Breaking down barriers with pastor and theatre artist Mark Stephenson

Our host Lee Wochner speaks with Mark Stephenson, an accomplished actor, administrator, civil servant, church pastor, and board member. The conversation focuses on leadership, his advocacy for embracing diversity, traveling to unfamiliar places and engaging in meaningful conversations and shared experiences as ways to bridge divides and promote understanding.

Mark Stephenson: Don’t underestimate the power of being in front of a person and saying hello.

Lee Wochner: Today with our guest Mark Stephenson, we will be exploring issues of effective leadership, conflict resolution, and promoting unity in today’s society.

Jaclyn: Welcome to the podcast that lightens the tension when things sort of get hard… That’s What C! Said, the Counterintuity podcast, featuring interviews with leaders and doers who have helped to make our world a better place through their actions — and especially through marketing, communications, and embracing change. Here’s our host Lee Wochner.

Lee Wochner: Our guest today on That’s What She Said, the Counterintuitive podcast, is Mark Stevenson, an actor, administrator, civil servant, and church pastor. Mark is associated with Harmony Toluca Lake, a campus of Hollywood United Methodist Church in Hollywood. Mark’s bio is quite impressive. He was a former editor for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and we’re eager to hear about that. In 1986, Mark moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. He has starred in numerous stage productions, including my own. He has also been recognized as a cult celebrity for his roles in the H.P. Lovecraft movies, The Unnameable and The Unnameable 2. However, since 1993, Mark transitioned from fighting monsters to serving as a church administrator. He has served as a board member of the Greater Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council, board chair of our theater company, and the founding pastor of Harmony Toluca Lake since 2017. I may not know a more interesting bio than Mark’s. Mark, how are you?

Mark Stephenson: I’m doing great, and it’s great to see you. Living in paradise, how can anything go wrong, right?

Lee Wochner: So, Mark, we met in 1995 during auditions for Werner Trishman’s play, Dog Star. You won the role of a one-handed dog trainer, and our mutual friend Trey Nichols played the dog.

Mark Stephenson: Yeah.

Lee Wochner: That was a fun experience. You also played a serial killer in one of my plays, and you were part of a Michael Foley play where you portrayed Jesus, battling Godzilla and Adolf Hitler with Einstein as your companion. Any other credits you want to mention?

Mark Stephenson: Hey, happy fun family.

Lee Wochner: Ah, yes. You played the harassed husband of an out-of-control sitcom star whose family conspires to eat stew made of people. That’s the best synopsis I can give for now.

Mark Stephenson: And you also gave me my first directing opportunity.

Lee Wochner: That’s right. You directed a play by Richard Ruhl when I had a family emergency. Today, we’ll discuss leadership, and I believe one aspect of leadership is knowing when to step aside. I asked you to direct a few rehearsals while I dealt with the emergency, and I realized you were doing a better job than I could.

Mark Stephenson: Well, it worked out well, and it led to other wonderful experiences. I’m glad we collaborate effectively.

Lee Wochner: Yeah.

Mark Stephenson: I think that’s an important aspect of leadership.

Lee Wochner: It’s hard to disagree with that if you’re that kind of leader. Unfortunately, there are world leaders now who lack collaboration and invade their neighbors. But that’s a topic for another day.

Mark Stephenson: Right.

Lee Wochner: There are many aspects of your fascinating and diverse bio that I’d like to explore. Let’s begin with the church and the process of building it. You were the church administrator at Hollywood United Methodist Church, and now Harmony Toluca Lake is listed as a campus of Hollywood United Methodist Church. What does that mean?

Mark Stephenson: Well, basically, we became a church plant. Hollywood United Methodist Church decided to expand its ministry by acquiring a new building in the neighborhood. So that happened, and we wanted the worship experience at Harmony to be different from what is offered at the Hollywood campus. For example, at Harmony, we have a more contemporary style with a worship band. It’s even more relaxed, but we still carry forward the same DNA as the second campus.

Lee Wochner: What does that DNA mean?

