By Rez Gopez-Sindac
The CE Interview: Tim Harlow, Senior Pastor, Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, IL
Tim Harlow is the senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, IL. He also is the 2014 president of North American Christian Convention (NACC), a four-day annual gathering of Christian leaders for teaching, worship, fellowship and networking. This year’s convention is scheduled for July 9-12 in Louisville, KY.
In an interview with Church Executive, Tim Harlow makes light of his skill to coach himself and jokes about needing robots to help him lead his church. But, when it comes to reaching the lost, Harlow is nothing short of dead serious.
What radical decisions have you had to make to ensure the health and growth of Parkview Christian Church?
In the early years, I had to be very intentional about not catering to the people who didn’t get the vision of reaching the lost. I had to be able to accept the fact that they might need to move on to another church. This was very difficult, but it was vital to the health of our church. My primary concern had to be about the lost, who didn’t yet know the Father, and to make this a place where they could find Him. I had one professor who called this the “excretory system.” It sounds harsh, but without it, the body doesn’t function well.
I also had to make sure that my eldership/leadership was in agreement with the vision. Seven years into our ministry, we had to take a church vote to help us relocate. The church voted 56 percent in favor. [It wasn’t] a magnificent display of unity, but we only needed a majority. And, by this time, our eldership was unanimous in the vision, so we pressed on. After losing a lot of people the next year, we’ve grown by an average of 23 percent a year for the past 15 years, reaching mostly the unchurched.
How can churches and believers effectively connect with those outside the faith?
Stop hanging out with Christians all the time! We all know the stats about how many Christians don’t have any non-Christian friends. You have to be intentional about getting outside of the Christian bubble and being part of their lives, and inviting them into yours. This is very hard for those in ministry because we’re around Christians a lot. That’s why we have to be intentional — find a place where you can go and hang out and have relationships with non-Christians.
As for the church, we have to start by joining the current millennium. Most churches still operate in a 50-year-old structure with 50-year-old methods. We don’t have to be “hip,” but we can’t be “square.” (And don’t bring up Huey Lewis, or you’ve just dated yourself.) This goes way past worship styles and the color of the pews. The world is actually hungry for true spirituality, a spirituality that involves service and care for the poor and needy — what a concept! That’s Christianity, so show it. Be involved in the community in ways that people will notice. If your church is known for its building, or its pastor, or its style, you’re not going to get very far. If you’re known for your love and service, outsiders will want to be involved.
Share some leadership lessons that you’ve learned in your 23 years of serving Parkview.
- Leadership is hard. If you expect it to be easy, then you’re in the wrong seat. People will accuse you of arrogance and attack your Christianity. You’d better know that you’re listening to the Good Shepherd, and then you have to go be one. Sometimes the sheep won’t like it.
- You’ll never be a good leader if you’re not first a good follower. This is particularly important for talented/gifted young leaders that everyone wants to thrust into a major leadership role. Make sure you’ve spent some time learning to follow first. This was forced on me by the tough times I had early on in my leadership. It was a “Joseph in the pit/slavery/prison” time for me.
- You must always improve as a leader. If you’re not intentional about developing your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses, then you’ll stagnate as a leader. Everyone has a ceiling of abilities, but it’s usually much higher than people allow it to be because they stop growing. We have to keep reading, learning and paying attention to the way the world works.
- Coaching is important. Even the top athletes in the world have coaches. No matter how talented you are as a leader, there are times you just can’t objectively assess what your “swing flaw” is. Having an extra set of eyes helps keep you from banging your head against the same wall over and over. I have a group of fellow pastors that help me, and I also hire outside help whenever we need it — at least once a year.
- Let go. If I try to hold on and micromanage everything, I just get in the way. Sometimes I pull back too far, and that’s just as bad. But, I believe the reason many leaders can’t get to the next level is because they won’t let go of the little stuff.
In managing the business side of your church, what areas of ministry do you consider important to track?
There are a couple of gauges that are important to keep an eye on; however, I would say that the reason they’re important goes beyond just “business.”
Giving — When an individual or family begins to give or grow in their generosity, it tells me that they have a growing sense of ownership and connection with our church family. It also tells me that their priorities are changing and they’re catching the vision of the Kingdom and what God wants to accomplish through our church and through them.
Debt — We keep a close eye on the amount of debt we carry. We want to be good stewards of what God has given us, and we never want to put ourselves in a position where ministry is hindered because of excessive debt.
Attendance — If we’re not attracting new people, then we’ve lost our mission and purpose.
Children’s ministry — I have to watch the gauges on our kid’s ministry to know if we’re still doing what we need to do to attract our target audience.
Engagement/discipleship — If more people are coming to church, but the same number of people is involved in service or groups or missions, then we’re still failing.
What’s your strategy for finding and developing your successor?
We have “key man insurance,” so if a falling meteor hits me, we’ll be OK. There’s nothing that will help us if I screw up — so I can’t. If I decide to become a professional bull rider, they’ll have to just figure it out. But, we haven’t really started to formally look for a successor. I’m 51, and I plan on being here for 17 more years. I want to make it to 40 years in one place. However, succession is something we routinely talk about with our board and with a consultant that works with our church. I guess our strategy right now is to keep the discussion on the table until we feel like it’s time to begin formalizing a plan.
As the 2014 president of NACC, what do you sense is on the horizon for your denomination?
Our movement — the Independent Christian Churches — is on the cutting edge of ministry in every way in the world. We’re one of the fastest-growing movements in the country. When Rick Warren spoke at the NACC last year, he said, “I have a ton of good friends in this movement — how do I get in?” And that’s the beauty of a movement: We’re not a denomination; we work with everyone. The downside of this movement is probably “branding.” Most people don’t know that Jud Wilhite, Dave Ferguson, Dave Stone, Kyle Idleman, Don Wilson, Jon Weece, etc., are all part of the same group. Or, that the Exponential Conference and the International Conference on Missions came from the same place. And, we do church planting like crazy. There are 6,000 churches that are part of this movement, and they’re some of the most innovative in the world.
The horizon is about so many young leaders who really “get it” and are leading great churches and doing a great job of helping us figure out how to reach this next generation. We’re in good hands.
Are there any leadership views that need to change for your church to impact the community for Christ?
I don’t think there are any major changes. I think it’s more a matter of tweaking and, most importantly, keeping the vision of impacting the community constantly in front of our people. It’s so easy to become complacent and satisfied. The question for me is: How soon does the prodigal son become the older brother? It’s human nature to want the world or church to revolve around us and what we’re comfortable with. So, I have to keep re-casting the vision, but it’s solid right now. We’re really in a good season of reaching the lost.
What skill or tool would help you lead your church more efficiently?
I’d probably say better time management skills. People just don’t realize how many requests come in. I have an excellent administrative assistant; she runs my life through my calendar, but it’s the only way I can survive. Both of us feel bad saying “no” so often. I know I have to; I get that. I have to say “no” so I can say “yes.” But, it’s not easy.
Where do you think God wants you to lead Parkview from here?
It’s time to pass it on. The next 20 years of my life, and of Parkview’s, must be about helping other churches “ReMission” themselves and refocus on the Great Commission of Jesus. We have millions of people in our immediate ministry area that we need to reach. The U.S. is now the third or fourth largest mission field in the world. The fields are white, and the time is short.
Parkview Christian Church
- Year established: 1951
- Average weekly attendance: 7,510 for both campuses
- Campuses: Orland and Lockport
- Annual budget: $7.8 million
- Staff: 71