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Next step for this disciple: retirement

Next step for this disciple: retirement

TAMPA -- When Rev. Dr. James “Jim” Harnish retires July 1, he’ll be stepping away from a ministry that has been centered in the local church but leaves a broader impression.

He has led two congregations that consistently turn up on lists of the most vital United Methodist churches in the nation: Hyde Park in Tampa and St. Luke’s in Orlando. His insights into the challenges of Christian ministry in the 21st century have made him a sought-after speaker in and out of Florida.

Jim Harnish in front of Hyde Park UMC, Tampa
On June 8, Jim Harnish will preach his last sermon as senior pastor of Hyde Park UMC, Tampa, a congregation he led through a sometimes painful period of redefining itself.  Photo by B.C. Manion.

And the study guide “A Disciple’s Path,” co-authored in 2012 with Rev. Justin LaRosa, is in use at more than 4,000 congregations across the U.S., according to the latest figures from The United Methodist Publishing House.

The roots for Harnish’s more than four decades of ministry were planted when he was quite young.

“I grew up in a very deeply committed Christian home,” Harnish said. “Preachers were very big in my life.”

He and his twin brother, Jack, who also went on to become a Methodist minister, grew up in Clarion, Pa., a town of about 5,000 people.

Harnish began thinking about becoming a teacher or preacher when he was in elementary school. A number of influences steered him toward ministry, but he believes both he and his brother would point to the same occasion as the one that helped them solidify their decision.

“The bishop (in Pennsylvania) had a gathering for high school-aged kids who might be considering the ministry,” Harnish said.

“They had a time of commitment and response. I still look back to that event as a time when I said, ‘Yeah, this is what I think God might be calling me to do.’ ”

In college, Harnish picked up a bachelor’s degree in speech and secondary drama and obtained his teaching certificate. Then he went straight into the seminary.

Both he and Jack attended Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. After graduation, Jack married a woman from Michigan and wound up in the Detroit Conference, and Jim married someone from the Sunshine State and wound up in the Florida Conference.

“Our ministries moved in different directions,” Harnish said. “I’ve been in the local church all of these years. He spent I forget how many years on the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville and traveled all over the world for the denomination.”

Harnish’s first pastoral appointment was at Trinity UMC, DeLand. He served as associate pastor there from 1972 to 1975 before becoming pastor of Howe Memorial UMC, Crescent City, where he stayed until 1979.

Next, he became the organizing pastor of St. Luke’s UMC, Orlando.

About 30 retiring clergy members will be recognized for a combined total of more than 800 years of ministry on June 13 during Annual Conference 2014 at The Lakeland Center.

It wasn’t his ambition, Harnish said. “I really had no abiding interest in starting a new church.”

It turned out to be a highlight in his life of ministry, Harnish said.

“It was hard work and it was challenging. There were times when it felt like pushing water uphill, and it was wonderful,” Harnish said.

Much like his appointment to St. Luke’s, the Hyde Park move came from out of the blue.

“I didn’t plan to move when I came here,” Harnish said, adding, if he’d known what was in store he’s not so sure he would have accepted the appointment.

When he arrived at Hyde Park, he found a church that knew what it had been but was foggy on where it was headed.

“We needed to ask hard questions about who we were going to be in the future,” he said.
“But then, when (Hyde Park) started defining, ‘This is who we are,’ then it’s also, ‘This is who we aren’t.’ And that’s painful. There were people who left us.”
Harnish wrote a book, “You Only Have to Die,” that details the experience of helping Hyde Park transform into a church that took on the intensive chore of finding out its core mission and then putting its energies into pursuing it.

The lesson? Churches in different places are called to play different roles, Harnish said.

“My sense is that in United Methodism we have more variety, more diversity than other denominations in the world. These are not interchangeable parts,” the pastor said, explaining that each church must ask how it is uniquely gifted to serve.

Unfortunately, Harnish said, “too many churches tend to get focused on their own internal survival. When you’re focused on your own internal survival, you’re not going anywhere.”

Jim Harnish addresses the crowd at Annual Conference 2013
Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish addresses the crowd on the opening day of Florida's Annual Conference last year.  File photo by Dave Walter.

It doesn’t have to be that way, Harnish said.

“I think that my experience and my observation are that congregations that get serious on really making a difference in people’s lives -- drawing them into the life as a disciple of Jesus -- things start to happen.”

The biggest challenge The United Methodist Church faces is to focus its energies on making disciples for the transformation of the world, Harnish said.

Even when churches are thriving, Harnish said, “it’s always a challenge to choose the best from the good. We have to say no to a lot of good things, so we can do what’s most important.”

While he has spent most of his ministry in local churches, Harnish also has had a wider influence, not only through his writings but by participation as a delegate at numerous General Conference events dating to 1984 and at four World Methodist conferences.

Last year, Bishop Ken Carter selected Harnish as keynote speaker at Florida’s Annual Conference.

The bishop, who has known Harnish for years, describes him as an effective pastor and thoughtful leader.

“Jim has tremendous credibility in his role as founding pastor of one of our most vital churches – St. Luke’s in Orlando – and in his subsequent assignment in leading the turnaround of Hyde Park in Tampa,” Carter said in an email.

“His writings have emerged from the actual practice of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and for this reason people resonate with his thinking and experience.”

As Harnish prepares to deliver his final sermon at Hyde Park on June 8, he said he looks forward to the freedom that retirement will bring. He’s glad to have more time for his wife, Marsha, their two grown daughters and their families. And he’s certain he’s still walking on a disciple’s path.

“The decision to retire, like the decision to come here, like the decision to go to St. Luke’s in Orlando – three of the big decisions in my ministry – all three times there was a sense of clarity that this is what God is calling us to do.”

-- B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa. Florida Conference Connection editor Susan Green contributed to this story.