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Retiring Hyde Park pastor met his goal

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Published:   |   Updated: June 1, 2014 at 02:28 PM

Everyone knew it was coming. Jim Harnish, longtime pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, had been preparing his congregation for some time for his upcoming retirement.

After 22 years at the church, and 42 in the ministry, he thought he likely would bid his farewell in 2015.

Then a small, still voice spoke to him a year earlier than planned as he read Psalm 81:6: “I lifted the burden off your shoulders; Your hands are free from the brick basket.”

And that was his sign it was time to go.

“I answer to a different boss,” says Harnish, 65. He says he’s found “profound peace and unexpected freedom” in his decision to take an earlier exit.

On June 8, the minister who led the once-stagnant church on an improbable journey of growth and vitality over two decades will give his last sermon in the Hyde Park pulpit. He knows there will be cheers and tears as church members send him and wife Marsha off to their retirement home on Eagle Lake in Winter Haven.

“We are not very stoic around here,” he admits.

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Hyde Park United Methodist, founded 115 years ago, defies the odds.

At a time when many mainline Protestant churches in urban settings are closing down or scaling back, it has made a bold statement.

Congregants say under Harnish’s forward-thinking leadership, Hyde Park didn’t get swallowed up by encroaching development, the fate of most downtown churches. Instead, it has been proactive, buying up surrounding property. The church owns four city blocks of prime real estate off Platt Street, ensuring it can grow in the future.

It now offers five Sunday services, ranging from traditional to come-as-you-are worship in a former bar bought by the church, with a combined weekly attendance of about 1,200 and an operating budget of $3.1 million. Though its diverse membership is still predominately white, more minorities are coming. Following Harnish’s lead, the congregation welcomes gays and same-sex couples.

In the spirit of equipping members to find their special gifts, Hyde Park sponsors dozens of ministries and lay-led humanitarian missions to needy countries.

Perhaps one of its boldest accomplishments is its Open Arms ministry, which invites the homeless to the church campus every Sunday morning for a robust meal cooked and served by volunteers, a service with live music, and monthly assistance with jobs, haircuts and free clothing.

It wasn’t that way when Harnish first arrived.

Longtime member Celia Ferman called Hyde Park a “typical Methodist church — we looked like everyone else, and we weren’t growing.” And some of the members were at odds on how to proceed.

Methodist ministers are called by their bishops. Harnish was happily serving at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando in March 1992, when he got that call on his 45th birthday.

The bishop presented his case. He wanted Harnish to take the skills he used in transforming St. Luke’s into a bustling suburban church and apply them to Hyde Park. Yes, it would be half the budget, half the staff and half the attendance. Was he interested?

“Are you asking me or telling me?” Harnish asked. The bishop told him it was his choice. He went home and prayed about it. He knew it would be difficult to leave the church and community where he and Marsha had raised their two daughters and had established roots.

God’s voice guided his decision. Harnish felt he needed to be obedient to the call.

“I really had no idea what we were getting into,” he says now with a chuckle. “And if I had, I might have turned it down.”

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Some of the problems were immediately visible.

Though the new Methodist hymnal had come out a few years earlier, there were none to be found in the pews. There was no updated membership roll or mailing list; there was no automatic system to get members to make a monetary commitment. The facilities were rundown and depressing. One congregant described the church as “spiritually shallow and inwardly focused.” It was treated more like a Sunday social event, Karen Crawford says.

But the biggest roadblock was something less tangible.

“This was a congregation that had a very clear sense of its past, was somewhat foggy about its present and didn’t have a clue about its future,” Harnish recalls.

One of his first actions was to get the members to move away from a fundamentalist viewpoint and define a new vision and mission, one that was more “warm-hearted and Christ-centered.” With the formation of the 21st Century Task Force Leadership Team, he challenged the group to establish a long-term plan in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition and find ways to reach people outside the church walls.

But that direction wasn’t well received by all.

Some of the decision-making leaders were traditionalists with conservative views of Scripture and the nature of salvation. This message of inclusion and welcoming other viewpoints within reason was not acceptable. A rift developed, and some members left, taking their tithes with them. In one year, Hyde Park lost $60,000 in pledges.

The stress started taking a physical toll on Harnish, and he began to wonder if he was going to kill the church at the same time. His gut instinct that this was the right direction won out, so he decided to “take hold of the tiller and ride it through.” Years later, he would recount that bumpy journey in his book, “You Only Have to Die: Leading Your Congregation to New Life.”

Departures and conflict dominated the first two years of his tenure. But as word of the church’s transformation grew in the community — and its new motto, “Making God’s Love Real” — people joined. By the mid-1990s, the congregation had a sense of common direction and a fire to grow.

In a 10-year period, the church embarked on a FutureFaith campaign, raising $11 million to purchase new buildings and renovate existing facilities, including a major overhaul and expansion of the main sanctuary. And last year, Hyde Park took over the closed First United Methodist Church in the heart of Tampa and launched a “Downtown Initiative” with prayer groups and events to draw in urban dwellers.

