Welcome back to the unSeminary podcast. Today we’re talking with Matt Slocum, executive pastor at Victory Life Church in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Conflict is inevitable in relationships and it’s important to handle it well. Matt is talking with us today about how Victory Life Church sought to help its staff get better at having crucial conversations as the church grew.
- Develop a system. // When a church is small it tends to be more relational and can handle day to day tasks without systems and “family rules”, but all of that changes as a church grows. Even with a mission statement, a growing church can suddenly discover that it isn’t doing enough to communicate expectations to the expanding staff, and there are a lot of gray areas left.
- Honoring others. // After some issues of conflict, the church realized that people hadn’t necessarily been doing anything wrong, but they were feeling dishonored. So the leadership developed some governing core values to help them communicate with each other when problems come up. These core values are different than bylaws or an employee manual; they deal with more day-to-day communication. When something happens, it allows the staff to fill in the gaps with trust and say to a coworker, “I know you didn’t mean it this way, but I felt dishonored when this happened…”
- Coin conversations. // Victory Life had their core values minted on a challenge coin as a tool for the staff and core lay leaders. When conflict arises the staff can sit down to have a “coin conversation” with another staff member and everyone understands what that means. This conversation is a time when people let their guard down and move forward for the purpose of unity and restoration. The coin is a physical reminder to have a conversation rather than just arguing, blaming each other or leaving things unresolved.
- Take a step back. // Matt reminds us that it may take a few days to be ready to have a coin conversation. If you’re looking to win an argument, you’re probably not ready to have a conversation. But if you can emotionally get to a point of desiring restoration, and wanting the best for the other person in spite of your being hurt, then that’s a good place to start.
- Four core values. // The four core values at Victory Life are: faithful, teachable, honoring, and excellence. These governing values are embraced by the staff and are also taught in membership classes to the church. Victory Life doesn’t shy away from communicating that if people embrace these four values, they will be challenged, but it will lead to growth and being a part of an amazing community and environment.
- Teach your teams. // Because of the core values and coin conversations Victory Life Church has, the staff team is strong and can readily recognize issues that come up. Still, it’s important to take the time to coach and lead your team members so that they feel equipped to have a crucial conversations with their teams and colleagues. Help your team to understand how to get good at conversations and see the real issues underneath what is happening. Remember to be honoring, but also honest.
- Get your staff’s feedback. // When you’re developing things like core values, engage your staff to get buy-in and see what resonates with them. Ask them what they think the real issues are, and then use that information to develop the foundation of your values.
You can learn more about Victory Life Church at www.victorylife.church.
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Rich Birch — Well, hey everybody – welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you have decided to tune in. Every week we try to bring you a leader who will both inspire and equip you, and today is absolutely no exception. I am excited for today’s conversation. We’ve got Matt Slocum with us. He’s executive pastor at one of the fastest growing churches in the country – Victory Life Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. The thing I love about this church is Michigan is not the kind of place you would say, that’s a place where fast-growing churches come from.
Matt Slocum — Yeah.
Rich Birch — Ah, that’s a tough place to to to to minister out of and I’m so excited to have Matt on the show with us. Welcome to the show today, Matt.
Matt Slocum — Thanks, Rich, for having me today.
Rich Birch — Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about Victory Life – kind of give us the flavor of the church. Help us kind of understand the church and then tell us about your role.
Matt Slocum — Sure, well um, Battle Creek, Michigan we’re a home Cereal City Capital of the world. They say this is the headquarters of Kellogg’s so yeah, this…
Rich Birch — Okay, nice Cereal City USA. Nice.
Matt Slocum — That’s right, yeah. Um, Victory Life – actually this month we’re celebrating 20 years of being a church which is great.
Rich Birch — Nice. Wow.
Matt Slocum — Been here the whole time; helped actually launch it twenty years ago. Was an automation engineer for 13 years but felt a call into ministry…
Rich Birch — Wow.
Matt Slocum — And so we just supported the local church. And about twenty years ago when it was launched it was about 65 people. And pre-covid we were pushing about 2000 so God is really consistent, healthy growth over the years…
Rich Birch — Love it.
