Home » CE Interview, LEADERSHIP » James A. Harnish, Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Tampa, FL

James A. Harnish, Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Tampa, FL

By Ronald E. Keener

Hyde Park United Methodist Church took its name from its neighborhood at the turn of the last century, in what is a middle to upper class neighborhood of Tampa, FL. Downtown Tampa is across the Hillsborough River but the church sits in the midst of what in the next 10 years will be 6,000 new residential units downtown.

In the 1960s the area adjacent to the church attracted drug houses and property values were down. “The congregation considered leaving the center of the urban area, but in its heart it knew it always belonged here,” says senior pastor Jim Harnish, 60.

“They held on and in the early 70s the neighborhood started to grow again around us, and the immediate area south of us is some of the most up and coming and expensive housing in the area,” he says. To the north are the projects and low income housing.

“Tampa historically has been one of the power centers of the state of Florida,” he says, “and this neighborhood has historically been something of a power center for this city.”

Harnish’s story of leading the church into a more healthy and growing situation is told in his book You Only Have to Die: Leading Your Congregation to New Life (Abingdon Press, 2004). He shared his story with Church Executive:

What brought you to the Hyde Park congregation?

The call from the bishop came by surprise to me; I wasn’t expecting to move and there would have been a lot of good reasons for me to stay where I was. But it felt like something that God was calling me to do. I had been 13 years at St. Luke’s church in Orlando. I had started that church, which could hardly be more different than this one. It’s right between Universal and Disney and everything was new and exploding and going.

So the bishop had something in mind when he asked you to go to Hyde Park?

What the committee had said was that they really wanted to see this church grow and St. Luke’s had a phenomenal record of growth. They wanted some fresh leadership that would help the church grow.

So the church fathers did want growth, but maybe they found out what it took to grow was more than they wanted?

Yes, but I want to be careful about that because it was not a generational issue. The oldest and longest members of the church were the ones who have always been the most supportive and the most excited about the direction that this church has gone. The resistance came from boomers, my age, who were self-identified fundamentalists and they really didn’t want us to be a United Methodist church. They wanted a more rigid conservative church, and most of those folks are very happy at another church in the city now.

The irony is that some of the people who asked the bishop for me were some of the first to leave after I got here, but that’s how it happened.

So growth was not an issue for the church?

Well, my sense is that a whole lot of churches say they want to grow but that’s not the question. The question is, are you willing to make the changes that are necessary in order to grow? I said it will take us at least a year to figure that out and then we’ll see where we’re at. And that is in fact what happened.

Numerically, where was the church in 1992 and today?

We were averaging I think around 300 in worship and we are averaging close to 900 now. We keep wondering why we are not averaging 1,000 and I’m discovering that we are like just about every other large church I know: Peoples’ patterns of worship attendance are changing and cultural issues have big time impact. The bulk of our congregation is between 30 and 55 and that means we have lots of folks with kids. Once they get on to a volleyball team, cheerleading squad or a baseball team — secular sports have simply taken ownership of Sunday morning.

You really believe in the priesthood of all believers. How does that play out in your ministry and in your leadership role?

I believe in an ordained ministry, I almost believe in apolostic succession, not quite but close, and I believe that in the New Testament the role of the ordained clergy is Ephesians — to equip the whole church for ministry. In United Methodism ordained elders are called to Word, sacrament, and order, so I try to keep clear that my role is preaching and teaching the Word, the sacraments and leadership of worship, and in ordering the church for us has really become organizing our whole congregational life around our mission and around becoming an equipping congregation. We are really here to equip lay people to use their gifts in ministry. That’s a huge thing for us; we are working really hard at it.

Part of how that works out is I’ve really learned to trust my lay leadership. Now again, part of this is having been here 15 years, I know I’ve got people I can trust. I would have to say that the first few years I was here I really felt that I had to exert more direct leadership. Somebody had to steer this place; the steering wheel was flying all over the place. We’ve engaged in a churchwide emphasis on the transformed life using a resource on that theme.

We have 800 people in small groups; it’s just the best thing that’s happened in a long time and the beauty of it is my lay leadership has proven me wrong over and over again in this process. All I can say for myself is that I had enough good sense to say, hey, if you think that’s the way we should go, let’s go.

Your lay leadership is willing to counter you?

Oh, yeah, but again this is after 15 years. We have the kind of relationship that my best lay leadership can say to me, Jim, this is the way we need to go and they know I listen to them and we’re in this thing together. It’s a beautiful thing.

I’m a Type A overachieving sort of guy and I’ve had to be willing to give up a lot of my own control or leadership of things so that somebody else could take it and maybe do it differently than I would have done it, but in most cases do it better than I would have done it.

We’ve been putting our energy into becoming an inviting and equipping congregation. We finished a revisioning process almost three years ago and we went through several months of studying all the resources we could get our hands on about becoming an equipping congregation. We had a workshop with all of our leadership; we brought in outside leadership and as the result of that we hired a director of equipping ministries. He has spent the last two years doing everything he can do to build the team that leads our equipping ministries and tries to train and build that emphasis on equipping into the whole life of the congregation. For this next year we’re going to tackle the invitational piece of that — looking at all of the ways that we can develop a culture of invitation and equip people to be inviting people to become followers of Christ.

