11 Ministry Truths I Learned from 11 Years of Planting, Leading, and Leaving My First Call

Fresh from graduating from Seminary 11 years ago, to the day, I began driving to my very first called pastoral position to plant theCross in Mount Dora, FL.  I had no idea what to expect and it was, by far, the scariest thing I’d ever done up to that point.
And now, 11 years later, I’m getting ready to pull out of our driveway for the last time to start a 21-hour car ride from Mount Dora, FL to our family’s new home in Omaha, NE.
As I process all that God has done through our 11 years at theCross I wanted to share 11 truths I’ve learned about ministry.  These are things that I have learned from planting, leading, supporting, and now leaving my first pastoral call.  Some of these were taught to me at Seminary, but all of them must truly be experienced to learn.  I hope that no matter where you are on your pastoral journey (whether you hope to be one someday, are studying to be one now, or whether you are decades you’re your pastoral experience) that this blog will be helpful and encouraging to you.
But first, let me tell you my story so you can understand more about where these truths come from.
I remember the feeling I had driving down to plant theCross, It felt like the first time I really felt ever put my faith on the line in a big way prior.
I grew up in a loving home with a mom and dad who were committed to one another.  Even better, they were committed to serving God.  My dad was a pastor and my mom was the ideal pastor’s wife and mother.  They were, and still are, amazing parents.  Dad’s about to celebrate 40 years of ministry and my mom just wrote an amazing book on dealing with grief.  So ya, I’m pretty proud of them both.
When I went to a Lutheran university I quickly connected with a girl, Allison, that I fell in love with.  Not only was she way out of my league, but I knew she was Proverbs 31 wife material.  I didn’t hesitate.  After our sophomore year of college, I proposed, and we married one another just one year later.  This July we’ll celebrate 17 years of marriage, and it’s just getting better and better.  It’s the best earthly decision I’ve ever made.
Following college, Allison and I moved to St. Louis, MO, where I enrolled in Seminary.  I was studying to be a 4th-generation Lutheran pastor.  As I was studying, I was greatly blessed to connect with a local church in St. Louis and help them lead a new college ministry at St. Louis University.  Being so deep into books on the Seminary side gave me the head knowledge that I needed, but actually being able to be involved in real ministry at the same time ensured that my heart was in this.  I’ve heard from many others that Seminary is one of the loneliest times of people’s lives, and also, that it’s where “relationship” with God goes to die.  This wasn’t the case for me.
Allison and I enjoyed having our first child, Nathan.  That, by far, was the biggest disruption up to this point in our lives.  But over time, you learn, you grow, you build character, and ultimately you learn to trust God.  Nathan is now a teenager (crazy!) and we have one other son Brady, who just turned 10.
If someone were to look at my life from the outside up to this point, I think you could say my life was pretty scripted.  It was pretty much the way it should go.  The steps were in order.  But honestly, I never felt through the first 26 years of my life that I had actually put my faith to the test in a meaningful way.  Sure, I went on mission trips, spoke up at times about God, led certain ministries, but up to this point, everything was kind of “by the book” and honestly from a faith perspective, easy.
Driving down to Florida to plant a church in a new area from scratch felt different.  It felt scary.  I remember this reliance on God, asking Him to show up.  If he didn’t, I knew I would be in trouble.  Part of the reason I was scared was because even though Seminary gave me confidence in my biblical knowledge, understanding, and overall theology, I felt like I had no idea how to plant a church. And yet, there was something exciting about putting my faith on the line.  It felt invigorating.  It felt new.  It felt like it should feel to follow after God.
And now, after 11 years, I am in awe more than ever of this God that we serve.
I had long dreamed of the day I would become a pastor and lead a church, but even my dreams of what I thought would, could, and should happen fell far short of what I actually experienced God do in our family’s time at theCross.  Words from Ephesians 3:20-21 became a reality for us: 20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
We started meeting as a core group in 2010 and immediately we saw God move.  As the core leadership team formed, we got downright busy with serving our community in a big way.  A year later we launched with worship.  From 2011-2018 we grew in attendance from my family of 4 to over 800 on a weekend.  Our church’s history is unlike any other church’s.  In addition to worship, small groups, and outreach, we were unafraid to do some crazy things.  We broke world records, paid for tattoos, opened men’s recovery homes and food pantries.  Hundreds of people were baptized over the years and the community was forever changed.
The staff began to grow. I had the privilege to bring long-time friends of mine, even a friend from college that we’d dreamt of working together, onto our team.  Armed with a larger staff, we then opened a second campus, bought 46 acres of land to build on, and were on our way to raising capital to build.
And then in 2020, I kind of did a weird thing. 
After a decade of seeing God move in extraordinary ways, and seeing explosive growth in our church family, I stepped down as the lead pastor.  That’s not typically what driven, self-motivated, and at least by worldly accounts “successful” 36-year old’s do.  There was no moral failure, burn out, or lack of passion on my end.
It appeared to everyone on the outside that this was a sudden change.  But, if you know my story, this was anything but an instant decision.
