If I were advising a young woman who wanted to enter into ministry, I probably wouldn't recommend a Southern Baptist upbringing, a master's in environmental engineering, or two stints as a Congressional staffer.
It's a good thing I wasn't advising Heather Zempel.
Heather isn't exactly your average little girl from Mobile, Alabama. Perhaps most telling are her stories about playtime with her sister. While most kids played store or house, Heather and Laura played church. They'd line up their stuffed animals in rows. Laura was the organist and Heather the preacher. Little did she know those games were foreshadowing things to come.
During her teenage years, Heather was "the Christian the devil warned you about," or at least so her T-shirt said. Throughout high school and college, she was convinced she was going to the foreign mission field, and thus sought a skill set—engineering—that would serve her well in that context.
Heather's Introduction to NCC
After college, however, Heather landed a fellowship with one of her home-state Senators, and so she was off to Washington, D.C. She fell in love with a new church there called National Community Church (NCC). She attended and served while she was in the city, but once her fellowship ended, she headed to Nashville to put her degree to good use, making her living as an environmental engineer.
A couple of years later, a position focused on environmental policy opened up on that same Senator's staff. Heather was offered the position, so she returned to D.C., once again attending and serving at NCC.
It wasn't long before Mark Batterson—NCC's lead pastor—asked Heather if she would be the small-group coordinator for the church in a part-time capacity. They were looking to hire someone full-time, but it would be a few months before they could do so, and they needed someone to fill the position in the interim.
After nine months, Pastor Mark attempted to hire someone full-time: He asked Heather if she would be interested in the position. She declined but continued serving in the role part-time.
Pastor Mark continued trying to convince Heather to take the position on a full-time basis, and Heather continued declining. This continued for two years before Heather realized that she was no longer able to do both jobs. Working for Congress and working in ministry have at least one thing in common: you work a lot of overtime for no additional pay.
Heather knew she had to choose which opportunity to pursue. It was obviously a time for prayer, but God gave no clear answer—no handwriting on the wall, dream in the night, or prophetic message from a stranger.
Heather simply asked herself, "Which thing am I more excited to get up in the morning to do?" It still wasn't an easy choice, but she knew she was more passionate about leading the charge on group life and discipleship at National Community Church.
So she resigned from her position on the Senator's staff and became the Pastor of Discipleship.
That was nine years ago. There are moments when Heather misses Capitol Hill—a place like that has a certain draw. But one thing is for sure: Heather loves what she does, knows she made the right decision, and wouldn't change things if she could.
Over the years, Heather's role has expanded. She now leads a team of six; serves as one of three members of NCC's Teaching Team, preaching a dozen or so times each year; and is a member of the Executive Leadership Team, National Community Church's version of a board of elders. She is also a sought after speaker for small-group and discipleship events, and she just published her second book, Amazed and Confused: When God's Actions Collide With Our Expectations.