Community is Messy: An Interview with Heather Zempel
Heather Zempel is someone I’ve had a tremendous respect for from the first time I heard her speak. She was the keynote at a Willow Creek small group conference I attended. When she finished her talk, there was an amazing response from all of us. We were overcome by her ability to communicate the life-transforming message of group life and bring new thought to us in fresh ways, thought that was unearthed from her years in Scripture.
A few months later I contacted Heather and asked if I could come meet with her and pick her brain. She welcomed me to Washington, D.C. I found that the person who was across the table was the same person who I had seen on the stage.
She has become a friend and someone whose thoughts always stretch me. I was thrilled to hear that her new book was available. The interview below will help you understand the reason for the book and why Heather brings contemporary thought to an age-old practice: small groups.
Read Community is Messy. I can assure you, you will not be disappointed.
Why did you write Community is Messy?
Anyone who has led a small group for more than two weeks has discovered that mess happens. For those who serve as small group directors, discipleship pastors, and volunteers who champion group life in their churches, navigating mess is often the unlisted but most demanding part of their portfolio. I wrote Community is Messy to encourage those group leaders and group ministry leaders that mess may not be a hindrance to community but a catalyst to the cultivation of deeper community. My prayer is that leaders can embrace the mess and the promise that God can write his story of redemption through the mess.
You had an unorthodox path going from engineering to ministry. How does your background inform your understanding of community?
I have two degrees in environmental engineering—not a very traditional path into ministry. But small group leaders and environmental engineers have a lot in common. Both strive to engineer environments where growth happens. When I think about community, I picture treatment lagoons and pig farms. When I think about spiritual growth, I consider the differences between static friction and kinetic friction and remember the diversity of strengths in physical properties reflected in the modulus of elasticity. That’s all in the book.
You talk in the book about valuing people over programs. Why is this important?
In the church, we tend to invest lots of time, energy, and resources into developing and maintain programs. I think we do that because programs are easy to measure. The problem is that people aren’t discipled by programs. They are discipled by relationship. I would much rather pastor people than manage programs, but that takes focus and regular examination of priorities
What’s a story of mess from your own life that reveals God’s redemptive work?
There’s always mess in my life, and I think it gets especially messy when we wear multiple hats with people—pastor, mentor, leader, boss, friend, etc. Here’s one that happened just a couple months ago. I was talking to a young leader about her calling, and I sincerely thought I was building her up with encouragement. When I came to the end of everything I knew to affirm her, I said, “I don’t know what else to say.” She responded with a look that seemed to be a mix of anger and hurt and said, “You’ve said enough.”
At that moment, I didn’t know whether to jump across the table to strangle her or to hug her. Everything in me wanted to strangle her, but the little pastoral instinct I possess informed me that the words I had intended for good had been received negatively. That situation led to a number of productive conversations about how I lead, how she grows, how I grow, and where God is at work polishing off the rough spots in both of us. Many times, messes that are navigated with prayer, honesty, and a commitment to honoring the other lead to growth on all sides.Buy Now