The second profile in our Trailblazers series is a woman who is inspiring a new generation of leaders through her work as a pastor, author, speaker, and friend. Heather Zempel has provided counsel and encouragement in the difficult seasons of my life, challenged my perceptions of what it means to follow Christ, and inspired me to embrace life and learning as the gifts they are.
Heather's journey from a theater-loving engineering student to Capitol Hill staffer to pastor shatters the conventional wisdom about linear career paths, and her passion for exploring theology of fun creates endless content for some of the most engaging messages you will ever hear.
Read on for the story of her New Beginning...
How did you know it was time to make a change?
When I was in the 7th grade, a family trip to Disney's EPCOT center solidified my dreams of being a scientist. At the time, I didn't know what it was called, but those dreams eventually led me to Louisiana State University to pursue my bachelors and masters degrees in biological engineering. My Granddaddy instilled in my a love for politics, so after graduate school, I jumped at an opportunity to blend my scientific background with politics and took a job with a United States Senator. For several years, I worked as a legislative assistant focused on energy and environment issues. Then, my pastor asked me to consider coming on our church staff full-time as a discipleship pastor.
At first, I didn't even consider the option. I didn't have any reason to change jobs. The only change I ever contemplated was finding the right time to go back into the engineering world, so the idea to go on staff at the church came from left field. I loved my job, loved the people I worked with, and loved the opportunities I was getting. My masters degree was in engineering, not theology. And my professional experience was in politics, not pastoring. My Additionally, I didn't have a distinct "calling" moment which so many in my field claim to have experienced. I did everything I was supposed to do to hear direction from God. I prayed, fasted, sought counsel; all the while God was incredibly talkative, but He wasn't saying a word concerning whether or not to leave my job and go into ministry.
So honestly, I wasn't 100% confident it was time to make a change.
What gave you the confidence you needed to move forward?
Eventually, it came down to answering three questions: Where was I seeing the most fruitfulness from my work? Where was I feeling the most fulfilled? And where was I having the most fun? The answers to all three of those questions gave me the confidence to jump. Andy Stanley, a pastor I've learned a lot from, said, "Generally speaking, you are probably never going to be more than about 80% certain. Waiting for greater certainty may cause you to miss an opportunity." I decided I didn't want to miss the opportunity and jumped.
Who/what inspires you today?
There are a lot of people who inspire me. I'm inspired by the young leaders on our team that I have the privilege to work with every day. I'm inspired by women leaders like Christine Caine and Jenni Catron. I'm inspired by people whose names few have heard of but whose voices are loud in my ears- Mike Mathews, Rick Howerton, Dave Buehring, Herb Fisher. I'm inspired by people who step into the crossroads of two seemingly different disciplines and plow new ground, chart new courses, and invent new things as a result.
What are you dreaming about now?
I love investing in next generation leaders, so I'm constantly dreaming about ways to help 20-somethings discover, develop, and deploy their God-given potential. I dream of our church making a tangible difference in our communities. I dream of making Jesus' name famous in my generation.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
The best piece of advice I received regarding the transition itself actually came from Mark Batterson, the guy who was trying to woo we away from the Hill and into ministry. In every transition, you need to feel "called to" and "released from." Sometimes we feel called to do something new but we aren't yet released from our current situation. Other times, we may fee release from a certain job, role, responsibility, but we don't know what we want to do next. That advice gave me the freedom and patience to wait until both happened at the same time.
What do you know now that you wish you would have known when you started?
I wish I had known a lot of things! Character is more important than competency. Finding a healthy rhythm is more important than trying to strike a balance- work hard, pray hard, play hard, and rest well. If I posture myself in humility and obedience before God, He will position me where He wants me to go. I have all the time I need to accomplish all the things that God has destined me to do.
What encouragement can you offer someone who wants to make a change but is apprehensive?
Never travel alone. Both literally and metaphorically. :) Whenever we embark on new adventures, it's more fun when we do it as a team. We all need a little bit of support when we decide to jump into something new, so find a group of people who commit to being your coaching staff, cheering squad, and fans. Surround yourself by people who are not afraid to ask hard questions and are not hesitant to offer encouragement.