Being a 4th-generation Lutheran pastor, I guess you could say being a pastor is in my blood.  But, I began to see some entrepreneurial gifts in my life all the way from childhood.  It feels like I’ve always had a side thing.  In college, after working at several golf courses for 5 years, I found a way to acquire new golf headcovers and sell them online.  At one point, I was the number one third-party golf headcover seller in the nation.  I kind of just found my niche.  I continued selling golf headcovers through Seminary.
The call to plant theCross was actually a bi-vocational call.  Though it required full-time hours, the main source of our income for the first five years was actually our golf headcover business.  I was experiencing passion and fulfillment on the church side, but the finances were still coming from our side business.  Finally, after the church reached a certain size, I simply had no time left for a side business.  It needed more than my full-time attention.
On top of this, and even more important, I was hoping to be the husband and father that my family needed me to be as well.  Between the church and the business, sadly, I was noticing my family was getting a lot of my leftovers.  This was something that my wife had already noticed and felt for years.  Finally, in 2017, after my wife and I saw a Christian counselor, I decided to say “No” to selling headcovers and focus solely on leading the church.  I trusted that God would provide.
Later that year, I finished a project called Red Letter Challenge.  It was a simple idea that we had tested at our church: take the words of Jesus and put them into practice.  RLC was a vision that I felt God had given me to bring to completion.  So, in 2017, as I wrapped up this project, I felt like I had been faithful to what God put on my heart.  Now, finally, I was ready to give my full attention work-wise to serve the church.
One problem.
God put His anointing on Red Letter Challenge from the moment it became available.  Many people ask me the reasons for success on the RLC side, and I’ve got some human answers, but more than anything I come back to the grace, favor, and anointing of God.
The year I gave up my side business of selling golf headcovers is the year we began to see explosive growth in RLC.  Now RLC had became my side business, except, it was much more than a “side” thing.  Somehow, for the next two years, 2018-2019, I was able to lead both theCross and RLC.
But by the end of 2019, I was pretty exhausted.  More so than that, my family was pretty tired.  We knew that in 2020 something was going to have to change.
About this time, I had a great conversation with leadership mentor and friend Carey Nieuwhof.  Carey had also led a church, started something on the side (blogging and podcasts), and eventually moved more towards his business and into part-time pastoring.  I asked him when he knew it was the right timing, and I’ll never forget his words.  “Zach,” he said, “I knew it was right when I would put 10x energy into one thing and get 1x results, and then I would put 1x energy into the other thing and get 10x results.”  This is exactly how I was feeling.
It wasn’t as if God wasn’t working at theCross.  It was just the large amount of my energy, time, and passion that went into the church simply wasn’t getting the results of my very limited amount of energy, time, and passion that I was putting into Red Letter Challenge.
I felt like God called me in 2020 “to step deeply into where you see me moving.”
This, after all, is what we should always do, right?  It is a noble life to simply step fully into the places where God is moving.
I started giving myself permission and reminding myself that I don’t have to lead a church to grow God’s kingdom.  I began to realize that I love being creative and starting new ventures.  Not only this, but I happened to be married to an extremely talented, godly writer who just happened to have studied and worked in kid’s ministry.  RLC could give us the opportunity to work even more closely together.
Allison and I were left with a difficult decision to make.  I could not continue to lead the church and Red Letter Challenge.
Seeing the unique way in which God had wired me, finding the beauty of God bringing me and Allison together, and most importantly, following where God was deeply moving I decided to step down as lead pastor in July 2020 and move with confidence into Red Letter Challenge.  What began as one book, I began to see as a movement in which we could continue to create Jesus-centered, simple to understand, yet challenging in practice content that would challenge anybody and everybody to be greater followers of Jesus.
I love the church, and I forever will.  I don’t ever foresee a time that I will not be a pastor.  But, I needed to change seats on the bus at theCross, and I did.  My new seat this past year didn’t call on me to lead, but to simply support.  In the new seat, I got to see the current leadership take the bus to a different destination.  It was still a great destination, but not the one in which I had intended under my leadership.  More than anything, I got to see the church I planted carry on and thrive under someone else’s leadership.  Being able to sit on this new seat on the bus, over the past 12 months, has given me a different vantage point pastorally than I had seen in the previous decade.
Several months ago, I was issued a call to become the Teaching Pastor at King of Kings in Omaha, NE and after much prayer and deliberation, our family accepted this position.  I’m excited to team up with a great visionary leader who is a friend, to be on the same team as my dad as he nears retirement, and to give back to a church where my faith truly formed.   I also had full confidence in the leadership that I had built here in Mount Dora to not only continue, but to grow theCross.
The 11 years we have spent building, leading, supporting, and now leaving theCross has taught me many things.  Fresh off of my farewell message at theCross, here are 11 truths I’ve learned about ministry (in no particular order) that I’ve learned from planting, leading, supporting, and now leaving my first pastoral job.

