Florida church finds rebirth in mission

By Michelle Bearden, Faith & Leadership…

TAMPA, Fla.—The call came from the bishop on the Rev. Jim Harnish’s 45th birthday.

“Can you come by the office tonight?” the bishop asked.

Dr. Harnish, then pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, knew an urgent summons from the bishop was serious. He suspected that he and his wife, Marsha, would be asked to relocate.

The Rev. Jim Harnish greets parishioners during a recent Sunday service at Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Fla. The church has grown in membership and mission work during his 20 years there. PHOTO BY CHRIS URSO

The prospect of leaving the vital, healthy church he had helped birth 13 years earlier wasn’t a happy one. Exciting things were happening there.

When they met that March evening in 1992, the bishop told Dr. Harnish that Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, founded at the turn of the century, was in need of a new pastor. Unlike Dr. Harnish’s bustling suburban church, this one was near the city’s urban core.

Dr. Harnish’s mind raced: Why leave for a church with half the budget, half the attendance and half the staff?

“Are you asking me or telling me?” he finally said. The bishop assured Dr. Harnish it was his choice, but he had to decide overnight.

Dr. Harnish turned to prayer. The answer would be yes.

As painful as it was to say goodbye to the congregation where he and his wife had raised their two daughters, Dr. Harnish felt he needed to obey God’s call.

“I really had no idea what we were getting into,” he said. “And if I had, I might have turned it down.”

The challenges would be daunting. The frustrations would test his patience. But in the end, Dr. Harnish found a place to hone and develop his leadership skills, and members got the guidance they needed to grow in Christ and discover their own gifts.

And a once-thriving church that had become stalled in its mission was reborn, serving its community and beyond.

Sputtering and stalling

Today, the signs of new life at Hyde Park United Methodist are everywhere. Spread over four city blocks, the church is a model of urban vitality.

Five Sunday services, ranging from traditional to a come-as-you-are worship in a former bar, have a combined average weekly attendance of about 1,100 and an annual operating budget of $2.8 million.

At Hyde Park UMC, people in need can get a free meal and a haircut. Jesus Navarro tends to Fernando Rodriguez while Davies Holloway trims his own beard. PHOTO BY CHRIS URSO

Members take part in dozens of ministries and lay-led missions, such as trips to Cuba, South Africa and Nicaragua and a homeless outreach on the property every Sunday. Children’s programs stretch from cradle to teen. There’s a diverse membership representing all ages, races and incomes.

It was very different 20 years ago.

“We were a pretty typical Methodist church,” said longtime member Celia Ferman. “Everybody looked like everybody else, and we weren’t growing. We knew something had to change, but didn’t know how to make that happen.”

Attendance hadn’t changed much in two decades, and the facilities were run-down and depressing. While the church was financially sound, there was no systematic process for giving. Dr. Harnish couldn’t even get an updated membership roll or mailing list.

But the most important “to do” on Dr. Harnish’s list was getting the congregation to define a vision and mission. He charged a leadership task force with establishing a long-term plan and challenged them to find ways to reach people outside the church.

As discussions progressed, he learned something about Hyde Park UMC that made him seriously doubt his decision to be its pastor.

Many of the church’s decision makers were fundamentalists who held conservative views on the inspiration of Scripture and the nature of salvation. Some said they no longer wanted to be part of the denomination. Dr. Harnish pleaded with them to make Hyde Park more inclusive and to welcome other viewpoints, within reason. There’s room for all of us at the table, he said.

Karen Crawford was in the camp that liked Dr. Harnish’s message. She and her husband had enjoyed many of the people and the Sunday school classes at Hyde Park, but she admits that the congregation had two glaring problems.

“Spiritually shallow and inwardly focused,” she said. “It was more of a social event to go to church.”

The choice

A year after his appointment, Dr. Harnish faced something he had never experienced before. For the first time in his 20 years of pastoral ministry, he did not feel confident that the Staff-Parish Relations Committee would ask the bishop to reappoint him.

So Dr. Harnish made the move that would change his and the church’s future.

He felt he had to be true to his own convictions, to follow the Methodist tenets of being biblically rooted, open-minded and service-oriented. He was committed to focusing on the life, words, way and spirit of a loving Jesus. He believed in teamwork and consensus.

He could not change now, even if it meant losing his job.

“If God is calling Hyde Park to be a fundamentalist congregation, you need to be the best one you can be. But I am not the man to lead you,” he told the committee. “If you want to be spiritually alive, warmhearted and a Christ-centered congregation that lives out the center of the Methodist tradition, I’ll give you my life to do that. But you will have to choose.”

Jim Harnish

In the end, he got seven votes in favor of his reappointment and two against. Some of his well-heeled detractors showed their displeasure by leaving the church and taking their tithes with them. In one year, Hyde Park lost $60,000 in pledges.

For a while, even some of Dr. Harnish’s supporters felt uneasy.

“Absolutely, it was painful,” member Bruce Tigert said, explaining that the people who had first welcomed Dr. Harnish “felt betrayed. Some of them were second- and third-generation members.”