Mark Stephenson: The DNA refers to who we are, our essence, like our genetic makeup. For us, it means being an affirming faith community that is inclusive and diverse, focusing on love rather than exclusivity and judgment. So that’s the DNA that carries forward from Hollywood to Toluca Lake, and we work symbiotically together.

Lee Wochner: So it’s the same belief structure but presented in a different way.

Mark Stephenson: Yes, it’s a different way of presenting the worship experience and the service itself.

Lee Wochner: Okay.

Mark Stephenson: For example, our worship service involves a lot of engagement among the congregation. It’s not as presentation-focused as a traditional worship service.

Lee Wochner: I see. How did you become the pastor of Harmony Toluca Lake?

Mark Stephenson: It’s one of the craziest stories of my life. Initially, the second campus wasn’t thriving, and it was considered to be closed down. However, before that happened, the bishop and the cabinet of the California Pacific Annual Conference discussed what could be done differently. They approached the senior pastor at Hollywood and suggested that I become the pastor at their campus, working alongside the new ministries director. When they approached me with this idea, I was taken aback and asked why. They explained that they saw me as having a church planter mentality and wanted to shake things up. They believed that by shaking things up, we could develop more perseverance and truly determine if this was going to work. I prayed about it and agreed to take on the role.

Lee Wochner: So they literally called you and asked you to be the pastor.

Mark Stephenson: Yes, that’s true. It’s interesting how life’s experiences can lead you down unexpected paths. Since I was a teenager, people have suggested that I should be a pastor or preacher, but I always dismissed the idea.

Mark Stephenson: Throughout my life, many people suggested that I should go to theological school or pursue certain paths, but I always resisted. However, in November 2016, I decided to reflect on these suggestions and see where they had led me. That’s when I finally said yes to the call.

Lee Wochner: When I was a boy, our church pastor once asked me to deliver a sermon while he was on vacation. I was around 12 or 13 years old. It was my first public speech, and I added some funny jokes to the sermon, inspired by him. I’ll never forget this moment when someone in the audience laughed, and I blessed him. It was my first laughter from an audience, and I’ve never looked back since.

Mark Stephenson: That’s great.

Lee Wochner: Along those lines, how did your acting background prepare you for being a pastor?

Mark Stephenson: From a public speaking and relational standpoint, being an actor definitely helped. Actors have stage presence and focus on enunciation, articulation, and being heard. As a pastor, I believe actors also understand the importance of their role and letting go of their ego. It’s not about the individual, but about caring for the audience or congregation. Being an actor involves various working elements and parts, and the same principle applies to being a pastor. It’s about understanding your role and working with others.

Lee Wochner: I have had personal experiences with pastors who have shaped my life and supported my family during difficult times. So I have some awareness of how helpful a pastor can be. What does being a church pastor involve these days?

Mark Stephenson: Some people may think it’s a one-day-a-week job, but it’s far from that. It can consume your time and become almost a 24/7 commitment. Personally, I spend around 20 hours preparing for Sunday’s message, doing research, drafting materials, and generating ideas. And that doesn’t include reflection time or other tasks like attending meetings, counseling, administrative work, and collaborating with employees at the Hollywood campus. Being a pastor involves spending a significant amount of time with people, counseling them, and listening to them.

Lee Wochner: So you received the calling to be a pastor, which had been suggested to you since you were young. Now that you were going to be a pastor, how did you establish or reestablish the location?

Mark Stephenson: Firstly, I tried not to panic because we had decided to shut down the campus. I didn’t want to build upon something I didn’t believe in. We remained inactive for about nine months, with a definite period of five months of complete inactivity. During that time, I formed a leadership team and learned a valuable lesson, even though it later became challenging. The leadership team was crucial for starting a new church plant. Initially, I believed that the team would stay with me for more than a year, but my coach warned me that a year is usually the limit for many individuals. We worked hard to listen to the vision, plan, and prepare. In May, we had our first trial worship service, followed by others in June and August.

Mark Stephenson: and then we unveiled a weekly worship experience in the middle of September of 2017.

Lee Wochner: So, okay, let’s talk about the unveiling and marketing. I don’t know that most people think about churches doing marketing, but I’m sure you do marketing. How does your marketing work for what I guess is a relaunch, right?

