Todd Seifert, Great Plains Conference Communicator, describes himself as a media mutt. He’s worked for print publications, digital media companies, produced videos and recently won the United Methodist Association of Communicators’ 2020 Best in Class award for his podcast In Layman’s Terms.
Todd’s been a Sunday School teacher for years and loves sharing about scripture. He uses that knowledge in his podcast as he shares stories about the body of Christ while reflecting on God's Word.
In this conversation, we talk about how we can use media to help us grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
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- Explore the website of the Great Plains Conference where Todd serves as Communications Director.
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This episode posted on June 20, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
At the recent 2020 awards ceremony for the United Methodist Association of Communicators, Todd Seifert won “Best in Audio Class” for his podcast In Layman’s Terms. It’s quite an honor to win that award, and well-deserved for Todd and his podcast.
In this episode, I’m talking to Todd about In Layman’s Terms, what drew him to this type of podcast, and his work as the communicator of the Great Plains Conference of The United Methodist Church
Joe: Todd, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Todd: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.
Joe: You have a new podcast called “In Layman’s Terms.” Tell me about the podcast.
Todd: `Yeah. So, it started off as a means of sharing information about the Great Plains Conference with the people of Kansas and Nebraska. We actually launched 3 in our conference at the same time. One that is basically the audio of a webcast that we do in our studio. It’s called “Harvesting the Great Plains.” We have another one that’s called “Potluck,” that is just what it sounds like. It’s a potpourri of different things. Sometimes it’s news. Sometimes it’s personalities. And In Layman’s Terms is meant to focus on discipleship. And so we have a story each month, at least one story a month. Sometimes it’s more than that. …of people who are doing things or churches that are doing things in the Great Plains that really are reaching beyond the walls of the church. They might be stories that detail fresh expressions that churches are doing. We have a program that we’re doing right now with…through Phil Maynard and his group, Readiness through Sixty. So stories that come out of those efforts. Or sometimes it’s the church that are doing great things, or individuals who are doing some really great things, being the hands and feet of Christ in their communities. So we do that at least once a month. Oftentimes it’s more than that. And I fill in the other weeks with just short little Bible reflections, stories…. I just got done doing something about parables, for a few weeks, explaining what those mean for people. And those are told from the standpoint of…if somebody has never studied the Bible before, if they studied it and didn’t understand it, or if they’ve just been away from it for a while and want a refresher, it’s a way of helping them kind of ease back into Scripture.
Joe: That’s wonderful. It very much matches with what we do here on Get Your Spirit in Shape in helping people develop their discipleship. What drew you into the podcast thing and what led you towards this style?
Todd: Well, I’m a real media mutt. I was a print person. When I came to the Great Plains. I had to learn how to shoot video. And then because we are a conference of 2 states and 166,000 square miles I’m in the car a lot. And I just…I got tired of singing along to the tunes that I had on my phone. And so I talked to Reverend Ashley Ellie Crawford who is one of our staff folks who works in clergy and development and recruitment. And she’s a podcast person. So she just said, Here’s some podcasts that I really enjoy that help me pass the time and I learn something while I’m doing it. And so I got hooked on podcasts right away. And I mean, it’s all over the map—my podcast subscriptions. There’s no way I could listen to all of them.
But it got me to thinking, you know, this is a different way of reaching people, and the more I talked to people…. I bounced the idea for probably 2 or 3 months. Everywhere I went I would talk to folks and just say, Hey, you know, what do you think about…how do you like to get news and information? How do you like to learn more about Scripture if that was available? And how do you like to learn about the stories about things that are going on in our conference? And lot of folks told me, Hey, I listen to podcasts. That’s what they said. And so, I thought, okay, I need to learn this. Beyond just being a consumer and really enjoying them for myself. And so we just kind of dove in. I had a boss one a time who told me you don’t want to go over Niagara Falls. You want to take things in short bits. And I kind of jumped off the falls with this one. But it’s been a great experience. You know, the more that we do the more that I hear from people, the feedback has been really positive. And it’s been kind of a steadily growing audience. It’s still not huge, I mean, a couple of hundred downloads each episode. But you know, it’s 200 more people that are hearing things about stories of churches doing really great things in this area of the country than what we were hearing before. So that makes it pretty fulfilling.
