Q & A with Dr. Jay Harris
Dr. Jay Harris, Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services
“’Life together’ is the most important building block in what God is doing in the world and through history.”
ADVOCATE: You grew up in Albany, correct? Have you always lived and served in South Georgia?
DR. HARRIS: That’s right. I grew up with all my grandparents and first cousins in the same hometown and married my high school sweetheart there. My Dad had two-way radio customers all over southwest Georgia. We often gathered with my mom’s extended family at my great-grandparents in Edison, Ga. I have served in appointments near the Fall Line across Georgia and also on the Coast, so I definitely feel rooted in South Georgia.
ADVOCATE: What’s your faith journey?
DR. HARRIS: My prevenient grace story includes, among many things, my baptism at age 8. Although somewhat unremarkable as a personal experience at the time, I came to learn later that the Lord, in that season of my parents’ lives, had been nudging my parents back to Himself and to the church resulting in the baptism of my two younger sisters, my Dad, and me at the same time. (My mother had already been baptized as a young girl in the Baptist Church.) Although I can’t say that I made a decision at my baptism, it definitely marked the prevenient grace of God working in my life. When I started participating in the youth activities of Albany First UMC, it helped me feel more comfortable being at church and feeling like I belonged. The Lord began making himself known to me in more personal ways. The message that the Lord had a plan for my life resonated with me. A couple of weeks before I turned 14, on June 25, 1978, I gave my life to Christ on a youth group outing at a Christian concert in Arlington, Ga. I was given a New Testament and told to start reading John and continue on from that. I had never been able to get anything from the Bible before then, but after that experience, it seemed as if God was speaking to me directly through his Word. That experience in Arlington alone would not have made the difference it made were it not for the fact that Danny Key also discipled me and a few other guys in the year following. At age 15, I felt God was calling me into the ministry. After weeks of thinking about it and talking to my youth leaders about it, I walked to the front of my church after my preacher, Dr. Bill Hinson, preached a sermon on hearing and responding to God’s call. I have never looked back. During that same season of my life at age 15, I also started dating my first steady girlfriend who is my wife today. Kay has been there with me in all of this from the beginning. This is just about my beginnings. There’s not enough room in a news article to talk about all the ways my faith journey has been shaped by the many people in our congregations—through pastoral experiences, in Disciple Bible Studies and the like, friendships, and countless conversations. Kay and I have seen God’s hand shaping our journey with every appointment we have had.
ADVOCATE: Tell us about your ministry philosophy and your guiding principles.
DR. HARRIS: God loves calling people out of their self-centeredness or out of their estrangement and into his family, then instructing them to embody his heart in their life together for the world to see. “Life together” is the most important building block in what God is doing in the world and through history. “Life together” includes what we do together to minister to people in the world outside our life together. “Playing church” doesn’t cut it. “Life together” is difficult though and can only be accomplished through the work of the Holy Spirit as we are crucified with Christ and as we rise together with Him.
ADVOCATE: Tell us about how this position – with the Board of Ordained Ministry – will help shape and guide clergy and the Conference.
DR. HARRIS: The Board of Ministry exists because God is graciously calling ordinary people like us to lead and serve his body in the world. The Board has the awesome privilege and responsibility to work with God in the stewardship of that vision. We are helping people recognize and respond to God’s call, nourish the development of that call, and relate that call to the work and life of the Church in all of the various forms it can take. When you take into account the number of people who make up the Board of Ordained Ministry, the nine district committees on ordained ministry, and the various kinds of mentors who are presently serving throughout our conference, you realize what a massive undertaking this is. My position exists to help oversee and manage these processes and unleash the gifts of the people involved in this holy task. I recently attended the funeral of Rev. Dr. Ned Steele. Because he attended the church I served until recently, I knew Ned and his family, but I had not truly comprehended how wide and far-reaching the impact of his ministry was, how deep it was, and how many clergy he had mentored who have, themselves, had long and impactful ministries. I was truly blessed. Because I know God is so faithful, I believe there are others coming into the ministry now and in the near future who will play roles like Ned Steele did in shaping the church, and they will mentor the next generation.
ADVOCATE: You have gotten good perspective on the Annual Conference having served in four districts – Columbus, Dublin, Waycross, and Macon. How will these experiences help you in your new position?