Matt Slocum — Um and so yeah, multiple building campaigns and expansions of our facilities as well as ministry. So love the love the church same same senior pastor the whole time. My family’s been attending for 20 years and excuse me, and I’ve been on staff for almost fourteen now as a pastor so, then executive pastor for 10 years. So learning a lot always learning more.
Rich Birch — Very cool. Wow yeah I love it. Well you know one of the one of the well why don’t you talk about the kind of how you guys define Executive Pastor. I know you know I’ve joked with XPs—that’s really my ah, that’s the seat I’ve been in for the longest—and you know it seems like every XP you talk to, although there’s some overlap, you know it looks a little different in every church. Kind of define that give us kind of show tell us to talk to us what’s the sand sandbox that you find yourself playing in regularly?
Matt Slocum — Sure. When I came on staff I was handling the finances and I was the children’s pastor…
Rich Birch — Oh yes.
Matt Slocum — …so I had a unique dual role. Two part-time positions to to make a way. And our staff was small – we had four pastors on staff, I think, at the time. And I just grew, I grew into an associate pastor, was life groups, things like that. As we grew our staff grew and ah our senior pastor had nine direct reports. Ah so we were very flat.
Rich Birch — Hmm, yes.
Matt Slocum — Ah, but he’s the type of guy’s entrepreneur – Pastor James is – and just a forward-charging, great guy and so he just liked to be involved in everything, and we had a consultant come in and said, what you’re doing is not good, right?
Rich Birch — Right. Right. Not sustainable.
Matt Slocum — Kind of Moses father-in-law type thing. And he said, you needed an executive pastor to kind of handle that and we think Matt’s that guy. So um, in all that wisdom we, I was promoted to executive pastor. So it was Pastor James, myself, and then I had nine people reporting to me.
Rich Birch — Ah, wait a second!
Matt Slocum — And within a literally I think within six months I burned out – um chronic fatigue syndrome. And worked through that for a year they put me on a medical sabbatical I mean we just we were running five and six services. It was just very, you know, very busy, stressful. And then we said let’s keep a one to five ratio with direct reports, and so for a number of years it I just had five reports. And then we just recently recently reorged in this fall and ah now there I’m one of three executive pastors now.
Rich Birch — Okay, great.
Matt Slocum — So we have kind of the mop – ministry, operations, and programming. So I’m over operations…
Rich Birch — Yep yep, very cool.
Matt Slocum — …facilities, administration finances, things like that.
Rich Birch — Love it.
Matt Slocum — And then Pastor John, he’s my other one of our other executive pastors. He’s over ministry. And then Pastor Tim just promoted up to programming.
Rich Birch — Oh love it.
Matt Slocum — So there’s four on the executive team. So the three executive pastors and the senior pastor and we’re all very close, good friends. We’ve been through battles together, and that relational component I think is really what makes things extraordinary.
Rich Birch — Love it. Well and yeah I love that because you’ve you’ve really positioned for growth for the future. You know what you’ve done there, I know you know that that that kind of a couple two or three executive pastors, that kind of leadership team thing is really common as we see churches go from two thousand to five thousand as you kind of make that jump. So I’m excited about that; I’m excited to see the future of Victory Life and kind of where you know where that goes. Well one of the things about leading at that level that I know you know is really you end up serving in this kind of chief of staff. You have a lot of people and I love that you even led there. It’s like hey we’ve got you know people reporting to you that that is ah can be really difficult can be hard at times. What would you say has been some of the challenges over the years on the staff leadership side on kind of ensuring that people are aligned, pointed in the right direction, moving in the right direction? What would be some of those challenges that kind of come to mind when you think about leading from that seat?
Matt Slocum — I think um, the challenge was when we were smaller as a staff, we were very relational so we were able to handle things without systems, and without kind of family rules. We had a church mission statement that we do live by, but in that in the gray areas people make different decisions than you were wanting or expecting, but it’s never been communicated. So over the years we’ve had difficult situations come up, and we handle it from a standpoint of, well, you did do this, or didn’t do that, and we didn’t want that. And the person’s like, well you never told me that.
Rich Birch — Mmm.