Mark Stephenson: Yeah, it was sort of a relaunch, but we considered it as something brand new. Social media played an important role. We used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms. The communications director from the Hollywood campus assisted us, and we also sent out postcards. However, postcards are not the most effective form of marketing. We learned that it takes multiple mailings, around five to seven times, to generate traction. We also put effort into enhancing our website to communicate who we are. It required a lot of work, and we enlisted the help of Counterintuity, your firm, to assist us in that process, along with supporting Hollywood. Additionally, we hit the ground running, meeting people and networking, as a part of our marketing strategy. It’s important not to underestimate the power of personal interaction and saying hello.

Lee Wochner: Well, I know you’re an ace networker and community builder. I mean, the bio has 19 different occupations on it. So, I know you’re well connected. When it comes to the mail piece, people often dismiss mail too quickly. My perspective is that since people receive so little mail these days, when they do get something in the mail, it grabs their attention. Could you tell us more about that targeted mailing? Was it broad-based or specific?

Mark Stephenson: Absolutely, it was a targeted demographic mailing. We focused on a radius of one to three miles maximum. I remember drawing the radius, identifying specific neighborhoods where we believed we would be a good fit. It was part of our strategic planning. We also considered income levels, educational levels, and openness to a progressive worship experience within that radius. We didn’t send the postcards to conservative evangelical areas since it wouldn’t align with our identity. It was all part of our marketing strategy.

Lee Wochner: One thing I’ve been emphasizing to people in the arts for over 25 years is that the primary outreach should be directed towards those who already engage in the arts. When we work with clients in the arts at Counterintuity, they often seek new audiences, which is understandable. However, we know that targeting existing arts attendees is more likely to bring them to their events. Then, we encourage incentivizing them to bring a guest, broadening the experience to others. If you solely focus on marketing to new people who don’t fit the demographic profile, it becomes a costly and inefficient approach. There are other ways to invite those individuals, but direct outreach can be expensive.

Mark Stephenson: It’s like a scattershot approach and it’s a waste. It honestly wastes time and money.

Lee Wochner: Now that you have reopened, I don’t know if you heard, but there was this pandemic that happened. It went on for a while.

Mark Stephenson: Hahaha!

Lee Wochner: You may have heard about that. What challenges did COVID-19 present in that pandemic?

Mark Stephenson: Oh my, wow. That’s like reliving a bad experience.

Lee Wochner: But we’re both still here, so…

Mark Stephenson: Yeah.

Lee Wochner: There’s good news.

Mark Stephenson: We’re still here, hallelujah. Interestingly, I was in Jerusalem leading an interfaith trip to Israel with a synagogue from Fort Worth when we received word of an outbreak. They didn’t call it COVID at that point, but there was an epidemic. As soon as I saw that it had hit the airports in Wuhan, I told my rabbi friend that we needed to get home immediately. We went through Madrid to return home, and a week later, the first case was reported in Madrid. I had expressed my concerns to Rev Kathy about the situation, but some people were downplaying it. However, I believed it was a problem, and we needed to prepare for it. In March, as we both know, everything shut down in California. Now, I’m someone who looks for the silver lining in dark clouds.

Lee Wochner: Mm-hmm.

Mark Stephenson: But that was an extremely challenging period. We had to quickly learn how to reach out to our people safely, take care of them, and continue operating as a church. We immediately switched to Zoom for our Sunday worship services, like most people did. However, that was also a learning curve. In addition to Zoom, I offered to take walks with our congregants in the neighborhood.

Lee Wochner: Wow.

Mark Stephenson: Yeah. So, for example, I would ask you, Lee, if you wanted to get together for a chat and take a walk. We would meet at your place and walk down the street. It was a time when nobody was driving, and the streets were empty. During those walks, I would listen to whatever was going on with you and answer any questions you had. It became a bonding experience for about 30 people. During the pandemic, around 20% of my congregation moved for various reasons, including family issues, career changes, lack of jobs, and financial constraints. However, those 30 people and I formed a strong bond through these walks. It wasn’t just about Zoom; it was about meeting them where they needed to be and allowing them to learn more about me. We became very close. As the pastor, I had to maintain a pastoral role and couldn’t be too casual, but I found a silver lining in the situation.

