Willie Dwayne Francois III (00:00):
My initial lead was, if you can accept your pastor in jeans and a t-shirt, then that creates space for so many other people who don't have disposable income for suit, for shoes, for particular types of dresses. That they could actually come in what they wear, throughout the week. It was really a way of cutting through the kind of class barriers that I think separated our church from the actual city that we live in.
Welcome to the Modern Church Leader, where you'll hear executive pastors share practical tactics and strategies that churches are using right now to thrive in our digital world and advance the Kingdom of God. Here's your host, Frank Barry.
Frank Barry (00:44):
Hey, pastor Willy. How's it going?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (00:46):
Man, all is well. Happy to be here. Excited about chatting with you.
Frank Barry (00:50):
Man, I love it. Thanks for coming on the show. You're a pastor of a great church out in New Jersey. Before we kind of jump into that, then give us your story of how'd you get into ministry, what's your... what's your journey been like? You can start wherever you want. How'd, you kind of get here and into this church today?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (01:10):
Yeah, so I started ministry when I was 16 years old, back in Texas in Houston area. I sense this call to do this work. This call to share, love. This call to really invest in local church community. From just an experience of extending forgiveness to a... to somebody who was a friend, then wasn't a friend. Then became a friend again. That was really my sort of open-ness to the idea of going into ministry, into preaching as some kind of earnest and real vocation. That happened at my childhood church at the First Union Baptist Church, where my grandparents were with deacons and trustee... was a deacon and a trustee and an usher. I grew up not only with that sort of individual conviction, but there was also a profound communal discernment there, from the folk I grew up with who were just sure that there was something about me that was a benefit to church.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (02:19):
Something about by how I carried myself. How I moved. It was like, "Yo, that boy's going to be a preacher." I sort of see my entry into ministry at 16 from that kind of individual experience, but also placing that alongside the kind of communal discernment and affirmation that I experienced there. From there, went to school in Atlanta where I took my collegiate... my college experience as a way of preparing to do this. I really thought... I said, I was going to... I said I was going to be pre-med, right? For a little while I was a bio major for maybe about three weeks. Then, I sort of just gave that up and it was like, "You know what? I'm a preacher. I'm going to be a preacher." And so-
Frank Barry (03:01):
Did you go premed and then switch to theology? Or...
Willie Dwayne Francois III (03:07):
Yeah. I was bio premed for about two weeks. Then, I actually was a business major, for about a month.
Frank Barry (03:15):
That's like the callback. You're like, "Business, let me just go do that".
Willie Dwayne Francois III (03:18):
Right. Then, ultimately I settled on history and religion. The history and religion part with a focus on Christian history, a focus on American Christian history and theology. That sort of prepares me in my college way. Then, I go to seminary where I'm explicitly committed to thinking through theology and the like. Then from... after I graduate from seminary, I go back home to Houston. I work at my home church there for two years. Then New York, where I work as an associate pastor for two years. And from there, I'm connected to the Mount Zion Church, in Pleasantville, through my boss, my mentor, and my big brother in New York city. Five and a half years later, I'm still in Atlantic County, New Jersey.
Frank Barry (04:12):
There you go. You've been at that church for five and a half years. You're the senior pastor, or what would your actual title be, at your church?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (04:21):
Yeah, so formally the title is Senior Pastor. Sometimes I go by Lead Pastor-
Frank Barry (04:25):
Lead Pastor. Senior Pastor. Okay.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (04:27):
Most of the documentation says Senior. Yeah.
Frank Barry (04:29):
Got it. What's it been like for you? You're the senior pastor. You're kind of the lead, responsible person. I'm sure you got a great team and all that, but you what's the last five years been like, just from a personal, being a senior pastor, perspective?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (04:46):
Yeah. I mean, one, I just want to name the thickness of the context, right? I'm called to this church when I'm 29. At the time, the average age of the church is probably 70, right? I come into the context as the senior pastor, 40 years, 40, sometimes 50 years, the junior to-
Frank Barry (05:14):
Yeah. Right. Of everybody else in the room, right?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (05:15):
Right, I'm the youngest guy in the room. I have this responsibility of journeying with people who have experiences that I know nothing about in terms of... so live... in terms of my lived reality. I come in with a different understanding of what it means to build community. One is deeply open. One that is really invested in what happens outside of the walls, versus what happens inside of the walls. I come to a very parochial insular community that is really excited about his food pantry, but is... does not have the same kind of DNA around outreach, around social justice, around what does it mean to capture the millennial generation and younger? One of my most contentious experience was actually when I stopped wearing suits and started wearing jeans and polos, or cardigans, on Sundays.
