First Christian Church’s new pastor, Reverend Johnny Diaz, envisioned a career as an artist before he felt God was calling him when he was in his final year of high school.
Former Orange County resident Diaz, 37, said he started attending South Coast Christian Assembly Church in San Juan Capistrano when he was 17.
“I was originally going to pursue an artistic career because of my ability to sketch, draw and doodle in the hopes of working for Disney, but that never happened,” said Ramona resident of just weeks away who became the pastor of the first Christian church on November 7th. “I decided that was what I wanted to do.”
Diaz still uses his artistic talents, which turn to abstract drawings and cartoons, to illustrate Bible stories for children and to make handmade birthday and holiday cards.
After graduating from Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo in 2002, Diaz wasn’t sure what kind of pastor he wanted to be. He therefore chose Pastoral Leadership Studies, a more general study program, at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa. He obtained his baccalaureate in 2006.
His first job was at Life Spring Church in Riverside, where he worked as a youth pastor and then as associate pastor for nine years until 2015.
From 2015 to 2017, he was the campus director of a multi-site church called Newbreak Church in El Cajon. After a divorce his life took a detour and he worked for Amazon and Better Buzz Coffee until he resumed his vocation at Vista Assembly of God in Vista from 2018 to 2021.
He said he learned pastoring, communication and good practices during his trip.
“I love living alongside people and helping them on their journey to follow Jesus while learning a lot myself,” said Diaz.
When leadership differences emerged at Vista Assembly of God, Diaz decided to apply for a vacant position at First Christian Church in Ramona. The vacancy came after former pastor Bill Zabriskie retired after more than 25 years with the church and moved to Tennessee to be near his family.
“It gave me the opportunity to research what God wanted afterwards, which led me to First Christian Church,” he said. “They were interviewing for the position of senior pastor, I handed in my resume and fell in love with them the moment I came to visit them. I have never met a community or people more loving than the people of Ramona and more specifically of the First Christian Church.
Church member Carol Stipp said Diaz had a different preaching style than Zabriskie, who delivered her sermons on stage in a more traditional way. Diaz preaches in front of the stage.
She said both are good pastors who preach from the Bible.
Everyone in the church seems to love Diaz, Stipp said.
“He’s very good, very energetic and always ready to help,” she said. “I think he will be a good pastor for us.”
During his transition period he moved with his wife Ashley and two sons Johnny, 10, and Joshua, 6, from Oceanside to Orange County for a month, then moved to Ramona.
He will lead a Christmas Eve service at 5 p.m. at the church in 1970 Vermont St.
Diaz said his goals for his new congregation of 45 faithful will be to make them resilient disciples and help them learn to love their community.
He also plans to make the services more contemporary by bringing in modern worship music and updating the worship experience. In addition, he wants to create an online community at the church.
He has already moved in this direction. Before arriving in Ramona, he and Ashley started an online church called the Renegade Movement. The services are accessible at various times on the RenegadeMovement.com site, as well as on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.
Diaz said the Renegade Movement was inspired by the backlash he and his wife suffered after divorcing their spouse.
“There’s a good chance we’re not the only ones feeling this,” Diaz said. “What if we were to provide a space where people who feel rejected by the church could call the church home, where they would feel the affection of God and have a second or a third chance regardless of their history.
“The Renegade Movement exists to give a place to those left behind, who are vagrants or marginalized, in their homes. “
Diaz said he plans to continue with the Regegade movement, but will focus on his duties at First Congregation Church first.