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Obituaries
Photo by Jeff Montgomery

‘The church has lost a giant’

Jack Zorn, founder of Lads to Leaders, dies at 86 after an extended illness.

Jack Zorn, the influential founder of Lads to Leaders, a Christian youth-training program that started in 1968 with just eight boys but has grown to more than 20,000 participants each year, died Aug. 12 after an extended illness, his family said. He was 86.

“I’m truly thrilled for Daddy to receive his heavenly reward.”

“Daddy passed,” Rhonda Zorn Fernandez, a member of the Concord Street Church of Christ in Orlando, Fla., said in a text message. “Pray for us.

“I’m truly thrilled for Daddy to receive his heavenly reward,” she added. “I knew I would feel broken. I just did not know I would feel shattered.”

Zorn, famous in Churches of Christ for his bright red blazer, died peacefully at the Orlando-area home where he lived with Fernandez and his son-in-law, Halo Fernandez.

Jack and Frances Zorn pose at an annual convention of Lads to Leaders in Atlanta.

Jack and Frances Zorn pose at an annual convention of Lads to Leaders in Atlanta.

Roy Johnson, executive director of Lads to Leaders and brother of Zorn’s late wife, Frances Zorn, said the family and the Lads to Leaders staff “are heartbroken at the loss but know what a legacy his life has been in the lives of thousands upon thousands of Christians!”

From its humble start, Lads to Leaders/Leaderettes Inc., based in Montgomery, Ala., now hosts eight annual regional conventions in the U.S. and four in other countries.

Through the program, young members of Churches of Christ memorize Scripture, practice song leading and participate in other Bible-based activities.

“The church has lost a giant today.”

Over the past half-century, at least a quarter-million children, parents, ministers and church leaders have participated in the program, according to Johnson.

“Dr. Zorn mentored so many young men and women in his life and even managed to convert some caregivers to the Lord while he was incapacitated,” Johnson said. “The church has lost a giant today.”

Jack Zorn, Roy Johnson and Frances Zorn are shown in an undated photo provided by Lads to Leaders.

Jack Zorn, Roy Johnson and Frances Zorn are shown in an undated photo provided by Lads to Leaders.

Baptized at 17

Born in Geneva County, Ala., on Nov. 8, 1934, Zorn was raised on a sharecropper’s farm.

His father suffered from alcoholism, and his mother struggled to instill Christian values in the family. In 1951, at age 17, Zorn was baptized at a gospel meeting held by Bill Hatcher.

He later attended Alabama Christian College (now Faulkner University) in Montgomery, where he met fellow student Frances Johnson. Zorn lost his wife of 61 years in 2017, when she died at age 80.

Besides his bachelor’s degree from Faulkner, Zorn earned a master’s from Harding School of Theology and a doctorate of religious education from the International Bible Institute and Seminary.

After graduating from college, Jack Zorn preached full time in four states and did mission work. While preaching in Warner Robins, Ga., he founded Lads to Leaders in 1968. The youths he helped train for the program gave their first public speeches on Sunday morning, Jan. 5, 1969.

Frances Zorn helped train the first Leaderettes — participants in a version of the program for young women.

Jack and Frances Zorn, with daughters Resa, Rhonda and Sonya.

Jack and Frances Zorn, with daughters Resa, Rhonda and Sonya.

“When Jack decided to give up preaching and teaching to devote his life to spreading Lads to Leaders, he had no funding,” Roy Johnson said in 2017. “Frances took on three jobs — working days, nights, and weekends — to provide enough money to feed the family and travel money for Jack to visit churches and hold workshops across the nation.

“Without this awesome sacrifice, there would be no Lads to Leaders today.”

After retiring from the ministry for health reasons, the Zorns settled in Sylacauga, Ala. They were active in the Hollins Church of Christ for many years. The Christian Chronicle featured the family in 2016 in a series on Christian caregivers. In that article, Rhonda Fernandez discussed the challenges of caring for aging parents.

Jack and Frances Zorn, then married for 58 years, wear matching T-shirts as they pose for a photo at their home in Sylacauga, Ala., in 2015.

Jack and Frances Zorn, then married for 58 years, wear matching T-shirts as they pose for a photo at their home in Sylacauga, Ala., in 2015.

Earlier this year, Faulkner, which is associated with Churches of Christ, honored Jack Zorn as its Alumnus of the Year. Zorn, who served on the university’s board of directors, was honored for his “lifetime of service dedicated to the Lord’s work, his ingenuity and his love for young people.”

In 2017, Harding University in Searcy, Ark., presented Zorn with an honorary Doctor of Laws for his contributions to the development of Christian leaders through his groundbreaking work with Lads to Leaders and Leaderettes.

Survivors include two other daughters, Resa Byrd and Sonya King; two sisters, Ina Griffith and Betty Brown; a brother, Buddy Pryor; five granddaughters; 10 great-grandchildren; and lots of nieces and nephews. Zorn was preceded in death by his twin sister, Chasie Walker.

Funeral services will be at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 28 at the University Church of Christ in Montgomery, with visitation beforehand starting at 12:30 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Lads to Leaders’ Zorn Memorial Fund.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]

Three-year-old Joshua Johnson of the Deerfoot Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala., leads a song earlier this year at the Lads to Leaders convention in Little Rock, Ark. His red blazer was a gift from Lads to Leaders founder Jack Zorn, his late wife, Frances, and their daughter, Rhonda Zorn Fernandez, lifelong friends of Joshua’s parents. COVID-19 canceled the 2020 Lads to Leaders and Leadership Training for Christ conventions, which draw thousands of participants from Churches of Christ. This year some churches hosted mini-conventions at their buildings. A few of the larger conventions resumed with reduced attendance, social distancing and the occasional superhero mask.

Three-year-old Joshua Johnson of the Deerfoot Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala., leads a song earlier this year at the Lads to Leaders convention in Little Rock, Ark. His red blazer was a gift from Lads to Leaders founder Jack Zorn, his late wife, Frances, and their daughter, Rhonda Zorn Fernandez, lifelong friends of Joshua’s parents. COVID-19 canceled the 2020 Lads to Leaders and Leadership Training for Christ conventions, which draw thousands of participants from Churches of Christ. This year some churches hosted mini-conventions at their buildings. A few of the larger conventions resumed with reduced attendance, social distancing and the occasional superhero mask.

Filed under: Frances Zorn Jack Zorn Lads to Leaders National Obituaries Rhonda Zorn Fernandez Roy Johnson Top Stories

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