Frank Barry (06:19):
You did that way too early. You just went right for it.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (06:21):
Way too early. Way too early. First year in. First year in, I decided maybe month 13 is when I... is when I attempted it. It was still too soon.
Frank Barry (06:33):
I mean, this is fantastic. I love that you... I just love the situation. Being the younger person in the group of people that have been around, probably a group of people that have been at that church for a long time. They're both older, just physically older, but also older. They've been around that church. They've served for a long time. You've probably got people that have been there for 20 years. This is their home.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (07:01):
Easily. Our church is 115 years old this year.
Frank Barry (07:04):
Okay. There you go. Twenty's, probably the average then.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (07:09):
There are a couple of members here who've been here 60 years, right? They've been members of this church longer than my mother has been alive. That creates particular power dynamics. Sometimes, it creates barriers to real relationship building. Yeah, it was something that was not really prepared for navigating and marshaling.
Frank Barry (07:35):
Let's talk a little bit more about this, but when you wore jean's, to that first service... or whatever you wore. You didn't wear a suit... What was the reaction like? How did you feel walking in and what did you... what were you telling yourself, before you got there? Then what was the reaction?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (07:54):
Yeah, there's no way I anticipated the kind of mass response that I received. It was like, "Yo, pastors not dressed today. A pastor's not prepared for work today." It was almost as if the quality of my output was connected to the uniform or... a uniform, a suit. It really wasn't until the second Sunday that I walked into the sanctuary that I kind of felt... it was almost visceral. I kind of felt that the rejection from... for what I was wearing, how I was showing up. The first time, I think, it was just like, "Oh, pastor is trying something for the day." By the second time, it was like, "No, looks like pastor's trying to create a habit. That is not who we are. That doesn't fit our identity. Sunday is about showing our best. We're supposed to be able... It's the most presentable Sunday. It is how we honor God and our clothing and our bodies." Those are the kind of arguments, the kind of assertions that I was receiving, which were really in a lot of ways, antagonistic to the kind of relaxed, seeker-friendly, user-friendly, millennial-friendly space, that we've been... we've been attempting to create these out here.
Frank Barry (09:14):
Wow, did you get any phone calls after?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (09:17):
Man, phone calls, emails... Our church tends to be slightly passive aggressive. It kind of swells and bubbles around me before it actually makes it to me.
Frank Barry (09:31):
Yeah. Obviously, you were just trying to create this atmosphere and you were taking a little bit of a step of faith. You were stepping out, doing something different, within your congregation, which is hard. That was what... four and a half years ago, give or take? You're still around. You still got the job. It must have worked itself out. What kind of change have you seen since that moment? How have you worked it through with the congregation and led through bringing that kind of change?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (10:07):
Well, one of my justifications for doing it, actually had nothing to do with the kind of... creating the kind of seeker-culture. As much as it was about... we live in one of the most economically depressed areas in the wealthy state of New Jersey. There's a sharp contrast between the living quality here and what you find across the entire state. Our church was known as the church... It was the silk stocking church. It was the church of the local bourgeoisie. This is where the upper middle class, black folk, came to worship. It was interesting, is that here we are, this commuter church where some 75% of our congregation drives into this poverty pocket of Pleasantville. There was something about the way we show up in our... in our high style suits. How we show up in our designer brand dresses, that is pretty alienating to the folk around our church. It became a habit. How do I actually build a community, where the people we are serving, actually want to worship here. They-
Frank Barry (11:21):
They feel comfortable. They feel accepted in that, yeah.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (11:25):
... in that people being in this right, where they don't feel as if there's a stigma connected to their undress, based on how folk are dressed. My initial lead was, if you can accept your pastor in jeans and a t-shirt, then that creates space for so many other people who don't have disposable income for suits, for shoes, for particular types of dresses. That they could actually come in what they wear throughout the week. It was really a way of cutting through the kind of class barriers that I think, separated our church from the actual city that we live in.
