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.
Serving in Her Sweet Spot
Heather truly is serving in her sweet spot. Having served on her team for a while now, I see three particular aspects of her role in which she continues to excel.
Every January, hundreds of people show up on Monday nights to hear Heather teach a series called The Story: A Three-Week High-Speed Thrill Ride through the Story of the Bible. When you hear Heather in your mind's ear, don't hear slow-talking Southern drawl—hear a New York pace with a slight 'Bama twang.
Not everyone can draw a crowd on a cold winter night for three straight weeks to listen for two hours about how the Bible was formed and the themes found throughout it. But Heather is an incredible communicator. From sermons to theology lectures to leadership training videos, she has an ability to make even the driest content engaging, and she has a reputation for tackling the tough topics. For example, when NCC did a nine-week sermon series on the attributes of God, it was Heather who spoke on wrath.
Heather is an outgoing person. She's relational and loves getting to know and working with people. A few years ago, NCC undertook a church-wide campaign called A1:8 Neighborhoods. Heather—along with Joel Schmidgall, NCC's Executive Pastor—led the charge on this initiative that mobilized 100 small groups into action in the communities of Washington, D.C.
As she planned for the event, Heather's first question after "What do we need to do?" wasn't "How do we get it done?" but rather "Who do we need on the team?" She assembled a group of high-capacity individuals to write curriculum, recruit small-group leaders, and market the groups to the congregation. She leveraged the relationships that she'd built and the gifts and talents of the people around her to accomplish the task.
It was this aptitude that resulted in her recently being given leadership of a second department—doubling the size of her team. Our executive leadership team recognized that she had the gifts, experience, and work ethic to fill the gap left by the departure of another staff member.
To quote Heather, "Programs don't disciple people. Curriculum doesn't disciple people. People disciple people." While Heather is responsible for discipleship and small groups at NCC, perhaps most important aren't the programs she runs or the small groups she leads but the way she lives out her belief that people disciple people.
You can never be sure whom you're going to find in the Zempel house. It might be some midshipmen from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, missionaries on furlough, participants in NCC's year-long discipleship and leadership training program, pastors visiting from out of town, or some of the girls Heather is personally discipling. (It's most fun when there's some crazy combination of these people.)
Heather and her husband, Ryan, have realized that true discipleship happens when lives intersect, when we bump up against each other and smooth down the rough edges. They recognize that God gave them their home not to be a castle, but a way station for weary travelers.
Heather knows that her biggest impact isn't going to be on the thousands of people she preaches to but on the young women who live with her for two months before they get married, the teenage girls she mentors, and the staff team she leads.
Putting in the Hard Work
Right now you're probably thinking to yourself, "Wow, if only I could be as talented and amazing as Heather Zempel." (Well, maybe you're not, but I think that sometimes.) I'm going to let you in on a little secret: Heather has a lot of God-given gifts and talents, but she pairs those with a lot of really hard work.
What do these books have in common?
Save the Cat
Speak like Churchill, Stand like Lincoln
Communicating for a Change
The Passion-Driven Sermon
Preaching and Teaching with Imagination
The Supremacy of God in Preaching
Between Two Worlds
He is Not Silent
The Revolutionary Communicator
Heather decided to read all of these books one year when she wanted to grow as a communicator. Heather is decidedly a gifted orator, and she would have been a good speaker without reading any of those books. After all, not many kids preach to their stuffed animals. But good isn't good enough for her.
Each year Heather picks a new area she wants to grow in. When she wanted to learn more about leadership, she read 13 books on leadership alone. When you walk into Heather's office, you see books like, Christian Theology by Allister McGrath, Theology for the Community of God by Stanley Grenz, and Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem. And they're not just leftovers from college like the ones in my office. She loves to learn and hone her gifts.
Heather has learned the secret to greatness. It's the same secret that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant know. It's the secret possessed by the world's richest man, Bill Gates, and superstar pop icon Lady Gaga.
The secret is hard work.
Now hard work without natural talent is wasted effort, but natural talent without hard work is a wasted gift. Apply either of these on its own, and you may be good. But you'll never be great. Heather has married giftedness in communication, leadership, and discipleship with a herculean effort to study and practice the skills necessary to excel at each of them.
It has been an honor and a privilege to work with and for Heather Zempel for the past five years. She has invested much in me and my leadership, and she uses her platform and influence to elevate those around her. I'm excited to see what God has in store next for her.
—Will Johnston is the Small Group Catalyst for National Community Church in Washington, D.C.; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.