However, what Dr. Harnish brought to the table, Mr. Tigert said, was the notion of possibilities. Of what members could personally do and where the church could go.

“Before, the attitude was, ‘This is our church, and if you believe the way we do, you can join us.’ Now it’s a church that says, ‘If you want to grow in your faith, come join us. There’s room for different opinions.’ Jim showed us a whole new approach that I had never heard before.”

That attitude and how it would play out would take Hyde Park out of the doldrums and transform it into a thriving urban faith community. Conflict that dominated the discussion in the first two years, Dr. Harnish said, “simply went away” as members adopted a sense of common direction.

As attendance and participation blossomed, he was able to tackle that “to do” list.

In a 10-year period, the church embarked on a FutureFaith campaign, raising $11 million to purchase new buildings and renovate existing facilities, with projects including a major overhaul and expansion of the main sanctuary.

Jim Ferman, Celia’s husband, said Dr. Harnish was successful in turning the church around in part because he had the attributes of a “successful CEO,” such as vision, team-building skills and persistence.

The external changes were obvious. But it was the internal ones that helped fuel growth.

“The minute I walked in the door, I felt comfortable. Members greeted me like a friend,” said Stephanie Nichols, who first visited Hyde Park in 2007 with her twin infants and husband after moving from Oklahoma. “That dedication to being welcoming is not just talk. It’s in the culture there.

“This is truly an equipping church, in every sense of the word.”

That, Dr. Harnish said, is why Hyde Park is succeeding where some other mainline churches are not. Many people envision church life as faithfully coming to worship, giving financial support and serving on committees. But they never envision themselves in ministry to other people in the name of Christ.

“My role isn’t to tell people where they need to go and how to get there,” he said. “We developed the church’s mission by consensus. And my job is to keep those goals in focus and the momentum moving forward.”

Hyde Park has endured some misses and backfires. One of its biggest was the Friday night Connection service in the activities center. The church invested about $100,000, buying high-top tables and crates of candles to create a casual meeting place for 20-somethings.

“We had more candles than people,” Dr. Harnish said. “We ended up completely missing the target.”

But risking failure goes along with giving more power to the people in the pews. “We believe in grace around here,” he said. “We can fail and be forgiven.”

One of its best success stories is its Open Arms ministry, a Sunday morning outreach to homeless people. Unlike most churches, Hyde Park invites the homeless to its campus, feeding them a hearty breakfast on tables dressed with white linen, giving out clothing, offering counseling and haircuts, and providing a short optional prayer service with live music. Homeless people also have access to the restrooms and can use the church as a mailing address.

The ministry opens its doors at 8 a.m.—about the time members start arriving for services. It’s a mix of humanity, with well-dressed members emerging from SUVs and late-model cars exchanging parking-lot greetings with men and women in castoff clothing carrying their possessions in garbage bags.

Dr. Harnish admits that the on-site ministry on the church’s busiest morning “stretched the comfort level” of some of the members, but overall, it has evolved into one of Hyde Park’s best outreach efforts. On a chilly Sunday morning in early March, dozens of volunteers served nearly 250 people.

Leaving a legacy

Now 66, Dr. Harnish has been talking about retirement for the last few years. When the day comes—“in one to three years”—he will have more time to devote to his grandchildren and to spend on his writing, teaching, prayer life and speaking engagements.

And he will continue to tell Hyde Park’s resurrection story and how it can be achieved elsewhere through a series he developed with commissioned deacon Justin LaRosa, the congregation’s director of discipleship ministries. “A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Your Relationship with Christ and the Church,” which includes a leader’s guide, a workbook and a companion reader, has now been purchased by 3,300 churches around the country.

“We’ve been so humbled by the response,” Mr. LaRosa said. “It has shown us how hungry people are to take that next meaningful step to transform their hearts and their lives. We’ve seen it work in amazing ways here, and we wanted to share that process.”

This spring, Hyde Park’s future will expand to include the now-closed First United Methodist in downtown Tampa. After a long and painful process, the historic church surrendered last year to dwindling membership and finances. A lay team of volunteers led by Mr. LaRosa is now developing a purpose and strategy for a downtown ministry for the former sanctuary and offices.

The idea, he says, is to reach out to people living and working downtown through small groups and events, and to create a pastoral presence. A midweek service is also possible.

In true Hyde Park style, “we are working on the vision first,” Mr. LaRosa said. “Once we establish that, we’ll know the direction this will go.”

Although it will be difficult to say goodbye to their longtime leader when the moment comes, church members say what Dr. Harnish did best is show them that the church is a collection of voices, not a singular force.

“He was just what we needed at that time,” Karen Crawford said. “And when his time comes to leave, we will know that a system is in place here that will keep our mission alive. That will be his legacy.”

Ms. Bearden covers faith and values for The Tampa Tribune. This article first appeared at www.faithandleadership.com, an outreach initiative of Duke Divinity School, and is used here by permission.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
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