Frank Barry (11:59):
Wow. I love that. That's cool. Has it gone well? Have you seen the fruits of starting... It's only four years. That's not a long time in the grand scheme of things. Have you seen progress down that path, towards your vision?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (12:15):
Yeah. I mean, we're definitely trending in that direction. By no means, have we achieved, fulfilled that grander vision of becoming a space that is really radically opening... radically open and welcoming and affirming for all people. It is still a work that is in process. We have made some significant movement in the... in that direction. More of the "establishment", they dress down more regularly. It's still exciting to see a deaconess or a deacon or a trustee, come in with jeans and a t-shirt. I guess, the most highly prioritized Sunday is our first Sunday, and that is really a formal experience. To see people coming to our most formal Sunday in relaxed... in relaxed garb and relaxed attire is a part of that shift. It's probably the fruit.
Frank Barry (13:16):
Yeah. Amazing. Well, man, switching topics, because we could talk all day about that. I think, it's really cool what you're up to and kind of how you're trying to transform what's happening there in the church and seeking God's kind of help. Reaching your community, right? Really reaching the people around you. In the midst of all that, COVID hits. 18 months or so ago. What's it been like the last 18, 24 months? What's it been like for you as a leader and the shift in doing church online? What's that whole journey been like?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (13:51):
I mean, it's been a grueling experience... part... I mean, the most torturous part is preaching in the studio, right? Just you and a camera. You a camera skeleton crew of a folk, who helped fulfill the service. I mean, one of the greatest anxieties that I've had as a leader is around, sermon connectivity. How do I... in our tradition, which is profoundly call and response, right? You can in many ways measure the effectiveness of... or the penetrativeness of a message based on in-person response.
Frank Barry (14:31):
Right. You hear the crowd. You hear the congregation-
Willie Dwayne Francois III (14:35):
Without the crowd...
Frank Barry (14:36):
The energy you feel from the audience from the church is real. Now, you have crickets. Literally silence.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (14:45):
Exactly what's going on. You have an unblinking camera, in front of you. It's required a different level of faith. It's required me to actually trust the words that fall out of my mouth without any signification, any signs that they're working right? Until, you go back to the chat later on. It's really led me to trust my words and trust my process of preparation and proclamation in the... in the actual moments. Preaching itself has become an act of faith in ways that I think, I only thought about it as a resource for building faith. Now, it has itself become an act of faith because I have no choice, but to trust that these words are still doing the work of life. Even when I can't see what's on the other end of those words.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (15:38):
That has been a change. Programming has also been challenging. Migrating so much of your educational experiences, even so much of your recreational engagement to online platforming. Online platforms has seen some unexpected successes, but also has seen some unexplainable sort of flops, as well. There have been some things we've tried around conversations, around hot topics, that have wildly successful. Things that people are normally plugged into. Like Sunday school, which is a relic from who we were, has not been as exciting. Seeing this influx of new, online programming, how people have drawn... are drawn to those, in ways that they haven't been drawn to us. Just refitting what we used to do in-person, has been telling about what kind of appetite is really next for how we... for how we think about our educational structure, as well. In particular, as a church.
Frank Barry (16:51):
Yeah. Let's jump back to preaching real quick. You're preaching to a camera. What have you learned about doing that well? You've been at it for, well over a year now. At least once a week. I'm sure you do other stuff, as well. You've had a lot of practice. You've probably gotten way better from... if you watched your first sermon online, 18 months ago till today. I'm sure you've learned and gotten better. Give the folks some tips, that are listening, what can make you better on camera? What has made you better, preaching to the camera?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (17:30):
I think, one of the things that I've learned to do is to scale sermons down. Scale sermons back a bit. Being intentional about holding an economy of time has been really important. Not preaching too long has been really important for... I think, effectiveness. I also think by... graphic illustrations, as much as you can. The insertion and the use of videographic or pictorial material, that helps to bring out... potentially helps to bring out or augment whatever you're teaching, whatever you're explaining. Graphic illustration has been really important for... at least my own peace of mind, in terms of connectivity. Something really simple is, really prompting folk to engage in the chat as a... as a way of active listening.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (18:34):
Finding key phrases or ideas to have people retype has also been a device that I've used to measure levels of engagement. Then they're just the kind of bodily placement sort of issues. Being stationary, behind a pulpit, is not as enticing or as alluring or attractive as a more migrational form of engaging, the congregation. Walking around a bit more. Those are some of the ways that I thought, to enhance, in my own proclamation, my own process.
