It takes a team to plant a church, says Lakeside Church pastor Zack Potter

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WINTER HAVEN–Planting a church requires more than a man with a mission, admits Zack Potter, pastor of Lakeside Church in Winter Haven. Potter credits two supporting congregations plus a growing team of volunteers for helping him plant his church.

Now Potter and his team are gearing up for a grand opening scheduled for Jan. 22, 2023. The date falls exactly one year from the day Potter and his family moved from Ohio back to the area where he was born and raised. For the past nine years he’s served as assistant/interim pastor at Grace Fellowship in Warren, Ohio.

“I’m from Central Florida, so it was a desire on my heart to come back home and plant a church,” he said. “I told the folks at Grace that God is calling me to plant churches, and if they would like to be our sending church, I would be thankful, but if that wasn’t God’s call for them, I would be understanding. They immediately supported and affirmed what God was calling me to do and have gotten behind us 100%.”

Grace Fellowship, a non-denominational congregation, committed to provide $1,000 a month for two years, with reevaluations as needed. Send Network Florida, a church planting partnership between the Florida Baptist Convention and North American Mission Board, is providing $1,200 a month through First Baptist Church of Leesburg.

Church Planter Zach Potter with staff members Charlie and Emily.

Cliff Lea, First Leesburg senior pastor, remembers when Potter was a student at First Academy, a K-12 Christian school and ministry of the church.

“I could tell he was dedicated to Christ,” Lea said. “He went on to Trinity Baptist College, and that’s where they train a lot of preachers, so I knew he was headed for ministry. I thought it was wonderful to see one of our graduates start a church.”

In addition to the Send Network funds, Lea said his congregation also intends to offer additional support and prayer for the new church.

Florida Baptists’ Central Florida regional catalyst, Jeffrey Singletary, said there’s been a huge shift from what used to happen 15-20 years ago to today’s close to 90% success rate with new church plants.

“The day for lone rangers is over,” Singletary said. “Young church planters are really trying to navigate the landscape, so they need all the help they can get. Many hands make light work, and healthy churches plant healthy churches, and that’s the biblical model.”

Having grown up in Leesburg, Potter has family and friends still living in the area. While grieving the loss of his dad who passed away in March, Potter began hosting meetings in June in his home, with nine adults attending and with the support of his wife, Ashle’anne, and their children—Titus, 8; Vera, 7; Isla, 5; and Evie, 3.

In August, Lakeside relocated to Lake Region High School. A few members of Grace Fellowship came down to help with the launch and to oversee the kids’ ministry and summer youth program. Grace’s assistant worship leader Emily Creed will be serving as Lakeside’s worship leader. And Charlie Van Schaick, a ministry friend of Potter’s from Minnesota, will serve as Lakeside’s assistant pastor.

In return for using the high school auditorium for services and the cafeteria for the kids’ ministry, the church pays a monthly $2,000 fee to Polk County, Potter said.

‘I have hope that we’re going to be a part of seeing Winter Haven transformed with the gospel, and I’m eager to see what God is going to do with our church.’

Zack Potter Church Planter, Lakeside Church, Winter Haven

“We plan to be mobile for a while,” said Potter. “We have 35 people on the team. They’re learning what it takes to set up and tear down. I feel grateful, privileged, excited. I have hope that we’re going to be a part of seeing Winter Haven transformed with the gospel, and I’m eager to see what God is going to do with our church.”

Potter is a member of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, is on the leadership council at Lake Region High School, and serves as chaplain for the school’s sports program. Potter’s son Titus plays Little League baseball there.

Lakeside Church hosts community hang outs and serve projects to engage neighbors.

“We’re doing more than just meeting there on Sunday,” Potter said. “If there’s going to be a spiritual change in the school, I don’t want us to be just on their property on Sunday. I want us to adopt the school. I even had someone come out and pressure wash the school before we started.”

Outreach has extended to nearby neighborhoods through “community hangouts” with local vendors bringing snow cones and other treats. Plans are in the works to show a Christmas- themed movie using an inflatable screen on the grounds of nearby Southeastern University, Potter said.

“It is a predominantly older community, but there’s a demographic here that’s getting younger,” said Potter. “I’m in my mid-30s. Typically, if you reach somebody my age, they have parents, grandparents and young kids. So, if you target 30-year-olds, you can reach just about everybody. Plus, this area is a melting pot, not only multigenerational but also multiethnic.”

According to U.S. Census reports, Polk County is the second fastest growing county in the U.S. per capita, and Winter Haven is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.

Once established, Lakeside will be part of Ridge Baptist Association. Michael Petty, associational mission strategist, knows what it takes to plant a church. Formerly executive director for Gulf Stream Baptist Association, he helped plant 55 churches in a five-year period.

Church Planter Zach Potter with athletic director at the high school where they hold services.

Currently, Ridge Baptist Association has 63 churches with several new church plants pending, including Lakeside Church, said Petty.

Becoming part of an association is a long process, said Petty. In addition to the initial paperwork, newly planted churches go through several steps and must meet certain criteria, he said.

“We’ll be evaluating not just their doctrine but how they put it into practice as a church,” Petty said. “It will take several months to accomplish that.”

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