Lee Wochner: One significant silver lining I’ve noticed is that a church cannot be confined within four walls. It needs to live outside and be effective. From a faith standpoint, I believe that the pandemic was a wake-up call from God, telling us to listen. We realized that to reach people, we needed cameras and a production team to broadcast our message beyond the church walls. Outreach and service projects have always been part of our DNA. We continue doing them, and we have one coming up soon. So, that’s our plan. Currently, since we reopened in September last year, our in-person attendance ranges from about 35 to 100, with over 100 people showing up for Easter. However, our online viewership is consistently between 75 and 125.

Lee Wochner: Oh wow, that’s…

Mark Stephenson: So…

Lee Wochner: certainly bigger than the church I grew up in.

Mark Stephenson: Right. So, in-person attendance decreased from 80 to 30, but when we consider the online viewership, it surpasses

the in-person numbers. This has been an important learning lesson. We’re reaching people who couldn’t physically be at church, and they can now watch the services at their convenience during the week. From a marketing standpoint, it’s about finding effective ways to deliver the message without solely relying on Sunday morning attendance. We have a podcast and provide the full worship experience online.

Lee Wochner: Well, first of all, congratulations on your resilience and adaptability. I’ve known you a long time, and those qualities have always been evident. Marketing, in all its forms, builds community. I belong to the community of music enthusiasts and people who share certain beliefs. Your story about one-on-one walks with people is a customer touch point, solidifying your community. I had a similar experience as a writer. I invited different writers over every weekend to my backyard for dinner and drinks, fostering a sense of community. So, how did you end up as an auditor for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission? It was unexpected to me.

Mark Stephenson: After graduating college with a bachelor’s in business administration and a master’s in education, I received my first job offer as a high school women’s basketball coach and bus driver, also directing the theater department. However, I also received an offer to work as an auditor for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. A friend who worked as an auditor for TABC recommended me for the job. They had an opening in Houston, which wasn’t my initial preference, but it turned out to be a great choice. It allowed me to be part of the theatrical community in Houston, which eventually led to a talent agent seeing me in a show and my move to Los Angeles.

Lee Wochner: In movies, we often see auditors being bribed with bottles or cases of whiskey. I assume that wasn’t your experience.

Mark Stephenson: No, in fact, my nickname was Elliot Ness. About 50% of my audits resulted in establishments owing money to the state of Texas. I wasn’t hoping for them to owe money; it was simply the outcome of the audits. Let me tell you a quick story. I was auditing a strip club that had locations in Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. It was my third time auditing them, and they had owed a significant amount in the previous audits. The guy in charge looked worried when I arrived. During the audit, he called me to his office one evening. I was nervous, thinking something sinister was going to happen. But he just had a question for me. He offered me a job as his company’s auditor, where I would travel to their various locations and be stationed in Houston. The salary was at least four times what I was earning, and it would be cheaper for him to hire me than to keep paying the state.

Lee Wochner: That’s quite an interesting turn of events.

Mark Stephenson: I prayed about it and discussed it with my parents. I didn’t think it would be a wise move for me to be associated with a group of strippers.

Lee Wochner: Well, no comment on that one.

Mark Stephenson: Hahaha!

Lee Wochner: Well, it’s interesting how that led you to becoming a church pastor.

Mark Stephenson: Yeah.

Lee Wochner: Yeah. So, what I gather is that you always had a background in acting and business management. Now, I have the same question I had about being a church pastor. How do these two roles, being an actor and a business manager, complement each other? What skills overlap?

Mark Stephenson: Let me think about this. From my perspective, it has been extremely beneficial for me as a pastor to have a business background. Many pastors lack an operational understanding of finances and administration. They may have a sense of what’s not working, but when it comes to the mechanics of finances, they often struggle. Having a business background allows me to provide guidance and expertise without trying to micromanage. On the acting side, pastors who excel are effective communicators. They connect with people and relate to them. Thankfully, I can wear both hats well. It has been very helpful for me. In fact, I attended a recent conference where they expressed the need for seminaries to offer business courses to pastors, so they can understand property issues, finances, and administration. Seminary graduates often lack that practical knowledge and are primarily focused on theology.