Frank Barry (19:16):
Yeah. I love that. How have your services evolved over that... over time in terms of the online... the production of a service. What does that look like for you guys?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (19:26):
Yeah, so there's much more videographic material that we use. We've been toying with our own documentary production. We try, as often as possible, to incorporate homemade videos or in-house videos. In-house production into our actual stream that has actually allowed more of our members to see our other members, right? Getting the voice and the image of people that we're used to seeing every single week, respond to a topic. Engage each other across a platform. Using videography as a way of bringing laypersons into the worship experience, so that we're able to see ourselves and see each other. Not just be the pastor and the music leaders has been... has been, I think, a really healthy improvement to how we think about virtual worship.
Frank Barry (20:25):
Yeah. Trying to get more of the congregation on camera with you, so it's not just you. You bringing people in... in different ways. I mean, I've heard churches even just grabbing an iPhone and record us a video and just... Even as simple as that. It's not high production, but it's... at least you're seeing some of the church on a Sunday and you're trying to rotate that through.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (20:47):
That's been really helpful for us because we've used that... even with the cell phones that people were able to... Excuse me.
Frank Barry (20:56):
Willie Dwayne Francois III (20:57):
People were able to record, based on a particular prompt. Something as simple as, "What do you miss most about being in worship? What's your favorite Mount Zion memory?" Having our production team piece those things together and animate around them. People have just really benefited from seeing themselves on camera and seeing people that they haven't been in shared space with, for 18 months, for 17 months. To be able to see them and to have them a part of that worship offering has really... I think, increased momentum around staying connected to our virtual experience.
Frank Barry (21:40):
Yeah. I love that. Is there something that you've done over the course of time... something you've done that just completely failed? As well, as maybe something you've done, that surprisingly worked? Like, "Wow, that was awesome. We got to keep doing that"?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (21:56):
Yeah. One of the things that failed... it failed to me, was that we were attempting to create... Church is deeply collegial. It's familial. It is about fellowship, right? I mean, that's at the heart of what... so much of New Testament literature gives us, right? It is this deep emphasis on the assembly. We attempted, a few times, to do game nights, virtual game nights. Man, they never really rose above 20, 25 people participating in those... in those experiences-
Frank Barry (22:45):
Your church is what? Four or five hundred, or so? I forget again-
Willie Dwayne Francois III (22:49):
Yeah, we worship about 400, what we expected over the course of a month. About 400 unique worshipers.
Frank Barry (22:57):
Okay. When you see 20, you're like, "Well, we're missing a few".
Willie Dwayne Francois III (23:02):
Right. Maybe it was, we picked the wrong day. Maybe it was, we didn't explain adequately what a virtual game night looked like. There are a host of reasons. It flocked, in my opinion. We kind of departed from those experiences. Another one was actually, we attempted to do a drive-in movie, on our campus, where you [inaudible 00:23:32] stays in their cars. How you maintain the distance. We have certain persons who were vaccinated, who were able to sell, who were able to maintain the concession... the mobile concession experience. People could have refreshments. That too, very low turnout.
Frank Barry (23:47):
Didn't work, huh?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (23:48):
What we've seen is the recreational things that I've attempted to make a part of the life of where we... where we are and where we go, have not been as successful as sort of content driven experience. The kind of content driven educational experiences that we... that we are after. Well, one of the most successful things that we've done in the pandemic was we actually had a live conversation around sex and sexuality. It was a Bible study series called, practicing safe text. It was Facebook live Bible study. Another colleague and I, sort of facilitated it. I expected that to go very poorly. Primarily because the way we were approaching the content was not as orthodox as our church has historically been. Leaning into a more progressive reading of scripture, liberal reading of scripture, leaning into a more justice centered reading of scripture. I expected it to have much more... I expected there to be much more resistance to it, but also a different level of retaliation that I thought made from it, as well. But no, it is been one of our most successful programs of the 16 months.
