Published Oct 11, 2022
FRESNO—Ross Shepherd, who began planting churches in Montana while in college, retired in September after having served California Southern Baptist Convention as a member of one of the most prolific church planting teams in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Even though that chapter ended in mid-September, Shepherd anticipates the next journey God has in store for him.
Having spent most of his church planting career in California, Shepherd began planting churches from his home congregation, Lakeview Baptist Church in Baker, Montana, while in college.
Raised on a farm in Eastern Montana, Shepherd recalled coming from a family with “little religious background” except for his Welsh grandmother who played piano at a church in his hometown for “like 50 years.”
Shepherd said he made a profession of faith in the summer of 1974 when he turned on the television “at the right time” and heard a preacher. “When he was done with the sermon, he gave an invitation to come to Christ. I felt like I needed something in my life. I really had no direction and didn’t have any real sense of purpose. I just didn’t know what I was going to do.”
That fall he attended a state college and became part of an on-campus, Christian organization, but wasn’t discipled much. Upon returning home the next summer, he began attending the Lakeview congregation where several of his friends were members. That’s where discipleship began in earnest for Shepherd.
He credits Lakeview Baptist Church Pastor Chester Rich as his ministry mentor. “He encouraged me and built a heart in me for missions and church planting. Clearly, he was a catalyst in moving me forward in ministry.”
It was during his college years that Shepherd would work at the Lakeview congregation while on summer break. “This is where I began my ministry in church planting,” he recalled. “Lakeview was starting new churches in towns near Baker. I would work with those church plants while home.”
He noted that Rich and the church really had a heart for “calling out the called. I was one of 12 young men who went to Christian colleges for ministry purposes.”
Shepherd attended Grand Canyon University, which at that time was a smaller Christian college in Phoenix, with five others from his home church. The other six attended Oklahoma Baptist University.
After graduating from Grand Canyon, Shepherd made his way to Texas where he enrolled in graduate studies at Baylor University before going to and graduating from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Shepherd served several SBC churches but says he was “fortunate” to be in on the ground level and building ministries at North Phoenix Baptist Church, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, and a congregation in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area.
He jokingly said, “I must be one of the best ‘Experiencing God’ guys in the world,” related to his ministry at those congregations because “God was at work in the ministries I was involved in.”
“In reality,” he said, “God called me and I just had this sort of a tsunami of riding the Holy Spirit in ministry for about 15 straight years.”
He said ministry at those churches was “exciting” because he also was able to be involved in international missions which expanded his view and his heart for the nations.
In 2005, Shepherd was confronted with the possibility of working in church planting on a statewide basis through CSBC as the director for new church starting (for Anglo congregations). He accepted the challenge and recounted CSBC starting a hundred or more churches each year for a number of years.
One of his greatest church planting experiences which he termed a “God thing” was the “10-10-10” initiative, which was the brainchild of Linda Bergquist, a church planting catalyst in San Francisco, to start 10 churches in the Bay Area on Oct. 10, 2010. At that time, Shepherd said, “even though it began as an initiative, it grew into a movement that we believe has value, visibility and viability.”
Through planning and implementation, more than 40 church plants sponsored “significant events” during the weekend of Oct. 8-10. About 30 Anglo/multi-cultural, a dozen ethnic and two African American congregations were involved.
Looking back on it, Shepherd attribute’s the success to “prayer. It was a grassroots effort that I believe was the right time for the Lord and the Holy Spirit to call and raise up church planters to begin new works.”
It is difficult for most to assess their work and discover what they could have done better. Shepherd would like to have seen all the church plants with which he was involved, thrive. “We know that will not happen. You are going to lose some along the way. I wish I could have implemented a better strategy or structure to help those church plants succeed.”
Shepherd added that if there was one thing he wanted to accomplish, but didn’t, it was seeing “the number of lost people in California dwindle from 33 million to even 32 million.”
Regardless, he believes church planting is the number one way to “evangelize the lost” noting “more people are saved through church planting than any other venue in Southern Baptist life. New churches have a heart for evangelism and reaching the lost. This is why church planting is vitally important to California Southern Baptists and the SBC at large.”
Shepherd began thinking about retirement “in the middle of this year and noted several factors in making his decision. They included being physically exhausted, having driven 500,000 miles while on the job and living out of a suitcase much of the time.
He added that with the election of Pete Ramirez as the CSBC executive director, “it seemed to be a good time just to step aside from what I’m doing now. I’m definitely not done in ministry, but want to pray and see what the Lord is opening up next for me.”
His “stepping aside” includes a 35-day cruise from San Diego to Sydney, Australia. “I really felt like it was the best way to take a complete break from what I’ve been doing. I need the break to read, rethink and renew.”
Just two days before embarking on his month-long journey, Shepherd said he met with a church planter in Orange County. He admitted, “I knew I’d keep doing that if I didn’t have a break. The cruise will definitely give me that break.”
He jokingly said he enjoyed his time at CSBC so much “I came back a second time” referring to a stint in between with the North American Mission Board where he served as a church planting catalyst and Send City coordinator.
All joking aside, Shepherd said he enjoyed knowing he was “where God called me. I appreciated being in a place that valued church planting and served three executive directors (Fermín A. Whittaker, Bill Agee and Pete Ramirez) who valued both church planting and my role in that. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to serve Christ in this way.”