Joe: That’s a wonderful way to kind of get started. How did you…. Let’s do this instead. Tell me about some of the podcasts. What are some of the ones that you might recommend that were kind of in the same vein of what you are trying to do that encouraged you along the way?
Todd: Sure. So, of course, you always want a really good one to start with. And as often happens, at least I’ve noticed, is sometimes you fall into some things that are better than you ever could have planned. We were planning a training event in Kansas and Nebraska last year about this time. We were already starting to suffer from just tremendous flooding. And so that continued between flooding and tornados, even more so than normal all the way through really the summer months last year. And we had a lot of clergy who were starting to frankly get fatigued because of the pastoral care that needed to go into all this…all these folks who are in this area…these areas. And so one of our…our Director of Clergy Excellence and I were going to go interview a pastor who had been in Greensburg, Kansas. If you aren’t familiar with Greensburg, it was wiped out by a tornado. Now it’s been years and years ago. But this gentleman was going to be our person to kind of tell his story. And we just…I just went there to be the videographer. I was going to shoot the interview and that was the end of it. But I kind of got caught up in the moment. In talking with him, it was amazing what he had to share in the story that he told. So it was all the way back in 2007. And so there’s not a super time tagged to it, but as we were talking to this pastor he just tells this amazing story. His name is Terry Menu. And he gets a call from his district superintendent on the evening of May 4th at about 8:30 to say, Hey, we decided we want to move you to Greensburg. He says, All right. Well, you know, if that’s what you need, that’s what we’ll do.
Joe: Wait. Can you say that again?
Todd: An hour and a half later from him getting that phone call, the town’s no longer on the map. The tornado took out the entire town.
Joe: Oh, my goodness.
Todd: And so he, basically, is in a rebuilding mode from the minute he starts his appointment. But he helped rebuild that church. He stayed there for I believe it was 12 years and rebuilt…not just the church. You could say a town. And so that’s one. That kind of got it started. I thought, Well, okay, here’s the story.
And then I also did some things that helped with evangelism. So there’s one I did about evangelism tools where I talked to a church in Nebraska that is doing Facebook Live with their pastor, one of their staff members. Church of the Resurrection. Everybody knows who they are in Kansas City. They have a really good email and…especially email ministry… The do a lot of things well, but I talked to them specifically about their email ministry, what they do. And I talked to another church just related to their websites and how they do things. So there’s a lot of how-to approach. And then I had an opportunity to talk to the Wilke family down at the Institute for Discipleship at Southwestern College. We talked with them about just the institute, the things that it does to help fund the mission.
So those are three that have really kind of helped people understand that there are resources out there for them. There are some tools that they can use, and also help them connect with people. So, as they’ve heard some of these episodes, I know that they’ve reached out via email to some of the people that we’ve had on there as guests, just to get more information so they can kind of…not necessarily copy what they’re doing, but certainly take some of the better ideas and replicate them for their context in ministry. Here lately it’s been…. I’ve got a series that started last week and it’s going on for 2 more weeks about culture of call.
So one of the things about what we call ‘the Madison effect.’ It’s based on a book by a gentleman named Gary Robbins who’s in a church here in Topeka, Kansas. And he wrote a book about a small church in Madison, Kansas, population 700. But it’s put 16 people into pastoral ministry. And it’s just about…here’s how this small church did it. And it’s over the course of years. This goes back to 1920. So it’s not like they were one group of 16 people. But over the course of generations these folks have made a very concerted effort to not only identify who might be good pastors, but then provide them with support, financial support, certainly prayer support and just encouragement along the way. And so Gary Robbins wrote a book about that church and the things that they do really well that other churches could replicate. And so that’s the way that this episode that’s on the website right now. The next two episodes are about that…not about the Madison effect, but about the concept of culture of call.
Joe: We love asking questions about call. If you listen to our bishop episodes, I ask the bishops about calls to ministry. Anything you’ve learned about call that you’d like to share?
Todd: The thing I think I’ve learned the most in talking with the various people who are guests on those episodes is it really comes down to the laity of the local church being intentional about looking for people who have that type of skill and also providing support for people. So it isn’t just the pastor identifying those folks. In almost every case it was somebody in the congregation who identified it for that person. Hey, I think you have this gift. I think you are meant to serve as a pastor.