Frank Barry (25:12):
Wow. I mean, I talked... Really fascinating connection. A good buddy of mine, pastors a church in Jersey. I had him on the podcast. I mean, this might be a year ago at this point. It was a while back. Pastor Johnny, and he leads a church... I don't... probably similar size four, 600, somewhere members. He did a morning... a Zoom on Zoom, right. So video, Zoom, morning devotional, every morning. He kicked it up... I forget exactly, but around a bunch of the social unrest and just crazy stuff happening. He kicked up this devotional series for his church. It was a morning thing, right? People were staying on for hours. In the morning, on Zoom, fully engaged as they... It was kind of teaching, as well as people sharing and connecting and sharing their stories. Using the scriptures. Just this whole thing. Praying.
Frank Barry (26:25):
Man, I should introduce you to Johnny because he's a great guy. He did that. He was just blown away by how God used this morning devotional series where you're like, "Everyone's showing up." Hundreds and hundreds of people coming on their morning devotionals. On Zoom. Participating. I think, it was, obviously very relevant. The topic was needed to be discussed and was a big thing and especially in their community. It was cool. I'm just connecting the dots a little bit to what you did in terms of, you were talking about something kind of culturally relevant. It sounds like it went well. Another church from Jersey, Pastor Johnny, when they were doing it a year ago, it went really, really well. So...
Willie Dwayne Francois III (27:10):
Wow. I love it.
Frank Barry (27:12):
Yeah. I'll make an intro. Y'all should know each other.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (27:14):
I'd love that. I'd love that, man.
Frank Barry (27:15):
Yeah. Well, all right. We've been on for a while, so I want to be respectful of your time. This has been awesome, by the way. Thank you for just sharing your experience. Let's do a couple quick questions here to close it out. First one, who's somebody that you've been inspired by? A mentor or a person in life? Could be anybody. Give us someone you've really been inspired by, over the years.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (27:41):
Yeah. I think, some of my greatest inspiration comes from a man by the name of Jeremiah A. Wright. Dr. Wright has been a mentor for years. Really helps me to really give voice to the justice dimensions of how I understand ministry. In addition to jeans getting me in trouble as a pastor... I often get in trouble as a pastor for being too engaged in issues of social justice and racial justice. I see those as natural outgrowths of what it means to follow Jesus. I think, there should be greater synergy between the Black Lives Matter movement and American churches. It's really the way Dr. Jay did ministry for so long and even in his retirement that has had a deep impact on the kind... on the kind of communities that I think, our nation needs to really live up to who it says it is.
Frank Barry (28:53):
Right. Yeah. I love that. I love that. Give us a book that you've read, any... it could be recently. Could have been just a long time favorite. A book that's really made a mark in your life.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (29:08):
Favorite book of all time is, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. James Baldwin makes me want to be a better writer. The way he's really able to prophesy to a nation that really refuses to know itself and to be itself, I think, has always stuck with me. The Fire Next Time is my favorite book. We do Bible studies on it, although it's not... it is not overtly a religious text. I just think, it's such an important way of looking at... what does it mean to live here? What does it mean to... here, what I mean America. What does it mean to be global citizens? What does it mean to really embrace universal sibling hood? I think, it's a text that does that.
Frank Barry (29:57):
Yeah. Amen. Love that. All right. A podcast that you're listening to right now.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (30:03):
Man, that's a much harder question for me. I guess... my best friend has a podcast and it's Black, Gifted and Faithful. His name's J.C. Howard. That's really the only podcast I listen to right now.
Frank Barry (30:29):
Hey, shout out. Love it. Love it. Well, Pastor Willy, where can folks go to check out... kind of learn more about you and your church? To go to the church website or check it out on social media?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (30:38):
Yeah. You can go to our church website, mountzionclc.org. You can find us on social media, Mount Zion of Pleasantville. I think, that's our name on across most. You can find me on all platforms. Willie Francois 3... not all platforms. That's actually not true. I haven't done TikTok yet.
Frank Barry (30:57):
Yeah. Just give us one. Just give them one so they can... Which one you them to go to?
Willie Dwayne Francois III (31:02):
Not enough TikTok, yet. Definitely IG... on IG Willie Francois 3.
Frank Barry (31:10):
Love it. Love it. Pastor Willie, man. This has been a blast. Thank you for spending some time with us. Thanks for everyone listening in. Appreciate you guys.
Willie Dwayne Francois III (31:18):
Thanks for having me, man.
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