Matt Slocum — Um so I just kind of did what you I thought. And we’d kind of end it, and kind of move on a little bit, but really not settled. So over the years we developed – we realized really the issue was, for instance, maybe it wasn’t that you did something wrong, I felt dishonored, and that’s really the issue. So we developed over the last three four years some governing core values that we live by. We communicate them we we overcommunicate because you can’t overcommunicate anything, can you?
Rich Birch — Yes, yes, yet right.
Matt Slocum — People people just forget, I forget, and so you’re always communicating in many ways these staff values. And that’s how we start the conversations, rather than “you did this” or “you didn’t do this”…
Rich Birch — Interesting.
Matt Slocum — Um I can go into it and say, hey, I know you didn’t mean anything, but when this happened I felt this way, I felt a little dishonored and that… And we live by these rules, just that other person ideally would say, man I don’t want you to feel dishonored. I’m really sorry that did that. Well now all of a sudden you’re moving forward.
Rich Birch — Right, right, right. Interesting.
Matt Slocum — And moving past the issues you know and you’re seeking to honor one another.
Rich Birch — I love that. Now can you maybe drill, you know, one layer deeper on kind of distinguishing the difference between hey, here’s a staff team who who just executed something poorly that wasn’t great, and where it it feels like oh actually you stepped over the line and and it actually steps into a place of dishonor. Can you give me an example of a situation like that, or or dream up an example? So if you’re if you’re trying to protect the innocent in this scenario.
Matt Slocum — Right. Yeah, um, well you know they say you don’t need bylaws until you need bylaws, right? So how often do you read your bylaws? How often do you read your employee manual? Those are kind of guard rails um for the organization. So it’s very clear when you step over those lines. Um, but for the day-to-day um, you need something that’s more, now if you were originally we’re very corporate also, but you could manage that, but we decided we want to be relational and that is tricky and takes time. So um, maybe for instance—I’ve done this many times—I have gone around people not in the chain of command because it was simpler and easier and maybe the pastor who reports to me, I went you know, um under her to her direct report…
Rich Birch — Yep. Right.
Matt Slocum — …and just had her do… and she wasn’t aware, and then she finds out about it, she’s gonna feel very dishonored and things like that. And so it’s her she has the ability to come to me and say, hey I heard about this, is this true? I was a little thrown by that. My appropriate response, like you are totally right, I dishonored you in that. I’m sorry. Um, a lot of times it’s communication/chain of command type things. There’s no intent to dishonor or deceive anybody, but it’s, you know, you just you run at a fast pace and you you know you step out of like those lines, and that person is understanding, going I know your heart behind this. But we also had these staff values minted on a coin.
Rich Birch — Oh that’s cool!
Matt Slocum — They’re honoring. Ah, if you’ve heard of a challenge coin the military uses these for different deployments things like…
Rich Birch — Yes, yes, yeah.
Matt Slocum — We minted a challenge coin with our governing values on it. And we can sit down and say hey I need to have a coin conversation and everybody knows what that means.
Rich Birch — Love that. Right.
Matt Slocum — You just kind of let your guard down. And we just move forward for the purpose of unity and restoration.
Rich Birch — Love that. Yeah yeah, no, that’s good.
Matt Slocum — So hopefully that answers your question, but usually it’s not intentional things, but we do want to grow and we do want to be challenged. And so we know that’s where God God uses us this and the challenges.
Rich Birch — Yeah, why don’t you take us inside one of those conversations, help us to understand. So I love the idea of a physical tool – I love – challenge coins are amazing. If you if you if you’re not familiar with those, those are a great tool and actually not that expensive to get done. They’re ah you know a great can be a great kind of internal piece for sure. But take us inside one of those conversations. What what have been, for you, some of the guiding principles that have led to real positive outcomes on the other side of conversations that that could be considered, hey this is this is like two or three layers deep – we’re pushing deeper here. We’re going beyond just that “this is what you did” to “hey, let’s address the underlying, kind of, culture issues”.
Matt Slocum — Sure ah, protect the innocent. Um, there was a situation a number of years ago where a staff pastor um kind of broke ranks with a frustration.
Rich Birch — Sure.
Matt Slocum — And it got to the volunteers. Um his frustration with the pastoral team. Now these things are normal. Those are gonna happen and that’s why we have this conversation, but it kind of broke ranks and we felt like, man you hung us out a little bit and so. Plus you drew volunteers into a situation they really didn’t need to be a part of. It probably blew up their security in the leadership a little bit and it was kind of a minor issue, honestly. And so I was able to sit down and go, hey, boy, that really that didn’t feel right.