You’ve said that the church has taught laity a lot of bad lessons over the years. What have those been?

I have to speak from the perspective of United Methodism of course, but I think it is true in a lot of Protestant churches. For at least a generation or two we taught lay persons that being involved in the church meant sitting on committees and making decisions, but then they expected staff to implement.

We have a whole generation of great, wonderfully committed, deeply loyal lay persons, particularly in the builder generation, whose understanding of what it means to be involved in the church is that you get on to a committee where you make decisions. But we didn’t teach them that their real calling was actually to be in active ministry to other people in the name of Christ.

Another piece of it is we taught laity that being a good church person, at working in the church structure, it meant maintaining the institution. The result of that is we have folks who never missed worship, who have probably never missed a Sunday school class, in the builder generation, who’ve served on committees but don’t know how to pray, who don’t really know their Bibles very well. And who have never really wrestled with how the spirit of God is active in their lives. Because they didn’t have to; all they had to do was come to church, tithe, go to committee meetings and protect the institution.

In United Methodism we’ve turned that into a cottage industry. We have lay persons who are full time professional volunteer church bureaucrats who spend all of their energy tinkering with the organization but wouldn’t know what to do if somebody said, tell me about how the spirit of God is at work in your life. I think preachers in too many places continue to give people a sort of simplified, simplistic understanding of the Bible and of the faith.

You have said that the graduates of seminary in the 60s and 70s were taught to be “pastoral therapists.” How do you mean that?

When I came out of seminary in 1972 instead of being equippers we were trained to be enablers and somehow back then enabling meant sort of helping people to do whatever it is they want to do, and nobody taught us anything about leadership. I do think there is a role of leadership that the clergy are called to, not autocratic or dictatorial, Lord knows we’ve had too many of those kind of preachers. But I think the church is just desperate for Christ-centered, visionary leadership. People want leadership that draws them into the process and enables them to become all God wants them to be.

So your technique was to do what?

One good gift in the 60s or 70s that we learned in seminary was that process was important, and starting a new church in Orlando I knew from the beginning that the process was really important. The day I walked on to the Hyde Park property I could see things that I knew just had to change if this church was going to have a future.

But I had enough good sense to know that it had to grow out of the life of the congregation and so the process we entered into was slow and plodding and we tried to engage as many people as we could in the process. It was hard and it was painful, and no question about it, there were people where I became the target of some of their hostility.

But not in the way that I think it often happens — where a really competent, energetic, committed pastor gets his or her vision and they come in and they just try to push it along and they get run over in the process. If out of that process that we went through, a new vision for the church had emerged that I didn’t think I could fulfill, I would have asked to move, because I really thought it had to be something that came out of the life of the church and was owned by the church. Not my vision and not my passion, but something that was stirring in the congregation.

“Congregational cardiology” is a great term. What’s the metaphor here?

For me that means I have a really good cardiologist and he listens to my heart and he keeps track to what’s going on, and I check in with him every year now and I get my EKG. So one part of that to me is somebody in the congregation — pastor and some lay leadership — need to be listening to the pulse all the time, looking at what are we doing well, how can we do it better, where are things getting off track, where are we fulfilling our mission, where are we missing it. I think part of it is the diagnostic matter of constantly trying to use every tool that you can to assess where you are in relationship to your mission.

You have said that maintenance pastors should be paired up with maintenance churches, that they need to live together. That seems kind of harsh?

This isn’t just me, our bishop and cabinet are looking at the same issues. I’m saying I think there are churches that want to grow and there are pastors who are gifted with a sort of energetic, entrepreneurial spirit who want to see the church grow. I think they need to be assigned together.

And then there are maintenance congregations that all they seem to be called to do is to continue what they are doing. They may be doing it very well, and that’s a good thing. And so they need a pastor who will help them maintain what they are doing. Then there are declining, dying churches and there are hospice care pastors who are chaplains to the dying, and those churches need to be given a pastor who will be their chaplain until their death.

But don’t take a hospice care pastor and put him or her in a growth church, and don’t take a growth pastor and assign that pastor to a terminally ill congregation.

Let’s just name what it is, put it out on the table, and everybody will be more effective that way.

Where in your view is United Methodism headed?

The United Methodist Church right now is dying because we’ve lost our passion to reach people for Christ and I don’t care if it’s straight people, gay people, green people, blue people; by and large, across our denomination, 40 percent of our congregations don’t receive anybody by profession of faith.

So my conviction is if Methodism is going to die in America it’s not going to be because we can’t get our act together around the issue of homosexuality, it’s because we in too many places have lost the fire and the passion that caused Methodism to sweep across this country in the early days. My real concern is a rebirth of the Wesleyan passion to share the Gospel.

James A. Harnish book:

“The metaphor of the book is that I almost died [from heart disease]. That becomes sort of the metaphor for the journey. I really did come to believe that the process of death and resurrection is so inherent in the Gospel and so essential to our lives, and it isn’t something that only happens once. It has to become the way in which we live and the way in which we move.“

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