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Meet Eric Johnson

I met Eric Johnson when I was in seminary.  I’d like to tell you that he stood out, but frankly, when I was in seminary I was pretty overwhelmed by the reading and internships and trying to parent two toddlers, and I met a lot of people that didn’t stand out.  (I know–right now John Silkauskas is laughing at my “seminary with two toddlers” remark–but I’ll get to him in my “Meet John Silkauskas” blog article.)  On top of that, introverts don’t like to stand out, so he had that going against him too.

My first clear memory was when appointments were announced and they shared that the Horans were inbound at Hyde Park.  Soon after, Eric emailed to welcome us, saying that Hyde Park was where he went, and he was glad to hear that we were on our way.  He was really the first person to welcome us after the pastor did, and I remember chatting not long after to learn more about the church from him.

I learned that he worked at Sprint, but that he and his wife had been talked into helping out as youth ministry leaders several years before by Hyde Park’s really persuasive youth director–but I’ll get to her in my “Meet Peggy Ingram” blog article.  He was still plugged in at the church in a few different ways–youth group, tech stuff, etc., but was exploring his call to ministry while working on his seminary degree.

It was in my second year at Hyde Park when we learned that our worship director, Warren Pattison, would be leaving to take the job of Director of Adult Discipleship at First UMC Lakeland.  It was a massive loss of a key leader in a massive role–coordinator of all of our worship design and implementation processes, including all tech elements in our three large worship venues on campus.  I remember a meeting one morning with our pastor, Jim Harnish, in which the two of us sort of just lamented the loss and braced ourselves for the daunting task of finding someone with both the technical skills and theological training to help us keep moving forward.

A couple hours later, I went to lunch with Eric, as Sprint had decided to make cut backs and gutted his department, leaving him laid off.  I intended to just chat and listen, but Eric quickly wondered aloud if it wasn’t more of an opportunity that he was leaving Sprint, as now this might force him to seek out a place where he could use his experience working in the various church leadership roles in which he’d served, his technical acumen from his work with Sprint, and his theological training in seminary.

You can imagine that it didn’t take long for me to become convinced that God had sent us the perfect person to pick up where Warren had

Hey, my hair was still putting up a fight back then!

left off.  Not only that, he was suddenly available and looking for a new gig!  He didn’t know about Warren when we met, but I walked back into Jim’s office and told him that there was somebody with whom he needed to meet as soon as possible.  He knew Eric, and was as stunned as I was at the timing of Warren’s departure and Eric’s sudden availability.  He said, “You know, enough things are hard about this church business… maybe we’re due to have one be easy for a change!”  It wasn’t long after Jim’s meeting with him that Eric was the newest member of Hyde Park’s amazingly gifted staff team.

It didn’t take long for Eric’s gifts to emerge, and after Jim’s first worship design meeting with Eric, he told me that all of his friends keep asking him when he was going to retire, but his staff is so good that they make him want to keep on going and see what else we can accomplish together!  Eric seemed to help add years onto an already legendary ministry career!

This was Eric’s first experience with my “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” philosophy.  It was not uncommon for me to walk up to him with seventeen worship ideas, leaving him to be the voice of reason that would help me see what was manageable, and what was impossible to pull off unless new technologies were to be invented and acquired by the church before the Sunday morning in question.  Someone at my last church met Jim Harnish and asked him about me when they heard I was coming to serve there.  He said, “Matt has about a thousand ideas a week, and you should definitely do one of them every once in a while.”  Eric learned pretty quickly to brace himself when I walked into his office, sat down across from him, and said, “So there’s no bad ideas in brainstorming, right?”

In 2011, Jim gave Eric and I the biggest challenge of our young ministry careers–starting the “11 Magnolia” service.  (It was at 11am, in a venue called the “Magnolia Building.”  It’s a service that we’re familiar with at Heritage–we just call ours “the Ignite service.”)  As other churches were doing, he wanted us to form a team that would engineer our fifth weekly Sunday morning service, a darker, modern service in our youth ministry space in which I would be the regular preacher.  It was in the “foxhole” of designing the 11 Magnolia service that Eric became not just a co-worker, but a trusted friend, and important voice in my leadership and life.

A week before we launched the service, I had knee surgery and had to preach from a chair!

Eric led the process of building the service from the ground up, beginning with the theological foundations upon which the service would be built.  He introduced us to Constance Cherry’s “Worship Architect” philosophy and other resources.  He designed the space, and it was amazing.  He led us to ask the critical questions about what a worship service must have, what is optional, and what is detrimental, and he basically helped create my first experience of being a weekly preacher.  We got the right teams in place, hired the right staff members, and created a new worship expression that instantly drew in new guests.  We started in the 60’s each week, and eventually saw that number grow to over 200 before Eric and I both sensed God’s call to our next places of ministry.

