A More Gradual Journey Out of the Pastorate

3d render of man climbing on stair. Concept of first step for career growth.

Written by Jon Zens

I’ve been through College as a Bible major (1968) and then finished seminary (1972), but I’ve never really been “the pastor” quite the way many have been. My transition wasn’t black and white – going from traditional pastor to simple church. It was more gradual as the Lord brought people and books into my life as the years passed. I hope the abbreviated highlights of my journey will encourage you!

I was not raised in a Christian home. The Lord called me out of darkness in 1964 and my first church experience was in a Fundamentalist Baptist church in southern California. I was encouraged by the pastor to transfer from Cal State at Northridge as an Art major and become a “preacher boy” at Bob Jones University.

While a student at BJU I found a copy of Alexander Hays’ New Testament Order for Church & Missionary (1947) in a used book store. I read it and it was hard for me to connect the dots to all the points the author made, but I learned some basic perspectives from that book that the Lord used to restrain me from going whole hog “into the ministry.”

In 1968 I married Dotty, and after completing studies at Covenant College, we moved to Philadelphia. Our goal then was for me to attend one year at Westminster Seminary, and then leave to spend the rest of our lives in missionary work in India. Our visa was turned down, so I ended up continuing at WTS.

We attended a church that was part of a small denomination while I went to seminary. The pastor felt called elsewhere and a group of us decided to leave this church and start a new one. In the new body we were not interested in having a pastor, so for the time being we formed a steering committee of three brothers. However, we ended up bringing in an older man who had “pastoral” experience to join the steering committee. He ended up wanting to be “the pastor,” and the church split, half staying with him, and half mostly moving on to another church.

When Dotty became pregnant, I worked full-time (third shift) at Standard Pressed Technology from 1969 – 1975 in several departments while a student at seminary.

In 1973 I had an article on Jonathan Edwards printed in Baptist Reformation Review. I met Norbert Ward, the founding editor of BRR, at a Bible Conference in New Jersey in 1974. At that time he invited us to move to Nashville to be part of a new church that was meeting in the basement of his home.

Actually, this was the second assembly that had started in his home. The first group had grown so they met at a Holiday Inn. They grew a little more and decided that they needed a pastor. They “called” a younger man as pastor. They ended up with land and a modest building. Things went fine until the pastor unilaterally started building a Christian school, and told the congregation that God would reveal his will through him. A segment of the church then left and started meeting in Norbert’s basement.

We moved to Nashville in 1975 with two children. When we came Gene Rice was already recognized as an elder. I was added to the eldership on July 4, 1976. But some months later Gene and his wife moved. As the only remaining elder I did receive a very minimal stipend from the congregation.

1977 was a pivotal year for me. Early that year I spoke in a church of about 150 that had five home groups during the week and a meeting all together at a rented building on Sunday afternoon. They had started with fifteen people in 1972. This assembly was made up mostly of new converts, many coming out of the drug culture. Things were pretty informal, and during teachings people were encouraged to ask questions and discuss issues. This was a new paradigm for me. I was never the same after leaving that congregation.

On my last day there the three elders asked me some pointed questions about living under grace or law, and they encouraged me to read Leonard Verduin’s The Reformers & Their Stepchildren. I read this book in June, 1977, and it knocked me off my horse. Soon after this I read Howard Snyder’s The Problem of Wineskins. My fundamental assumptions about church and the Christian life were being challenged. I felt compelled to express the burdens that were coming upon my heart. I wrote “Is There A ‘Covenant of Grace’?” and it appeared in the Autumn, 1977, BRR. This was followed by “Crucial Thoughts Concerning ‘Law’ in the New Covenant” in the Spring, 1978, BRR. These two articles caused quite a stir and became the foundation for developing the implications of the New Commandment for body-life in future writings.

In 1978 a couple in our Nashville assembly was getting married in Canada. On our way up to the wedding we stayed with a single brother in Dayton, Ohio. Recently a fellow named Butch had stopped by his house and left a mimeographed gospel presentation. I called Butch and it turned out he was an elder in a house church. He asked if I would speak to their group on that coming Sunday after the wedding. That turned out to be a wonderful experience as for the first time we saw a fully functioning simple church. What we saw that day deeply impacted us.

The Lord used the piercing questions of two brothers to challenge me in 1977 and 1979. The one brother was part of a home church in Nashville, and he visited our gathering in Norbert’s basement. In one of our lunches together he asked me why my sermon was the center point of the meeting. I was a bit offended by his question, but it stuck in my heart and I checked out his remark that “preaching” in the New Testament mainly referred to evangelistic effort outside of the body get-togethers. He was right.

Then in 1979 another brother whose family had moved to Nashville to be part of our group asked me why our times together were not “open” like what was described in 1 Cor.14. I began to do research concerning this matter, and the fruit of this study was published in the Summer, 1981, BRR, as “Building Up the Body: One Man or One Another?” Responding to these two questions helped me turn the corner concerning what “church” was all about.

In 1980 our little assembly in Nashville was slowly dissolving. Through a series of most interesting circumstances, I came in contact with a church that was “looking for a pastor” . . . sort of. After having one pastor for fourteen years, the second pastor had been asked to leave after two years. At this point half the church felt that elders should be recognized from within the body, and half believed that a pastor was needed. We moved to that situation in the fall of 1980, trying to be peacemakers. My heart was with the folks who did not want a pastor, yet I was trying to fill a need for the other people – hoping in the end to bring them together! Well, it didn’t work out. In the fall of 1982, I resigned and we were faced with moving elsewhere.

After this experience I felt strongly that we needed to be in a context where body-life was functioning, instead of trying to work for change in more traditional settings. I already had a teaching trip planned for March, 1983, so as I went to thirteen cities it also became an investigative venture to discern where we might relocate. When I returned, then Dotty made a trip to three cities that looked like options.

In the fall of 1983 we moved to a fellowship in Wisconsin, fifty miles northeast from Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. It had started in 1980 when a Baptist church ousted the pastor. Others then left too, and the nucleus of the assembly began. In twenty-four years of life together we have, of course, had our ups and downs. We tried to maintain and grow in our commitment to always work things out in a loving way.

An old, modest church building was purchased in 1981, and it had a home-like flavor with couches, chairs and a ping-pong table in the “sanctuary.” We used the kitchen in the basement to eat together every week. In 1998 we sold the building, and our vision was to use some of the equity to start a Christian bookstore in the community. We met in homes from 1998 – 2000. In July, 2000, the bookstore opened, and since then we have gathered together in this rented space.

We have had the privilege of helping and working with other simple churches in our region, and around the country.

Since 1977 I have spoken at churches across the country and abroad, focusing on living under grace, the priesthood of all believers, and conflict resolution. From 1985 – 1990 I worked in the Engineering and Human Resources departments at Northern Metal Specialties, and from 1990 – 2000 as Buyer and Shipping/Receiving at Northwire, both in Osceola, WI. Since 2001 Dotty and I have been traveling and ministering to various groups who are meeting for the most part outside of the institutional churches.

Dotty has always had a heart for missions, and since 1966 has been doing short-term trips to under-developed countries. Over the years she has gone to Mexico, India, Korea, Romania (9 trips), Haiti (2 trips), Moldova, Ecuador, and Guatemala. On each trip she brings important goods for the needy.

At age 62 I marvel at how the Lord has directed our steps as the years have passed by into the lives of the most precious saints. They have challenged us, questioned us, and directed us to important sources for further growth. I look forward to what is yet in store for us in the future!

Jon Zens