Getting to Know the Elders: Joe Woodward
Here at First Free we believe God has given the church elders, men who have been chosen by God to know, lead, feed, and protect his flock. Over the next year, we’d like to help you get to know our elders better through an in-depth interview with one of our elders each month. This month we’re talking to Joe Woodward.
Tell us a little bit about your life growing up.
I am so thankful to have grown up here in Wichita attending First Free since I was a kid. I hit the jackpot with godly parents, teachers, friends, and pastors. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs in life, but have been surrounded by loving Christians to encourage me to follow Jesus every step of the way.
I came to faith at a young age through the ministry of my parents and church. My parents are first generation Christians. My mom came to faith through a door-to-door outreach ministry of the local church in her neighborhood. My dad came to faith during his time as a student at West High. They have been about the Great Commission as long as I can remember. They are both others-focused and super generous with time and everything they have. I had the blessing of attending a Christian school because my dad took the late-night janitor shift to pay my tuition. After graduating from Sunrise, I went to business school at Wichita State and then started working at Koch Industries where I’ve been the past ten years.
How has First Free shaped you?
I benefited from First Free’s disciple-making from the very beginning. I’ve been blessed with many mentors who are great examples of what it means to follow Jesus: Dave Netherton and John Cannata were my small group leaders in middle school and high school; Jeremy Krause and Scott Stringfield mentored me as an adult; Josh Black was my youth pastor senior year; Jeremy Krause in the college ministry. They gave me a clear target. Jeremy would say, “main man (Jesus Christ), main message (the Gospel) main mission (make disciples).” Pastor Josh’s introduction of a “functioning Gospel” (Mike Bullmore’s Gospel Circles) was a game changer for me.
How did you meet Andrea, your wife?
We met in high school as counselors at Kids Great Getaway at Quaker Haven. I was drawn to the way that she loved kids and the way they loved her. She was fun, full of joy, and of course beautiful. Her love for Jesus and other people impressed me. We started dating seriously in college and got married at First Free after I graduated. Jeremy Krause was the pastor who married us in 2013.
Life has its ups and downs, but marriage has been such a joy. A huge thing that has helped our relationship is that we have a shared vision for where we want to go and what we want to be about (family, Great Commission, local church, using vocation to make disciples, etc). One big blessing was growing up in the same church with similar discipleship influences. We also try to read many of the same books/podcasts which shape our thinking in a big way. We obviously have different skill sets and temperaments, but we both came into the marriage with the mindset of deferring to one another and “outdoing one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12) despite having different roles as husband and wife. When we’re at our best it’s what we do, and when we’re not we try to show each other grace. We also goof off quite a bit and try to keep things fun as much as possible. We’ll go to Christian hip hop concerts and jam out and enjoy running together, playing board games, and watching epic movies where the good guys always win.
You’re a new dad, too, right? What’s that been like?
We struggled with infertility for a couple years which was very difficult. We then started the adoption process which has been wonderful. We had always pictured that as a possibility because Jeremy and Brooke Krause were so influential in our lives and they adopted three kids. We met a really sweet birth family who has been wonderful. We got to be there at the hospital and all the doctor’s appointments. The church was so helpful in all that. Josh did the adoption ceremony.
To be honest, I had low expectations for both marriage and parenting. Thinking, “It’s something you should do, but it’s hard.” But marriage has been the best thing ever and made life better in so many ways. Parenting has been the same way, but twice as fun because it’s the joy of marriage and parenting put together. It’s the most fun thing in our life.
When did you become an elder? What has that been like?
I became an elder in 2021. I thought you had to be older to be an elder, so I was a little uncomfortable with my age and had to work through that, but I trusted the elders who asked me to join the team that they knew what they were doing and gladly said yes.
I’ve learned that being an elder is a big responsibility when approached from a biblical perspective. It feels like an impossible job, to really shepherd people well at a church our size, but it’s no less impossible than other commands in the Bible like loving your wife the way Christ loved the church. There’s a weight of being accountable for someone’s soul (Heb. 13:17). The same responsibility you’d feel for your biological sister is the same way you’d feel for your spiritual sister. Everyone understands that you have a responsibility to make sure your physical family is doing okay; it’s at least at that level of responsibility for our church family, if not higher.
I used to think elders were “A-team” Christians, but see that we are still sheep in need of God’s grace just like every other mature believer. According to Ephesians 4, the role of shepherding is more like that of an assistant coach, helping to equip the saints (the real A-team) for the work of ministry. Being behind the scenes has really made me appreciate the elders and pastors even more. Sometimes going behind the scenes has the opposite effect, but not here.
As an elder, what exhortation or encouragement do you have for First Free?
In every conflict, remember who the real enemy is (sin, satan, death). For Christian unity, focus on gospel essentials and know what things are of second or third importance.
Christ’s call to the church is high and more urgent than ever. Every member of the body is indispensable (1 Cor. 12), so let’s be fully engaged in what matters. Every hour wasted on video games, Netflix, and cable news is an hour that could be used for the mission of God. Have good rhythms of work and rest, but cut out as much waste as possible.