Lee Wochner: I wish every elected official had business courses, but that’s a topic for another day.

Mark Stephenson: Hahaha.

Lee Wochner: We’ll take a short break, and when we return, we’ll continue our conversation with my good friend Mark Stephenson. We’ll discuss leadership and his perspectives on the current landscape and future. Stay tuned.

Jaclyn: Hi, this is Jaclyn with Counterintuity. If you’re wondering if email marketing is still worth your time and effort — you can stop. It IS. Despite the rise of social media and other digital marketing channels, email remains a highly effective way to reach your audience. With email, you can deliver personalized, targeted messages directly to your subscribers, boosting engagement, donations, and awareness. And with email automation, you can save time and streamline your marketing efforts. It’s a great way to stay connected with your constituents, learn more about them, and grow your organization, so: say YES to the power of email marketing. If you’re wondering how to get started or up your email game, give us a call. We’re always happy to help.

Lee Wochner: Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with my guest, Mark Stephenson, who is an actor, administrator, civil servant, church pastor, and even known as the Elliott Ness of the booze world. Mark, we’ve spent many years discussing leadership, and you’ve been involved in various leadership roles. Currently, you lead a board that I serve on. Let’s talk about the role of a good board member. In your experience, how does a good board member succeed?

Mark Stephenson: The key to being a good board member is to show up and actively participate. Listening is crucial before jumping to conclusions.

Lee Wochner: Absolutely.

Mark Stephenson: Collaborative work is important because not everyone on the board will get along. Tension can be beneficial, but it’s essential to navigate it effectively. I’ve encountered obstinate and mean-spirited individuals, but I’ve found ways to calm the waters. A good board member approaches the role with an open heart and mind, willing to receive information. However, they should also be able to weigh in and provide guidance based on their understanding of the presented stats and statistics. Pushing personal agendas isn’t necessary. Setting aside ego for the greater good is what makes a good board member.

Lee Wochner: I remember seeing you in the musical 1776, which dealt with conflicts and strong personalities during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. How does a board chair ensure productive conflict in the room?

Mark Stephenson: As a board chair, my role is to work closely with the staff, such as the artistic director and managing director in the case of our theater company. They may perceive conflicts or disconnects that I might not see. It’s my responsibility to sit with them, understand their perspectives, and guide them. However, I’ve also learned not to be too passive. Bullies exist, and it’s crucial to address conflicts without escalating them in front of the whole board. Instead, I prefer to acknowledge the concerns, table them temporarily, and arrange a private discussion afterward. If there’s an issue between a board member and a staff member, I can serve as a facilitator to help resolve it. Avoiding explosive situations benefits the entire board’s functionality.

Lee Wochner: That’s wise advice. I once had a naysayer on a committee I chaired, and by listening to him, we were able to reach better outcomes. People want to be heard, and constructive dialogue can lead to progress.

Mark Stephenson: Absolutely. I’ve noticed the same with the Greater Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council. Passionate individuals just want to be heard, and acknowledging their concerns can go a long way. My service on that board was phenomenal, although it was tiring to juggle my responsibilities as a pastor and board member. Nonetheless, I felt it was important to show the community that I cared. Overall, we had good camaraderie and made significant progress. Despite obstacles from the city, our board was recognized for its ability to move forward. It was a rewarding experience.

Lee Wochner: So just so people know, Toluca Lake is a district in the city of Los Angeles. You know, one of the things I found out is people have a hard time understanding how Los Angeles is constructed. There are 88 separate municipalities in the county. City of Los Angeles is the largest municipality, and then there’s all these little districts in there that are still part of the city. They’re not their own cities. So Toluca Lake is one of the districts in city of Los Angeles.

Mark Stephenson: Yes.

Lee Wochner: Okay, great. So let’s, let me check in here with my buddy, the artist, actor, board member, church pastor. Let’s talk about the society we live in for a couple minutes, okay?