Tampa businessman Jim Ferman, Celia’s husband, says he was the right man at the right time for the job. Not only is Harnish a great spiritual leader, Ferman says, he also has the attributes of a “successful CEO.”

“Jim has vision, team-building skills and a tenacious persistence to reach goals. He’s got a resilience to overcome obstacles. That’s not always evident in someone as spiritual as he is.”

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Ask Harnish what his strengths are, and he’ll answer without hesitation: an ability to work by consensus, a willingness to delegate power and a commitment to keep the momentum moving forward. He tried to do it without taking himself too seriously.

His goal was to make Hyde Park “the strongest, most vibrant church ever.” He believes he met that goal.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t misfires and challenges along the way. The church invested about $100,000 into its Friday Night Connection service in the activities center, designed to draw 20-somethings out at the start of the weekend. Turns out, the service was aimed at the “grunge” population, though the church is in a neighborhood of upwardly mobile young adults.

“We had more candles than people,” he concedes. “We ended up completely missing the target.”

In February 2013, the church’s longtime maintenance worker, Michael Klevene, was arrested for multiple counts of possession and distribution of child pornography. Though federal authorities determined he had used his home computer to collect and send graphic images of children, and not the church’s, the news still could have tainted Hyde Park’s reputation.

Harnish quickly brought together the crisis team, including member Darren Richards, a vice president at a local public relations firm. The decision was to address the arrest directly and publicly: first with Harnish on a local television report, and then from the pulpit that next Sunday. He also sent a follow-up email to each congregant, explaining that the church has several safeguards in place, including periodic background checks on staff.

“Our general advice was to tell the whole truth and tell it quickly,” Richards says. “It was done in a loving and Christian way, the way Jim always does things.”

That incident still troubles the pastor. How could he work alongside this employee for 20 years and not have any idea of the man’s double life? Though he has responsibility to his whole congregation, how can he maintain his principles of Christian love and forgiveness to a troubled soul?

“We know we had the right protection policies in place. We know we were transparent in handling the situation,” he says. “But we’re humans living in an imperfect world. Things happen that don’t always make sense.”

That style of leadership is one of the reasons Richards and his wife moved their family of four children from Fishhawk Ranch to South Tampa, so they could be closer to Hyde Park UMC and be more involved in its ministries.

“Jim has done an incredible job of creating a culture here of openness, love and ownership,” he says. “There will be a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth right after he leaves, but we all know: We are in such a good place, far better than when he arrived.”

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Harnish knows he’s leaving the church in good hands.

The Rev. Roger Scholtz of South Africa, who has a history of mission partnerships with Hyde Park, will serve from September through next June. It’s a choice the congregation embraces with enthusiasm, and provides sufficient time for the bishop to search for the right replacement for Harnish.

One thing is for certain: The church is light years ahead of what it was when Harnish took over the reins. And as much as they may hate to see their pastor go, the congregation is content.

“Grateful might be the better word,” says longtime member Celia Ferman. “He’s given us so much. Now it’s his time to go off and enjoy life without a set schedule and so many demands.”

That won’t include the typical activities that Florida retirees enjoy. No golfing or fishing for Harnish. He plans to enjoy his three grandchildren, travel with Marsha, take leisurely walks, write more, and continue his work with The Institute of Preaching at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. He and his bride even may take dancing lessons.

There will be more time to catch up with his twin brother, Jack, also a Methodist minister, who retired from his Michigan church last year. And he’ll relish his role as “pastor emeritus” with his close-knit band of clergy cronies, a group of eight Methodist ministers from around the state who get together for twice-yearly retreats

“I look forward to doing what I want to do, not what I have to do,” Harnish says.

He leaves behind a legacy with the study guide he co-wrote with Hyde Park pastor Justin LaRosa, now in use by more than 4,000 congregations across the country. The two plan to collaborate on a follow-up called “A Disciple’s Heart,” designed to help people get deeper into their faith.

What he won’t miss is serving as a delegate at the United Methodist General Conference that meets every four years. The tension that has simmered between conservatives and progressives is “wearing the middle down” — the place where Harnish is most comfortable. His advice to the decision makers: Break the logjam, be less strident and more loving, and allow space for different viewpoints. Much the way he led at Hyde Park.

Carolyn Eastman will miss the man who has been her pastor for two decades. She calls him her “hero” for the way he balances a scholarly, quiet demeanor with the spirit of a rebel.

“He’s taken many courageous and often unpopular stances in the face of prejudice and inequality during his tenure,” she says. “And he’s challenged us to make everyone in our community, including Tampa’s disenfranchised and forgotten people, a priority to serve and make welcome.”

He was either going to be a drama teacher or a preacher. Harnish says he knows he made the right decision, as he reflects on a journey that was “better than I expected, and more than I deserved.”

As for departing a year earlier than he anticipated, Harnish will borrow from his love of theater in making his exit.

“Don’t hang around too long,” he says with a smile. “Always leave them wanting one more encore.”

Reach Michelle Bearden at michel lebearden123@gmail.com or (813) 839-3011.

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