as many on my staff as I had in my church on Sunday morning. And that’s just about true.
That’s interesting. So I’m curious, what’s one solution or best practice that you have implemented with success that might be interesting to other executive pastors listening.
Well, I’m still finding my way. I’ve been here six months, so I’m still finding my way. We’re still working out some things between each of the members of the executive team and with Jody we are still figuring out some of those things. So, nothing is in concrete just yet about what I do. My job description is still somewhat fluid. But what I’ve found is if I don’t sit down at least once a week with my direct reports, I don’t know what’s going on because things move so quickly here with changes that are being made and implementation of some of the decisions. It moves so quickly that if I’m not sitting down with them, I fall behind and the only way I can stay up is to spend as much time as possible with them. So I frequently go to their offices, unannounced, sit down and talk to them about how their days are going, and that might be a 5 minute or 10 minute conversation. I just try to stay in touch with them as much as possible.
Now, coming in new, you’ve been there six months and you weren’t a part of the church before, so a lot of the individuals are new to you also. How have you got about just getting to know your staff on a personal level?
Okay, I knew a few of them before I came because as United Methodist pastors are in connection with each other and we do annual conference every June we do annual conference. So some of them I knew because I either had some connection through school or some connection through the conference or another district. But most of them I didn’t know as far as ordain (???). And then the staff, I knew just a handful of them because my daughters, one of my daughters had been an intern at Mount Bethel a couple of summers while she was in college. So I had some exposure to them there. And then because Jody’s dad has been here for several years, I had been up and visited on occasion and met a few of them. But the greatest majority of them, I really did not know. So I’ve just tried to introduce myself. I still after six months, have to ask staff, when I meet them in the hall, what their names are, because I either have not had enough exposure to them or I can’t remember because there’s so many people here.
I wanna go back to something you mentioned about feeling like one of your primary reasons for being there is supporting Jody, your senior pastor, and just making sure he has a family life other than actually taking off some of the load in the Monday through Friday from him. How is it that you kind of counsel him or help him to keep that connection with his family?
When we first talked about me coming out as his executive pastor, first thing I had to do was Google executive pastor to see what that was. And then I found out that you can’t figure that out from Google because everybody’s different. But with Jody, I told him then I’m not a yes man, and if that’s what he wants, then I don’t need to take this position. And I tell him up front when I disagree with him, or if I think something differently, I tell him. Of course he has the last word, and I always do whatever he says and support him in any decision that he makes. But I make no bones about it if I disagree with him, and that takes a little bit of guts… even though I have known him ever since he was a little boy. Still, he is my boss, and I don’t ever forget that.
It’s interesting. Even you’ve been in a ministry a long time, just yourself.
Yeah, and just with keeping that connection with family seeming to be so important for you, how have you done that in your own life and now in kind of helping your senior pastor do the same?
When I was early in ministry and my children were still young, now they’re married, and one of them has a daughter herself… When I was young in ministry, I made sure that I was at home for breakfast, and most days I went home for lunch, and then I was home in the evenings for dinner. So we had just about every meal of the week together. We read together five psalms a day, and sometimes that meant I had to call in on the phone and we did it over the phone if I was unavailable. Most of the time I was at home to do that, or sometimes we had to cram in the evening and get three psalms all together ’cause it was really rough on the day that psalm 19 came up. We all hated that day, but we did it and we did that for a couple of years, and then we switched and we started reading a proverb a day, and I just made sure that I did what I needed to do. If that meant that I worked on a sermon after the kids were in bed, then I worked on my sermon at 10 o’clock at night or whatever it was. I just had to make sure that time was available. And so now with Jody, sometimes I’d tell him that you need to go home, you don’t have any meetings today, get out of here while you can. So I urge him to be with his kids, of course I know his kids and they come in and when they’re in the office, they usually say hey to me or I see them when we’re together somewhere else sometimes.
Now over the years, 22 years of ministry and now in a pretty different role than you’ve had before.
A very different role.
Where do you go to just for your own encouragement and also to make sure you’re staying sharp in your role as a minister?
I have a couple of other XP’s (executive pastors) that I call on occasion and talk to them. I email back and forth with them, call them, wanna feel like a need to… they’ve been in this role for a lot longer than I have. So I call them and ask their advice. We don’t usually talk specifics about either one of our churches. We just kind of support each other and talk things out. And if I don’t know exactly what I should do in a situation, I might give them a little bit of that situation so they can help me figure that out. But they don’t tell me what to do… they just give me an ear that can hear some of the things that I need to ask.
Now, where have you met these people? Are they mostly at the United Methodist conferences or how have you come in contact with them?
Most of them, I met at a large church, a large United Methodist church conference that we had recently, that’s happened since I’ve been in ministry. So they are United Methodist as well. That’s the only avenue I have for meeting them right now.
Now you’ve been in the role for six months now, but I’m sure there are already things you’ve noticed. What is one current administrative challenge that you haven’t quite found a solution for, or you’re still trying to figure out?
I think probably the biggest thorn in my flesh is my to do list. There are dozens of things to manage every day and things that I need to do and things that I need to assign to other people in keeping up with those things has been really difficult for me because I’ve not been able to find a program, a software program that I’m happy with to help me manage those thorns. I would love to hear from anybody that could say, we tried this and it was great, and I won’t tell you the ones I’ve tried ’cause I don’t wanna give them a bad name or anything, but I’ve just not been satisfied. And I’m pretty picky, and that’s probably part of the problem.
Is that a newer thing for you to interact with because there’s not as much of a need in the smaller churches? So how has that been for you?
It is. I’m not used to managing dozens of things every day. Maybe I had a dozen things I was doing at a time in the smaller church and my administrative assistant there could help me with those things. But here it really is overwhelming. And when I came onboard, it was described as drinking water through a fire hose. And that’s really what it is. It’s fast paced and it’s a huge volume and a lot of things to keep track of all at the same time. So if I can find a program to help me do that and we’re working on that, we’ll find it eventually.
Well, you might get some emails or messages from people after this, that who might have tried some things that could work for you.
That would be awesome… to have a good network would be great.
Yeah, so I wanna end with this question. What encouragement would you give to others in church leadership and maybe even specifically, other executive pastors?
I think communication and community have been one of the major benefits to my role. When I was in smaller churches, I was often times isolated because I would go to work and nobody’s… nobody’s in the offices because they were part time staff members, and they was working during the day, and they just didn’t come by the… come by the offices or by the church unless they had to. So here I am constantly with people. I do about 25 meetings a week. So I spend most of my day with groups of people. And even though I’m kind of an introvert, I found that to be the thing that gives me strength throughout the day, that there’s people that I can share with and talk with and go to lunch with. And it’s just been great being in community with people. It’s a little hard to be friends with some of them when they work for me, but I’m pretty close to a few of them and close to the other pastors that are here, even though they all serve under me. It’s not like I’m their boss, even though I am. We don’t have that kind of a relationship, we work together. And just being available. I try to be available to anybody that comes in and knocks on my door. Rarely is my door shut, sometimes when I’m doing sermon prep, but honestly, most of a sermon prep I do at home. So most of the day, if I’m not in a meeting, my doors open or I’m out in the hall walking around looking for people that I need to connect with.
Well, that’s great advice. John, thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
It has been my pleasure.
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