Podcast with humble beginnings surprises & delights
When Kimberly Wagner, Marvin Wickware and their podcast editor Eric Fowler bounced around names for what would become “An Incomplete Field Guide to Ministry,” Wagner says they wanted the name to reflect what the podcast is about, but also “have a little humor, humility and honesty. Hence the ‘incomplete field guide’ part…”
That same humor, humility and honesty come through when Wagner and Wickware discuss the podcast, now in its second year.
Wagner, assistant professor of homiletics, is quick to credit Wickware, assistant professor of church and society and ethics, with the podcast idea, and it was he who applied for the Lyn C. and Stewart W. Herman Jr. Fund for Innovation in Theological Education that made it financially feasible. The grant came through in the summer of 2020, paying for equipment and the editing services of Fowler (spouse of 2021 graduate Reed Fowler), who Wagner and Wickware agree is far more valuable than any piece of equipment. Or as they put it, “the most essential component.”
While the pandemic was forcing LSTC to launch remote learning and use technological terms such as synchronous and asynchronous, these two colleagues and friends jumped into the popular world of podcasts.
Most MDiv students take both Wagner’s Ministerial Leadership I class and Wickware’s Public Church I class back-to-back their first year.
“We wanted to provide continuity for students as they go from one course to the other so they’d feel like they had professors who were with them the whole year,” Wickware said. “We wondered what could we do that would be useful… we were each teaching by ourselves and given free rein. These two courses felt like they should fit together, but we had no real sense on how they’d build together.”
But it didn’t take long for them to find out. In addition to the benefit of collaboration (these classes have previously been team taught), they believe the podcast created a learning, spiritual community, something especially needed in a global pandemic.
Podcast as lecture
For their three-hour classes, An Incomplete Field Guide to Ministry provided 60 minutes of content—an opening conversation between the two hosts, guests on relevant topics, and a chance for listeners to email questions, comments or concerns the hosts responded to in “real time.”
For Wagner’s fall course, the podcast served as part of the asynchronous class lecture material and students listened to it prior to class (it dropped a week prior). Wickware used it in his class to have public theological conversations about a range of issues. “We leaned heavily into interviews to introduce students to people doing different kinds of ministries,” he said.
“What was helpful was the continuity piece, and the asynchronous content, which I relied on heavily,” Wagner said. “That was a lovely way for students to engage the conversation outside the classroom, through the podcast, and then bring those conversations into the Zoom room. What surprised us was how it took on a life beyond the classroom.
“That was the imagination of it: asynchronous content meets continuity between the two courses, meets building relationships with this class and two professors they were going to have back-to-back.”
They did 18 episodes the first year, having set out to do one for every week of class until they realized that wasn’t always feasible. In both recording the podcast and setting it in motion, they tried to remain unstressed and flexible.
The room where it happens
The podcast “studio” for the 2020- 21 academic year was a small second floor classroom, set up with three long tables, three microphones and three headsets. The hosts sat 10 feet apart, with a big screen that everything fed into. With the campus and the city mostly on lockdown, they rarely had in-person guests, except for President Jim Nieman and a few students. Most guests Zoomed in. Frantisek Janak provided tech support—he got them started, sat outside the room and popped back in as needed.
“Marvin and I would sit across from each other in the room, masked,” Wagner explained. “It was life-giving to be in person with Marvin, using body language and having eye-contact and dialogue. I don’t know that we would have produced something of quality if we hadn’t been in a room together. The first part [of the podcast] is truly a conversation. We’re talking to each other, nodding and receiving what the other is saying and responding to one another.”
Over time, as they got more comfortable and as life unfolded, there were key topics that needed to be attended to, she said. They shifted to more contemporary concerns which aligned with Public Church I.
“Our work and our interests and our theological perspectives don’t preclude what’s going on in the world,” Wagner said. “So if our topic was the power of listening, we’re still going to talk about contemporary events, we’re still going to talk about them in conversation about what’s going on in the world. We also had to be nimble with our interviewees. We kept questions wide open and the guests were amazing. They would take us in all kinds of directions and we’d follow up with questions we hadn’t written down and planned.”
Flexibility became key, Wickware said. Even if they had a list of several questions prepared for guests, they’d sometimes ask just one, and the guest would respond with the perfect story so that suddenly it was a wrap.
“We had no need to ask anything else,” Wickware said, as they laughed at the memory of just such an ideal interview with Erik Christensen, pastor to the community.
But telling one another they had what they wanted wasn’t always easy. To communicate, they waved their arms at each other and communicated through a Google doc, until Fowler told them they had to stop typing because it was showing up on the audio file.
“Marvin and I talk with our hands. And sometimes we bang on the table, which turns out to be loud in the microphone,” Wagner said, laughing. “Eric told us to sit on our hands and that we cannot keep touching the table. Eventually we put blankets on the table. Eric has been one of the most understanding and kind humans with us because we clearly don’t know what we’re doing with sound engineering.”
Surprised and delighted
Both Wagner and Wickware were surprised and delighted by the response to An Incomplete Field Guide to Ministry: “People who weren’t compelled to listen by a syllabus listened,” they joked.
And listeners responded—alumni, those in the LSTC community, even students away on internship tuned in regularly—and wrote to them or told them they’re listening. They believe alums and interns, especially, feel it connects them to the school.
The podcast had more than 1,200 downloads, 37% in Chicago, but also in 12 states other than Illinois as well as in France and Germany. “For a little old dinky ministry podcast, that’s pretty good,” Wagner said. They were also surprised at how much they can get into a 20-minute interview, and the depth of their discussions. “Rich content in such short time. And no one has said no to our invitation,” Wagner said.
Podcast affects teaching
Doing a podcast has changed the way both professors teach. “It made me appreciate this kind of dialog with colleagues and students,” Wagner said. “I loved the practice of sitting down each week with Marvin and thinking theologically.
“As academics, we do a lot of thinking and writing. But with the podcast we got to do this in person. The back and forth, push and pull of producing ideas and wrestling with ideas and what’s going on in the world and thinking theologically about it… This has encouraged me to cultivate that kind of dynamic in the classroom even more than I already did.”
Wagner said it has reminded her of the joy of deep dialogue, but also the challenge of doing it technologically: “How do I create dialogical in a Zoom room?” She wants to better model this dialogue in class, not just among students but also in bringing in more guests/colleagues.
Because she had to prepare each week to say things into a microphone, she believes it sharpened her theological thoughts so she was better able to articulate those in the classroom.
For Wickware, discussion is much more comfortable than lecture. He says with good humor, “that’s too much of me talking. The imposter syndrome lingers on even among those who have PhDs.
“I don’t like to do lectures. I don’t like writing them, I don’t like giving them, and I don’t like watching students slowly die inside as they listen to them. It’s not something I find to be a useful tool in my toolbox.”
He prefers to hear what his students have been reading and what they have to say, but also understands that they also want to know what he thinks. The podcast has made him want to block 15 minutes of unstructured time at the end of class for his response to what has happened in class.
Essentially, it’s taught them both to continue to look for ways to incorporate what they love: having conversations.
This year they are doing an episode every other week, not attached to the two courses. Instead, they highlight people from LSTC, alumni who are doing effective ministry, and introduce student guests. As they cast this wider net, they hope to engage community, build connections and respond to what’s going on in the world. They’re even open to your suggestions for guests or topics. Just contact Lstcpodcast@gmail.com.
“We’re giving smart people a lovely platform to talk,” Wagner said.
Original article published in the Fall 2021 Epistle Magazine; written by Julie Sevig