Rich Birch — Hmmm, right.
Matt Slocum — And just going, here’s how we felt about that; we felt dishonored. We felt like it was a lack of loyalty a little bit and really, you need to be able to come to us with those situations. So it’s just saying, hey I’m part of a team here..
Rich Birch — Right.
Matt Slocum — But the great thing is it’s a tool. Instead of saying, hey you said this. Well I didn’t say that; I didn’t say it like that. Well, that’s what I heard. Well now you’re in the weeds already, right? And you’re not… it’s not gonna be fruitful, and one of the things we say, you’re ready to have a conversation with somebody if you’re ready to restore that relationship.
Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.
Matt Slocum — If you’re if you’re looking to win an argument, you’re probably not ready. So if you can emotionally get to a point of saying, I love this person, I want the best for them, I’m frustrated, but I really want to restore this. That’s a good foundation to start that coin conversation and you might need to take a couple days to have it.
Rich Birch — Mmm, yes.
Matt Slocum — But now you know that there’s room for the Holy Spirit to bring unity. There’s you know room for God to move and bring reconciliation.
Rich Birch — I love that. Well and I love that, you know, positioning of your own heart, right? To say, hey am I am I coming at this from a I’m just trying to prove my point, as opposed to, no, like there’s a bigger thing at play here. I want to restore relationship; I want to you know I want us to move forward. What are your your four values – you kind of hinted at them? Um I think you’ve got four…
Matt Slocum — Yeah, yes.
Rich Birch — What are those values? Talk us through those and how have those impacted the church.
Matt Slocum — Whoop, well I dropped the coin right there so…
Rich Birch — Ah, that’s great.
Matt Slocum — But they are faithful, teachable, honoring, and excellence. Um, it’s a it’s kind of ah a merging of what we had as core values/governing values as a church. When ah when we would do our membership class we say here’s our here’s our church values. When you step into it it’s an amazing environment, but it means you’ll be challenged. Well then as we had these staff difficult staff conversations we develop some staff values. And then we realized, well this is ridiculous, we have two sets of values. And so we boiled it down to these four. So a faithful um somewhat self-explanatory, but Jesus always expected a return on what was given. The faithful steward brought back more then was given and that was expected. Um and it wasn’t for that servant’s glory excuse me it was for the glory of the Master. And so to go, whatever you’re going to put into my hands, it’s going to increase; I’m going to leave it better than I left it. Um, you know with job descriptions there could be just really clear things that aren’t being addressed. And you can go back and to a governing value of faithfulness and going, you’re really not being faithful in this area, and we need to see growth there. So you can be very direct and specific about things, but it’s always going back to a governing value.
Rich Birch — Yeah I love that. Now which of these—so faithful, teachable honoring and excellence—which of these four have been the the place where you’ve got traction? Where it’s like ooh we seem to be having the most conversations in this area? So it’s either like, you know, looking at it from the positive point of view, hey that’s been the most effective tool to kind of push the culture forward. If I was a pessimist I would say, oh this is the area where hey maybe we’ve struggled a bit, but which which of these four has been the one where we seem to be coming back to conversations in that area more, you know you know, more often?
Matt Slocum — Well I’ll say the one that resonates with me personally the most—they all do because we live by ’em—is honor. Um I’m a type of person that can go introverted there. There was a season where um I didn’t really speak my mind. And what that does—I’m introverted—you don’t speak your mind and um, you know they say unresolved or unexpressed emotion lead to depression. And so I had ah had a bout of depression because I just wasn’t speaking my mind, because I didn’t want to dishonor anybody. Um, but then my mantra for this is honoring, but honest. And so that’s where we can we can really work through some things because we know this is a safe environment. And this has helped me over the even the last two years to just have my voice to another level with my senior pastor. We’re very close as friends and sometimes that can have its own challenges of am I an employee or a friend? And him and I we talk all about this and we just work very well together, but to go hey I’ve got to be honest, I don’t want to dishonor you – I hope this is a safe place. And those type of things couch a conversation and go yeah, go ahead I don’t want you to feel like that. There was times I in my early days of pastoring I was very… “zeal without knowledge” is not good as scripture says.