That is something that I think unfortunately in a lot of our churches has kind of gone by the wayside. We tend to think, Well, we pay a pastor to do this kind of stuff and not really. The pastor is supposed to be equipping people in the congregation, lay people. And lay people have a task to do. They have a job. And that job includes helping identify the next generation of pastors. And too often we’ve been a little lax with that.
The next one with Reverend Ashley Allie Crawford, we talked a little bit about that, about the idea of how can churches help raise up other laity who are going to…eventually going to the ordained ministry or just into…just serving as disciples. Right? I mean, that’s our job. And so recognizing that even in a vocation, whether it be in law, or in the health field or a teacher, custodians. It doesn’t really matter who you are. We all have a role to play in identifying what our gifts and talents are, to put those to use within the context of our vocation. It’s very important and it’s overlooked by a lot of people.
Joe: One of the things I like about…. I like your podcast title a lot. “In Layman’s Terms.” How did you land on that and what does it mean to you?
Todd: Well, it started actually as the title for my blog on the Great Plains website. I had a column when I was an editor. And so I’ve always played around with titles. And that one just…. I really don’t know where it came from. I was jotting down stuff on a piece of paper. About 3 or 4 years ago I landed on that. So if you do to the Great Plains website and look under the blogs listing, if it says ‘In Laymen’s Terms’ it means it’s mine. And really when we launched the blog we just decided, okay, people already kind of identified my name with that title. And so let’s just keep that in this different medium so that people would understand that that’s one of Todd’s items. That way they can either go to it if they like it or they can avoid it if it’s something they don’t want to have anything to do with. And for me, really all it means is that it’s a little signal to people that this isn’t an ordained clergyperson. As a matter of fact, in the intro to ‘In Laymen’s Terms’ every episode I make that little statement that I’m not ordained clergy, but I’ve studied the Bible extensively. I’ve taught Sunday school for ages, anywhere from 12 years old all the way up to 90-somethings, for 20 years. And so that weekly study Scripture in preparing a lesson. I think what it does is it helps alleviate for whoever the pastor is when I’m at that church doesn’t have to worry about that one segment of the operation that can focus on something else. And so I hope it’s a signal for people that, you know, lay people can do this. You don’t have to be around the pastor. They don’t have to burden the pastor. Maybe they, too, can help in this kind of service.
Joe: You mentioned also that you’ve been in teaching ministry for a long time. You’ve enjoyed studying Scripture. Did you ever consider becoming a clergyperson?
Todd: Okay, so I grew up Baptist. And the joke in our youth group was I was going to be a pastor. I was going to be the one that went to…you know, grew up and did that. But I just didn’t get that kind of encouragement from adults. If I had grown up in the United Methodist Church I might have had that opportunity. But other than my peers saying that I never heard an adult say that. Whereas I have heard in the United Methodist churches, I have heard people openly talk about those things with the youth. So I immediately went into journalism. It was something I really enjoyed. My wife is a pastor. She’s an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. And so, she went to seminary. She answered the call. My call, I think, is just to do the things that I’m doing now, to use the skills that I’ve learned over the course of 20 plus years in journalism, and now 5 years of communications ministry. And believe me, I’m learning something new all the time, to put those things to use, to help resource churches, to help support pastors wherever they are, and then also to help encourage lay people to get involved as well.
Joe: How did you know to make that transition from … you spent 20 years in journalism to moving into the annual conference communicator. What happened in your life to make you make that transition?
Todd: There wasn’t any one thing. I’m always convinced that God does things that helps us understand where we’re supposed to be, when we’re supposed to be there. I had been…I’d had a successful career. I’d worked my way up the ladder everywhere I went. Once I got into the job into Gannett, which is USA Today, once I got into that company I never applied for another job while I was there. I always got recruited for the next job. And so I got to the point where I was an editor of a newspaper for almost 15 years. Doing pretty well, but my wife and I both felt like we were probably being called somewhere else. And the Great Plains had a communications position open and they were in need of clergy, especially with a track record. My wife had helped with a church start in St. George, Utah that grew from about 84 in worship to a little over 220 in worship.
Joe: Did you say 220?
Todd: Sure. It went from about 84 in worship to about 320.
