Inheriting a Passion for Reaching Kids
Bill R. Harness never would have become a minister if not for a cute girl who rang the doorbell.
Harness, 19 at that time, felt smitten when 16-year-old Becky came to his family’s home selling plastic garbage cans for a band fundraiser. Bill’s schoolteacher mother, LaVaye, knew Becky as a former student and told Bill to leave Becky alone because “she is a nice girl.”
At the time, Harness sold and used illegal drugs, and majored in partying en route to flunking out of Arkansas State University. Nevertheless, he decided to start attending West Memphis First Assembly just to be near Becky as she helped with children’s church.
“I could not stand children, but I wanted to be with her so much,” Harness recalls. “God did a work in my life. He gave me a love for children.”
Harness also forsook his wild ways after his father, William, died from complications of sarcoidosis that led to congestive heart failure. Becky and Bill wed, then served in children’s ministry together volunteering at their home church, West Memphis First Assembly for a decade before going to Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri.
Afterward, with young daughter Heather in tow, Bill and Becky embarked on full-time children’s evangelism for eight years. Because so few people engaged in such ministry, the couple would be booked at churches three years in advance. Typically, Bill preached a Sunday morning service and conducted a crusade Sunday night through Wednesday night. Harness developed a goofy character named KarateMan, with bits of humor often aimed over the heads of the tykes. Subsequently, as many adults as children showed up for the events.
“We had to get the parents interested for the kids to come,” Harness says.
Eventually, Harness returned to West Memphis First Assembly as a paid children’s pastor and associate pastor, posts he held for another decade.
Although he never believed he would do anything except children’s ministry, when the West Memphis lead pastorate position opened in 2014, Harness, his wife, and daughter all sensed the Lord nudging Bill to apply. At 53, he became lead pastor for the first time.
“Some of the best lead pastors have been children’s pastors,” Harness says. “We know how to keep it brief, we use object lessons, and we talk at a fifth-grade level.”
Longtime congregants even remember Harness as a kid at the church. He occasionally performs wedding ceremonies for couples he taught in kid’s church.
The board in 2015 voted to hire Bill and Becky’s only child, Heather, as part-time children’s pastor. She will move into the post full time after graduating from Southwestern Assemblies of God University in May. Heather grew up working puppet characters and serving in praise and worship in children’s crusades.
“My parents made ministry attractive to me,” says Heather, 25. “They didn’t pressure me to participate.” She felt God calling her to full-time ministry as a 15-year-old at youth camp. She has implemented the same ministry philosophy as her father.
“Dad always taught me there is nothing more important than a prayer time of response at the altar,” Heather says. “Dad always said if you don’t have an altar time basically you’re telling the Holy Spirit, Sorry, you don’t fit in our schedule.”
Heather also has added a new twist to ministry. Grandparents are invited to participate in a children’s service once a month (teaching an object lesson, for example) to help bridge the generation gap. Heather says she never experienced a split from the faith of her parents.
“We are a close-knit family that has done ministry together,” says Heather, whose parents have been married for 32 years. “I have a deep sense of trust with Dad. It’s nice having him down the hall.”
Becky and Bill still do occasional children’s ministry at camps and kid’s conventions around Arkansas. Kelly D. Presson, director of leadership development for national AG Children’s Ministries, has been friends with the couple for two decades. Presson says he’s learned much from KarateMan’s crazy antics.
“Bill is a unique mix,” Presson says. “He is an extremely funny and crazy comedian, yet he’s also very godly. That’s not a combination that usually goes together.”
Meanwhile, Harness as lead pastor says he is grateful that the AG Arkansas District is investing more resources in the Delta region, an area with economic challenges and racial tensions. First Assembly, a predominantly white congregation, is located on the main street in the middle of West Memphis, a majority African-American city.
“We want our church to minister to West Memphis, whether that’s white, black, poor, single moms, or whatever. There is so much hurt and need,” Harness says.