Rich Birch — Ah sure. Yes.
Matt Slocum — I just came in and spoke my mind and he’s like, that’s not how you start a conversation. So honor is one that resonates resonates with me a lot – honoring and honest because I think many times we have a difficult conversation and we’re trying to find a reason to to get around it, or say no to something, when the reality is it just doesn’t line up with what we want to do. So you’re you know for instance, someone wants to come into your house or they want to do something and you’re like I think think we’re busy. So there’s an external reason rather than the real reason and I think this really helps us boil down to the real reason because it really helps for future conversations too.
Rich Birch — Mmm.
Matt Slocum — And I think because of these type of things our staff is very strong; if something if there’s ah, an issue going on it’s gonna stand out real quick and we can address it. So yeah, so honor that would be that would be mine.
Rich Birch — Um, love that. Yeah, love it – faithful, teachable, honoring, excellence. I love it. What else have you done with your team to ensure that this pushes beyond you but kind of down into the culture to ensure that, hey we’re pushing kind of crucial conversations. It’s one thing for us to have that…
Matt Slocum — Right.
Rich Birch — …but then it’s another thing for our team to say hey I want to do that with the people that they oversee, and they manage, and they serve. So how have you been able to see that kind of go to the next couple layers down?
Matt Slocum — Well lot of it’s training. A lot of it’s getting good at conversations and you know pushing the baby bird out of the nest going, you can fly; you can do this. Um and not, you know, for me I’ll I’ll end up taking things on myself that I really don’t need to do and go, okay, you can have that conversation and just coaching coaching a staff member through going, here’s the real issues. You know a lot of times if there’s an offense, you really kind of got to minister to that person who’s going to have the conversations. And so there’s a lot of one on one coaching for those type of things. But also we developed these staff values that really the foundation of it was that a pastoral retreat and getting the buy-in of the staff, going what do you guys think are the real issues? I think we had a list of twelve different values um at one point and going. So now you have team buy in to this. We really need to engage the brains, the hearts, the spirits of our staff. Doesn’t mean we don’t make decisions as leaders, but we really want to hear what they’re thinking and then we can take that information, go back, and make a make a decision from there. But I think that was really beneficial whether it was our mission statement or vision statement the governing values Those were not done in a vacuum. Really we took key leaders and staff and brought them together and said what do you guys think are the key ones? And honestly some of those things made it in the final round that we weren’t thinking.
Rich Birch — So how did you, I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. How did you narrow down? I think a lot of us have that like we’ve got ten different values. You know I’ve said in so many contexts, listen we’ve got to get these down to three or four…
Matt Slocum — Correct; right.
Rich Birch — …like I can’t remember more than three or four like it just, you know. Even if it’s stuff I’m passionate about. So what did that look like – can you kind of take us inside that conversation how you were able to kind of synthesize into these four?
Matt Slocum — Right. And you know our senior, we’re senior pastor led so it’s really his heart screaming for something. So it started with him; you have to have—especially for something like this; this is not something you can delegate to an executive pastor—this is really the heart of the senior pastor. Um, it’s good when the senior pastor involves the team, which ours did. Pastor James did. And we as I said we had a retreat and we brainstormed. We said we’ve got, we don’t do conversations very well, sometimes, and what’s the real issue? Um and as leaders we have to grow ourselves personally. And so we just we had a whiteboard. We got a we went to a retreat center. We got a whiteboard and we we just started throwing things up on the on the board. What resonated? What didn’t? And sometimes there were as many cuts at it. Okay, let’s come back to this in a couple days. What’s resonating with you guys? And then trial and error – what works, you know? Um and it just boiled down to somewhat organically. It wasn’t a process cause we were learning it it as we went; we were building the airplane in the air a little bit, without trying to hit the ground. Um, so that was kind of our process. It was really organic.
Rich Birch — Yep.
Matt Slocum — It was honoring to be part of that and I think that was a big deal. And get the buy-in and the team if people want to be part of something that their voice is heard and you know, and we’re doing ministry – this is important and it’s life changing. So that was kind of our… and then over the years you evaluate and go and is this still is this still effective for ministry? So…
Rich Birch — Mmm-hmm.