  1. Take a scary step here and there.

You don’t need to have all the answers.  It’s okay to not know what’s next and to put the fate of the church in the hands of our God.  The truth is, we will never have all the answers, and that’s okay.  I have grown the most when I have relied not on facts, but in my faith in God.  If you’ve been running on autopilot for a while, do something to put your faith on the line.  See what God does.

  1. Laser-Focus on Jesus.

The church is bigger than you so don’t make it about you.  If you ever feel like things are going off the rails, ensure that your church is laser-focused on Jesus.  Jesus instituted the church.  Though the church has many expressions, and we get invited into being a part of His church, the outcome of the church doesn’t depend on you.  Be faithful in the time you have to work at a church.  You play an important role in representing Jesus, but it is God who will keep His church going.  Keep planting the seeds and being strategic, but trust that God will grow it.

  1. Look to replace yourself on Day 1.

One of the best mindsets you can operate with from the beginning is to realize that your time, whether it’s 1 year or 50 years will end at your church someday.  Knowing that your time will end will give you greater permission to pour into leaders from the beginning.

  1. Work hard but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Leading through the first few months of the pandemic was one more reminder that the church can and will continue to exist in many different forms.  Hard work and preparation are important.  But if you are working hard and preparing so that you don’t need to rely on the Holy Spirit that is a problem.  Find the right balance. If you are not enjoying God, your job, or your church, take a vacation and figure out why.  Talk to God about it.  He’s ready to listen!

  1. Be friends with the people in your church.

During Seminary, I heard several professors encourage their students not to befriend those in their church.  The rationale behind this thinking was that there should be a proper distance maintained from parishioners with the clergy.  I completely disagree.  I love what Paul said to the church in Thessalonica that he planted: Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.  Looking back, I don’t know that it’s possible to share the Gospel of God well without sharing our lives together. Real ministry doesn’t happen at a distance, but in relationship with one another.  There are times that you will get burnt with this mindset.  But there are also times where you will make friends that will become family.

  1. Don’t settle for clean and easy.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we see that His rescue mission ultimately led Him to be brutally tortured and killed.  Along the way, He befriended those no one else would, and went out of His way to give grace to the ones who were least deserving.  Those of us in ministry are called to represent Jesus. It’s impossible to truly represent Jesus without getting messy.  With mess comes trouble, gossip, confusion, and critics.  With mess also comes some of the greatest stories of grace and redemption.  Get messy.

  1. Nobody fulfills like Jesus!

In a world filled with people looking for purpose and meaning, nobody gives it like Jesus.  Living with purpose and meaning gives incredible fulfillment.  Even though there were many days of pastoring where I felt unqualified, one thing I have never lacked is purpose.  While purpose doesn’t have to be found in full-time ministry, purpose is found in following after Jesus.  If you are waking up with no purpose, pray to Jesus, and take a step in His direction today.

  1. Your family comes before your church.

Before you are called to your church, you are called to your family.  Never forget the order.  While ministry can be rewarding and fulfilling for you, at times, it can also be demanding and difficult for your family.  Technically, you are never off. With all of the demands of ministry that will come your way if you are not intentional, likely, family will get your leftovers.  Not one email from my loving church family has ever encouraged me to spend time with my family.  It won’t happen unless you make it a priority. Every week schedule some intentional family time.  Every quarter schedule some intentional family days.  Every year schedule some intentional family vacation.

  1. Play offense, not defense.

We have the greatest news in the history of the world and yet our churches collectively are in decline.  The mission field, especially after more than a year of leading through the global pandemic, has literally, never been as large as it is right now.  Now is the time to play offense, not sit back and settle for the status quo.  Offense doesn’t have to look the same for you as it does for others.  Some of my fondest memories of theCross are when we did things that nobody else has ever done.  Whether it was breaking the world record for the longest speech to open a men’s recovery home, constructing a landscape in downtown Mount Dora out of canned goods for a food pantry, or racing through downtown Mount Dora in a shopping cart relay race for charity, each and every one of those events will be memories that I’ll forever have.  And more importantly, each of those events helped spread the Good News of Jesus in a unique way.  If you need help in this area, check out this blog.

  1. Don’t be afraid to challenge your people.

Consumer Christianity is something we all are fighting against.  There is a time to consume, but there is also a time to contribute. The Gospel includes Jesus dying on the cross for our eternal salvation, but it is bigger than that.  The perennial call that Jesus offered to all of us is the opportunity to follow after Him.  While believing in Jesus will always be important, it’s in the following of Jesus that truly gives us the abundant life we are all chasing today.  Create churches that allow people to come along on the journey no matter where they are in their belief.  Challenge them to take up the call to follow after Jesus and people will discover the life that they were made for as they take up the words of Jesus in their life.

  1. You can’t do it alone.

For the church to be the fullest expression of Jesus that it can be each person is bringing their gifts and unique talents to the table.  Every one of us has a spiritual gift, but not a single one of us has every spiritual gift.  I cannot be more grateful for the army of people that God brought into my path over the past 11 years.  There is so much beauty that God brought out of our church that was not directly related to my gifts.  Pastors receive too much credit when things are going well and too much blame when things aren’t going so well.  Continue to use your gifts, partner with others, and fully rely on God and let’s watch what God does through your church!
Those are my 11 ministry truths I’ve learned thus far.  What truths would you add?
God bless you and thank you for serving the church so courageously!
 
 
 
 
 
 

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