Todd: Now that was slow and steady, but the good news is it was steady, right? So that was over the course of 14 years. But she’d been an associate pastor there. It was probably time for her to move to her own congregation. And there’s a reality where we were. It’s kind of funny. It’s hard to believe with United Methodist churches, but in that conference the closest United Methodist Church to us was 322 miles away. We were in the far southwest corner. Now, we weren’t that far away from another United Methodist Church. I should say that was the distance to the next closest one in our conference, because if you cross the magic line into Nevada, Las Vegas is only an hour and a half down the road. But the way annual conferences work, as you’re aware, it might as well have been on the other side of the moon. Right? So, you had to go up to the Salt Lake Valley, the closest United Methodist Church. There was one fellowship about an hour and a half north of us, but that was a really tiny group. But the next closest church was that far away. And then this was the reality. We were paying off my wife’s seminary bills. And so I needed to keep that job to pay off those bills at the time. And so there really wasn’t a way for her to be moved within what was then the Rocky Mountain Conference because the closest place was 300 miles away. So the Great Plains offered that opportunity to both of us—for her to move on in her ministry and for me to get more involved in the day-to-day ministry of the conference in this case.
When we sat down with this idea, there were like 5 or 6 things that have to happen in order for us to do this. And every time one of them happened we were like, Well, that’s kind of cool. But there’s still 5 more. Oh, there’s just 4 more. Oh, wait a minute, now we’re down to two. Well, I guess God was serious about this.
So suddenly we were in Nebraska.
Joe: It’s funny how things happen that way, isn’t it? Tell me about what a conference communicator does, about that the work that you do day-to-day.
Todd: For the most part we all do these things. We are the news gatherers of our conference. So we’re responsible for sharing news. In our conference we look at it as we really have 3 different constituencies. We have the clergy that we’re helping make sure they know that there are resources available and when they’re available and where they can find them. We need to make sure they understand what’s going on with their annual conference or at the general church level, things that are going to impact their lives and their ministries. So that’s one audience. The next audience would be what we call our dedicated, at least what I call our really dedicated membership. Those are the people that are heavily involved and engaged. You know, they’re in worship 3 or 4 times a month. When you say the word ‘district’ to them they understand what that means. These are basically like the officers of the church or they’re really heavily involved in an organization such as United Methodist Women. They’re beyond the show up every now and then type folks. Then we have what I kind of call our nominally engaged or unengaged folks. That would be people who show up every now and then to church. They understand what their local congregation is but not beyond that. Or people who are not part of the local congregation but they’re part of our communities and we want to help them understand that The United Methodist Church is where the best theology is located, where we’re going to have the most educated pastors... So we deal with those. With the news gathering, dissemination from that standpoint. All of us then at the annual conference level serve as, basically as a press secretary for the bishop, right? I mean, that’s part of what we do. So that’s something that we do on a regular basis. And then some of us have interesting side duties that come up. Some of the conference communicators also have some assistance like with disaster response. Some work in some areas within programming, and some other things. So there’s just other duties as assigned that come along the way. And then all of us are responsible for our websites and our newsletters. And then there’s that fun thing that happens every year. It’s called annual conference. And that’s all about anything from preparing slides to making sure worship stuff is done properly so that it appears on the big screens correctly, that livestreams go through. And so there has a little bit of an IT person inside of each of us even though that’s usually not our primary responsibility.
Joe: Right. Yeah. How do you use media as part of your spiritual growth? As part of your spiritual disciplines?
Todd: Good question. So I have podcasts that I listen to, as I’ve said. And some of it is very purposeful. I listen to your podcasts, for example.
Joe: Thank you.
Todd: And that helps me kind of see, you know. A shout out to you. We just had this great big clergy gathering that we have every year called Ordained Fellowship where we talk about asset-based community development and the Neighboring Movement. And I just heard… You just had an episode I listened to a few days ago that was all about that and it was fantastic…from Ohio, if I remember correctly, … And so I shared that with everybody that I knew.
Joe: That’s cool. Thank you.
Todd: But I’ll do that. I listen to, for example, I actually live in Lawrence because my wife serves a church here. It’s about 25 miles from Topeka where our office is located. So my drive to and from work each day I usually listen to a podcast. So one coming in or maybe finishing it as I’m coming home. Or one each way depending upon the length. So there’s different things.