Matt Slocum — And then about once a year we do a key leader meeting, which would be our staff ministry leaders (if they lead), if it’s a volunteer who leads, volunteers, and our top givers – the the financial leaders of the church – we get… it’s about 240 people we gather them together once a year, and we we gave them all the coin. We we explained it. So now these volunteers are taking it into their ministries and pushing it out into the church. And we have the coin in our in our pocket too. And ah the military has ah a funny thing with the coins. If if no I haven’t done this but at ah they go to a bar and whoever puts the coin out first if if one guy is missing their coin, they’re the one who buys.
Rich Birch — Yes.
Matt Slocum — So we have a coffee shop at our in our church and so we’ll all pull our coins out and um, you know whoever didn’t have their coin, they’re buying, you know, so we have the coins in our pockets. We’re just living this thing because, you know, I came from a corporate world where mission statements and values were on the walls of the conference room, but nobody knew what they were; nobody lived by them.
Rich Birch — So true. Yep.
Matt Slocum — But we have a mission statement that we’ve lived by for 20 years. I mean we we died and bled to create this thing and we live by it and that’s our filter. So governing values are a similar other thing we just make it a culture. You’re gonna see it everywhere. Um, and we’re gonna live it. So yeah.
Rich Birch — Oh. Yeah I love it. I love that. I love the practicality of it. I love the the clarity of gathering people together. Um you know and and having you know a bit of a process in the fact that you went away and you’re you know whenever there’s whiteboards and a retreat center involved, there’s good things happen usually um, but you know and then but then pushing to like no, we’re we’re not just going to like you say leave it on the wall.
Matt Slocum — Right.
Rich Birch — So many churches do that. They we come up with these things, we leave it on the wall, but we don’t actually live it out. I think that’s so fantastic. That’s that’s great. Good stuff.
Matt Slocum — And then anybody new into the church, you know our new members class. We call it connect to the vision – vision of the church. They’re going to hear about these things so they not only know the vision, the values, but we’re we’re challenging them to step in and when they step in we’re saying now you will be challenged. Um and you’re gonna assume the best of people. But if you want that, we guarantee that in a year you’re gonna look back and you’ve grown in Christ, and that’s really what we’re doing.
Rich Birch — Um, love it. So good. Great. Well This has been a fantastic conversation. I know so many of us we you know we struggle with ah how do we have the kind of crucial conversation? How do we, you know, have the conversation that can be difficult? Is there anything else, you’d like to share on that front to kind of help us – a a tip or an approach that has helped as you’ve been engaging with your people on, you know, these kind of difficult conversations?
Matt Slocum — Yeah, unless I would say unless it’s an urgency where you like, oh I’ve got a 24 hour deadline to have this conversation because of you know, maybe legal reasons, things like that. Ah be intentional. Maybe take ah a couple extra days to calm down.
Rich Birch — Mmm-hmm.
Matt Slocum — Because because honestly we can get really upset about something and the person meant nothing, but we still have to talk about it.
Rich Birch — Yes. Yes.
Matt Slocum — Um, take a lot of time, maybe get counsel on how to proceed. There’s we have an we have an apostolic elder board that’s outside of our church of of pastors. And many times their senior pastor will go to them and ask them their thoughts on the situation. Um, and to be wise, but you know you don’t leave that hanging out there. They say if if after two years you have the same problem, you’re the problem. And so you don’t want to leave that hanging out there forever, but you know maybe take a little bit of time and just proceed with caution because you do want to restore and challenge at the same time.
Rich Birch — Yeah, love it. This has been a fantastic conversation, Matt. I appreciate you giving your time today. Where do we want to send people if they want to track with you or with the church, where do we want to send them online to to connect with the church going forward?
Matt Slocum — Yeah, ah victorylife.church is our website and then also the links to there are to all the social media platforms. You can find us Facebook, YouTube, Instagram – all that all that good stuff. Yeah.
Rich Birch — All that stuff. That’s great. Thanks! Thanks so much, Matt. I appreciate you being here today. Thanks for helping us through this podcast today.
Matt Slocum — Thanks, Rich – I really appreciate it.