Jason Zellmer recalls lessons from early days of ministry

By Richard Nations

MOSCOW MILLS – Some pastors ask themselves, “If I had to look back on some things I would not do and would do in early seasons of ministry. what would those things be?” It seems like a lot of people experience regrets about their past as they become more mature. Those questions were raised in a series of blog posts by a NAMB church planting leader, Jason Zellmer, this past spring.

Zellmer is the director of Send Network-Missouri.  As the North American Mission Board’s point person for church planting in Missouri, he is constantly in touch with young church planters as well as seasoned pastors of established churches.

Jason Zellmer is director of Send Network Missouri.

In his blogs he recalled some things he definitely would not want to do over if he had the ability to turn back time.  He then followed up with some things he would definitely do again as a young pastor. The lists were interesting.

He said he would not:

1) Plant the church of my dreams – Zellmer said he grew up in a traditional church, and when he planted his first church they determined to do it right.  They wrote down their distinctive principles and built the church from the ground up with excellence.  Five years in they had 300 or more attenders, a $10,000 a week budget and a new facility on 40 acres of land.  But Zellmer said he began to reflect on things and knew something just wasn’t right. 

He said: “About six years in, I went away for a personal retreat. During that time, the Lord pointed out to me that only 4% of our growth was by conversion. That meant 96% of the people attending our church were transferring from other churches. We weren’t building the kingdom; we were just shuffling the deck.”

2) Be unclear about leadership models – In his second church plant, Zellmer was very transparent as he recalled structuring the plant with two other pastors, close friends of his.  But he confessed he was not clear about the roles of each of these pastors.  There was not a sense of “first among equals” delineated, and the pastoral staff had conflict.

Zellmer said, “After several years of planting together, the wheels finally came off…Eventually I left the church, lost my friends and spent years trying to recover.”

3) Start with a large core group of Christians – He said they started with a core planting group of 100 people in a church start.  The public launch had over 300.  But he regrets that many of these were established Christians.  He said he would rather plant with evangelistic conversions. He said, “Instead of launching big, in the future I would spend at least a year having evangelistic conversations. My goal would be to launch the church from conversion growth.”

4) Make promises about my tenure –Zellmer said don’t overpromise how long you will stay as pastor. He thought he would plant a church and die right there.  But as he says, “I believed that leaving the church would mean letting people down. Good shepherds never leave their flock, right? So, in one of our early plants, I overpromised and overstayed. Can you tell most of my failures were rooted in identity issues? You’ve got to figure out that gospel stuff.”

Then, in a follow up blog, he said he still would:

1) Preach the Bible verse by verse – Expository preaching is the style of preaching he would recommend, Zellmer said. he planted the churches with that kind of preaching. ”The church grew. And a love for God’s Word consumed our people.”

He added, “I’m not opposed to topical preaching or tackling hot-button issues, but it should only be a brief intermission as we drink from the bottomless well of God’s Word verse by verse.”

2) Establish a plurality of leadership – Zellmer recommends having a structure built upon a plurality of elders who guide the church.  He said, “Collectively, the elders carry the burden of ministry, which includes preaching, leading, planning, praying and counseling the flock of God. Sharing in this work is a gift because it provides safety and accountability.”

3) Build a robust residency process – He says a church plant should have a process in place to collect potential leaders and future pastors who exercise ministry gifts in what they refer to as a “residency.”  Future pastors are trained and developed in this system. 

He quoted Clint Clifton, who said, “A residency is very simple … It is one man giving away what God has given him in its most basic form.” He added, “A residency is like a finishing school that accelerates multiplication.”

4) Develop healthy rhythms of rest – Zellmer stressed there needs to be a Sabbath rest.  Take time off to relax and re-charge.  Turn your phone off and get away for a day or so.  He advised, “You must fight for rest. Nobody else on your team will fight for your days off. That’s a battle you must wage. And wage it you must, because without rest you will be another casualty of war.”

Zellmer said he wrote the two articles for the blog on a website called NewChurches.com which is sponsored by the NAMB Send Network.  He has received some good feedback from people who have reached out to him. 

One planter said, “I overpromised how long I would stay with this church plant.  I need to talk to  you to see how to get out of the pickle I’m in.”  Another said, “I’ve made some mistakes and I need to talk.” Zellmer believes the feedback and the discussions these two articles have prompted are worthwhile. 

Zellmer and his wife have been involved in church planting for about twenty years.  They have started three churches in that time.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared here in The Pathway, a news publication of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

Published July 11, 2023

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Richard Nations

Richard Nations writes for The Pathway, a publication of the Missouri Baptist Convention.