Five years after our departures from Hyde Park, I was appointed at Heritage.  On my 5th day, Triss Masters died.  To call her death a “seismic” loss is no understatement.  A staff member at Heritage for three decades, she created a ministry world around her as the Director of Adult Discipleship that included weddings, funerals, campus decorations, small groups, women’s ministry, hospitality, grief ministry, divorce care ministry, volunteer recruitment, and more.  As I looked at the now gaping hole she left in the life of the church as well as in the staff, the idea of finding a new person to take on her role seemed an unreasonably difficult task just a couple weeks into my tenure.  We did quick triage by way of some staff reorganization, and by doing so tried to buy some time before I even let myself think about a search process, but eventually it had to be done.

I know that you’re not supposed to make decisions that narrow the field too much in a hiring search so you can bring in a broad selection of candidates, but I knew that there was no way this new staff person could be a male.  Triss’ work with the women’s ministry of the church was legendary, known all over Clearwater.  It had to be a woman.  I mean, legally I don’t think I was supposed to decide that, but, well, it had to be.  A couple women did come forward as promising candidates, so as interviews approached, I felt comfortable that we’d find someone who would be a good match.

While we were receiving resumes, I was surprised to hear from Eric Johnson.  He said he’d love to get to work together again, and was interested in the job.  Working with Eric again surely would be a great gift to me, but like I said, the person we hired had to be a woman.  Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone that, so when Eric sent his resume, I forwarded it on to the SPR subcommittee running the search.  Of course they scheduled him for an interview–his resume is great.  I didn’t look forward to calling Eric and telling him he didn’t get the job, but really, it had to be a woman.

Interview day came.  The candidates with whom we met were all qualified and would have probably done a good job, but then Eric showed up.  I smiled and shook his hand (back when you could still shake hands…), quietly groaning inside at the upcoming phone call I’d have to make to him, because it had to be a woman.

When I got home that night, I told Susan, “All of the interviews were good, but Eric…,” I remember searching for the right word:

“Eric was dazzling.”

“That’s great,” she said.  “So what happened?”

“We were dazzled.  He starts next week.”

It’s true that not hiring a woman for the role was jarring and disappointing for some in the congregation, but that was pretty much solved once everyone heard our new youth director preach–the same youth director that had recruited Eric to volunteer in youth ministry 20 years before–but like I said, I’ll get to her in my “Meet Peggy Ingram” article.  Eric joined the staff, and his value to the team was apparent from the get-go.  His experience and knowledge of a broad array of ministry areas and techniques, as well as his seminary training, quickly made his a trusted an valued leadership voice for our staff week in and week out.

Of course, it might not have helped his reputation as much of an expert on Biblical and theological studies when he was introduced to the congregation by our acolytes in the first ever “Acolyte Interview.”  In case you missed it, do yourself a favor and have a look.

At Heritage we have been working hard over the last year to get our income and expenses in line after multiple years of deficit spending.  A congregation that once was over 1,100 is now getting used to being the size we are, about 500 per week.  We’re trending positively, with new guests trying us out and deciding to join regularly, but still, fiscal discipline was needed, including staffing reductions.

When our worship director position recently became vacant, I asked Eric if he would be willing to step in and fill that role in addition to his current role coordinating small group studies, new member classes, churchwide studies, developing a bookstore space and ministry, and recruiting and training new group facilitators.  He agreed, leading to significant savings in the church budget, and giving his exceptional wisdom, training, and experience to our worship design process.  He has helped in our efforts to streamline the content shared across all three of our worship expressions, helped to develop the new “Creative Arts” identity of our 10:30 Contemporary Sanctuary service, and done extensive work to improve the sound quality and technical capabilities of our very, very challenging worship venues.

Then Coronavirus happened.

As you can imagine, every staff role at Heritage has been turned upside down with the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic, but none has been more challenging than Eric’s.  He has spent hours every day squeezing every ounce of capability from our existing equipment to turn our worship ministry into a TV production company.  He has also been instrumental in helping to redesign our website and social media presence to make us effective in this strange new “socially distanced” era that we’re in.  He and children’s director Janean Briseno have become TV producers, working almost every day on sound, lighting, sets, casting, and video editing, all the while trying to combat our campus’ terrible WiFi connectivity, and several design flaws that exist in the Family Life Center.

Eric has become a prime example of the philosophy of getting the right people on the bus, and find them a seat later.  He has ended up virtually having to play a game of musical chairs on that bus since he started at Heritage!  Regardless, no matter what role Eric has filled since he joined our team, he has filled them all with excellence, professionalism, and spiritual leadership.  So next time you see him, or perhaps if you want to email him and send him a “socially distanced” pat on the back, feel free to do so.  On top of that, pray for me as I try to find him some time to rest!  We’ve all sort of become addicted to Eric’s giftedness and keep needing his help with problems of all kinds throughout every single day!