Church of the Resurrection, I listen to their Sunday sermon one day a week going to and from. It takes that kind of time to listen to it all. There’s one podcast called The Bible Binge. If nobody’s listened to that, you’re missing a real treat. It’s told very folksy. It’s Bible basically is looked at as, what if this were a movie, a book or a television show. And they discuss Scripture that way. But it’s not sacrilegious. They’re actually very attuned to making sure they don’t do anything totally out of the box, that’s offensive to anybody. So I listen to those types of things. I read a lot. So I will do my best to read, not necessarily devotional reading. I’ve tried it and I’m just not good at it. And so I will read books, either Bible studies. Right now I’m reading Adam Hamilton’s “The Walk” just because we’re getting ready to do an all-church study on that right now. I will also listen to things that relate to social justice matters that are of concern to me. So I’m reading a book by Jerry Mitchell who is a fellow Gannett journalist of mine who is down in Mississippi who basically wrote the stories that ended up having convictions for people who committed atrocities against African Americans back in the 1960s. But his stories didn’t appear until the 1990s.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Todd: And so it’s a great story. That’s the book I’m reading right now. So I focus on those types of things. And then when it comes to, you know, websites and such, I subscribe to a few things, that send me some daily devotion reminders that I’ll read on my own. I’m a media mutt like I said. I do a lot of….
Really television is the only thing I don’t do when it comes to spiritual growth and development. It’s just that I haven’t found one that I’m really into that helps me with that.
Joe: Sure. Well, I think you may have answered what is usually my last question, which is what do you do to keep your spirit in shape? Is there something other than those media things that’s part of your spiritual disciplines?
Todd: You know, for me really it’s all about teaching those Sunday school classes. I am one that, until I took Disciple Bible Study I had not read all the way through the Bible myself. Now I’ve done it 7 times since then. But 20 plus years ago when I took Disciple 1 for the first time, it really taught me the importance of discipline in my own life, to make sure that that happens. And it’s funny how we go back to our old habits. Right? Just as soon as Disciple 1 was done, I quit reading on a daily basis until I took Disciple 2. And then I took Disciple 3. But it took me that long to finally figure out the equation of, you know, dummy, you’ve gotta figure out how to make this something you have to do every day, or else you won’t do it. You’re just that lazy. So between the Bible study and the podcast, for the episodes where I’m doing reflections on the Bible, it forces me, at least 4 days a week, to not just sit down and read like a chapter. I mean, it’s like a half hour 4 days a week that I have to be reading Scripture to be prepared for those things. And so for me that’s been something that’s been very helpful, to make sure that I…that I am taking care of my spiritual disciples, at least the Scripture component of it. And then letting a lot of the other things kind of branch off of that.
Joe: You mentioned, I think you said, reading more than a chapter at a time. Are there advantages of reading chunks of Scripture rather than kind of this typical devotional several verses?
Todd: I’m a real big fan of context and understanding what was going on at the time of the Scripture was written. There’s a really fantastic book called “Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow.” And it’s written by Amanda Hope Haley. And she is…. She has a podcast of her own that’s pretty entertaining called The Red Haired Archeologist. But she writes a book…. The whole purpose of the Mary Magdalene book is to illustrate how sometimes we read into Scripture things that we think, but they don’t necessarily fit the context of the times in which they were written. So they’re probably not true. And likewise sometimes there’s things in the Scripture that we just take out that you know we take out of the Scripture, thinking that that must be what it means. But when we don’t understand what the culture was at the time, then we don’t understand where this all fits in. You know, like…. So, I have two 20-year-olds. I have 23 year old and a 20 year old. So one is out of school and one is a junior in college. And it’s kind of funny for them. We’ll bring up…. My wife and I’ll bring up references from the ‘70s and the ‘80s, and they just look at us like we’re from another planet. But that’s kind of what we do with Scripture, right? We’ll read something and we’ll say, Oh, it must mean that because this is what’s going on in the world today. Well, maybe, but not necessarily. So I am kind of a big believer in, if you’re reading a devotion that’s giving you like one Scripture, one verse. Maybe read the first few before that and the first few after. So at least kind of get a feel for what the rest of that passage is telling us.
Joe: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s great advice. Thank you so much. And Todd, I enjoyed getting a chance to talk to you today and learning about your podcasts and some of the wonderful things that you’re doing. Thank you so much for being our guest today.
Todd: Thanks. I appreciate the opportunity.
Joe: That was Todd Seifert, communicator of the Great Plains Conference of The United Methodist Church. To learn more about him or to subscribe to his podcast called In Layman’s Terms, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. We’ve put links on the page to make it easy to find what you need. My email is also on that page so that you can share with me your thoughts about Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.