Mark Stephenson: Oh, okay.

Lee Wochner: Well, you know, it’s got its pluses and its minuses for sure. Where do you think we are right now as a society? What do you think the temperature is right now?

Mark Stephenson: It depends on where you live. I think the temperature of the society is… I wouldn’t say it’s red hot, but it’s certainly not cold. It’s not even lukewarm. It’s between lukewarm and hot. The temperature, and it’s still contentious. And it concerns me, but I don’t operate my own life to be operating out of fear or concern. I live my life to live my life and to answer the call that I have and to just do the absolute best that I can to help everybody. As you know, I’ve done mission trips in areas where their viewpoints on life completely different than mine. Guess what? I don’t care. All I wanna do is be there for them to help. And I think that that actually is a way to break a fever, is when you can show up for other individuals who think and live differently than you do. Too often though in our society, we want to bucket ourselves, isolate ourselves, put ourselves in particular groups, and then cancel. There’s this cancellation aspect. And for me, that’s where we really walk into very dangerous territory. And that will only exacerbate the issues that are at hand of separation and separatist thinking. So a little of my thoughts there.

Lee Wochner: What can we, do you have any advice for us about how we can get along a little better? All the strange range of people who live in this country?

Mark Stephenson: Absolutely.

Lee Wochner: End of the world.

Mark Stephenson: I think Mark Twain, a paraphrase, is basically, get out and travel, go to places where you might not ever think of going. I am so grateful for the life that has been gifted to me. I am extremely grateful for my parents and my family, my friends, my parents, especially my dad. He believed and told me as a child, he was like, I want you to have the best life possible. He says, but I want you to know that there’s a world that’s outside of where you live right now. And I lived in a town of about 1800 people. So that was, ’cause I was an Air Force brat up until I was about six. From six to 18, I lived in a small town of 1800 people, but I never had really traveled traveled. And when opportunities came, I was able to travel and study in Mexico for two months. I was able to go to Europe. I was able to go to various places in the world. And my dad was very supportive and said, I want to be able to afford that. I’ve worked my life

to be able to allow you to do this. That couldn’t have been more effective in helping shape who I am because it allowed me to be able to see people who are different than me.

Lee Wochner: Mm-hmm.

Mark Stephenson: And realize, oh my gosh, we can get along. We can, together we make a better world. But too often we will look at someone and immediately go, well, they’re different and you avoid them. I remember as a child, one of my dearest friends was black and that caused a big uproar. But my parents were very supportive to say, You know, we’re glad that he’s your friend. Um, and so that, I think that’s the thing of us getting along with each other is putting on your swords. Why are we out gunning for each other?

Lee Wochner: Mm-hmm.

Mark Stephenson: And

Lee Wochner: Mm-hmm.

Mark Stephenson: I feel like it would be so good if you could sit there and go, Lee, I’m going to have you introduce, I’m going to take you over to this part of the, uh, Los Angeles that you would never ever go to. And we’re going to sit down and have a meal. Having a meal breaks down defenses when you’re together sharing a meal. The other thing that will break down defenses is when you’re standing up for the individual and you’re there and you’re helping rebuild whatever may have been destroyed in their lives. When they see your dedication and your compassion for them, it does wonders. And it’s not just wonders for them. It does wonders for you because it helps change your heart and your mind. Because then you see the world differently as well.

Lee Wochner: Well, it would be awfully hard to top that, Mark. It’s been a real pleasure having this conversation with you. And the nice thing about our relationship is this is not the last conversation you and I will be having. I guess I have to have you over for dinner and drinks pretty soon.

Mark Stephenson: Yeah, I’m for it.

Lee Wochner: All right, it’s been a real pleasure, Mark. Thank you so much for joining me today for this exciting, inspiring, and amusing discussion.

Mark Stephenson: It has been my pleasure. Thanks.

Jaclyn: Thanks for listening! We’re glad you came. That’s What C! Said is produced by Lisa Pham and engineered by Joe Curet. It’s available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. Please like and follow the show. Visit to sign up and learn more.

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