DR. HARRIS: It is in district life and sub-district life that you really get to know other clergy, laity, and churches outside your own local church. I have also served in the district committees of ordained ministry (DCOM) in all four of these districts and learned much from how they operate. The DCOMs oversee the beginning of the process and help identify the candidates best suited to move forward. These four districts differ from each other. Currently, the Dublin District has the most local pastors: 21. Participating in the annual review of the local pastors when I was in the Dublin District was like having church. I always came away blessed by the testimonies that came out of these reviews.
ADVOCATE: What are your visions, goals and hopes for your new role and the Conference?
DR. HARRIS: The intent for this position is to provide a “one-stop shop” for information, communication, and coordination so that candidates and clergy can know where to go for what they need and know that what they get will always be consistent, accurate, and promptly given. I’ve got a learning curve to deal with before I get there, but this is a big priority for me. I also believe that we need to make the best use of our online resources because there is so much potential for a more attractive, interactive, and “user-friendly” experience for those interested in ministry. We have an unprecedented opportunity to learn from other conferences and incorporate best practices. We want to attract the best and brightest from our churches and campus ministries and get them deployed in United Methodist ministry. Other conferences are also doing a lot to raise the level of clergy excellence throughout the span of their service. I’d like to see us leverage these possibilities and maybe use them to help reverse the decline in our conference.
ADVOCATE: What are the things that most excite you about being the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services?
DR. HARRIS: Being “Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services” combines positions recently held by two people. I am the director of ministerial services and I am an assistant to Bishop King. I work for two parties who have different missions related to clergy. The Board of Ministry credentials and employs the clergy of our conference. The Bishop and the Cabinet deploy them throughout the conference once the Board has employed them. Sometimes there are built-in tensions between these two missions and the Book of Discipline provides guidance to help prevent conflicts of interest in these instances. However, with that being said, I am excited about the possibility of providing a communication link between the Board of Ordained Ministry and Bishop King and his cabinet. I cannot describe the pleasure of being able to work with people of the caliber of Bishop King, the District Superintendents, the Conference staff, and the fine folks leading and serving the Board of Ordained Ministry.
ADVOCATE: What are some of the biggest challenges you see facing the Conference?
DR. HARRIS: The biggest challenge facing our conference right now is implementing the reduction of districts from nine to six. I see the Office of Ministerial Services supporting and assisting the Cabinet in some of the administrative demands placed on them, particularly related to the work they do with the District Committees on Ordained Ministry and tracking the progress of the clergy in their districts. In this instance, it will be easier for me to work with six districts instead of nine. Whatever I can do assist them in some of their work will hopefully help them allot more time for disciple-making in the churches of their districts.
ADVOCATE: What do you like best about serving in the South Georgia Conference?
DR. HARRIS: My deepest friendships in the world are with people in this conference.
ADVOCATE: How do you, in the midst of your busy schedule and your traveling, make time for your quiet time, prayer, and Bible study?
DR. HARRIS: I find myself in a new place, because the task of preparing sermons each morning has until now brought me to God. The scripture reading involved in that, the prayer, the meditation, the envisioning and dreaming, and the caring for God’s people involved in preparing sermons have together helped formed my spiritual development. I am honestly still working on the formation of new disciplines to take the place of what I once did. Morning is the best time for me, and putting my thoughts down on paper through journaling fits my spiritual style. I like to read, and reading the Psalms and Proverbs, more and more, is like medicine to my soul.
ADVOCATE: Tell us about your family.
DR. HARRIS: My wife, Kay, and I have been married for 28 years. We have a son, Josh, age 26, and two daughters, Sarah, age 23, and Rebecca, age 20. Josh is married to our daughter-in-law, Heather, and he is working at CNN in Atlanta as a graphic designer. Sarah is on the coast working for St. Simons Island Land Trust in their development department. Rebecca is half-way through school at Georgia Tech majoring in public policy. Kay and I are enjoying watching our children grow up and also enjoying our empty nest.
ADVOCATE: What do you like to do in your free time? What are your hobbies and interests?
DR. HARRIS: Kay and I like unwinding at the end of the day at the pool at the apartments we live in, and playing cards and playing Farkel. We enjoy visiting our children. I also golf occasionally, and I fish with my buddies in the S-3 Group we formed in 2005.
ADVOCATE: What’s one fact about you that most people don’t know?
DR. HARRIS: In addition to the hobbies and interests I listed above, Kay and I also enjoy caring for and mentoring a small group of young women from China who are teaching Mandarin Chinese in public schools in Macon and Atlanta. This started last September. Ying, Ran, Huiling, Guifang, and now Jie (the list is growing) have been for us a wonderful and unexpected blessing from God.