The True Story of a Defeated Pastor, a Dying Church, and God’s Redemption of Both
By Ken Idleman
Both the Old and New Testaments reveal something about God that we tend to either quietly doubt or glibly take for granted. We can find it buried in the historical narrative of the book of Jeremiah, who speaks for God, revealing both his heart for and goodwill toward his people:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says . . . “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:4, 11).
The “health and wealth gospel” folks and the “name it and claim it” crowd frequently highjack this verse as an ironclad guarantee from Heaven that any of us can experience a life without physical hardship or fiscal trial, that God’s will for us is that we never have a sick day and always have plenty of folding money in our pockets. But we must factor in the context to accurately interpret God’s character.
When this prophecy was communicated to Israel, the nation was exiled from Jerusalem and living as aliens in Babylon. God’s people were bankrupt and broken, defeated and enslaved. And God was telling them, “This is not the end. I have plans for you. Call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. I will forgive your past, redeem your present, and give you hope for a bright future.” You see, God is not fatalistic. He is optimistic. God’s favorite thing to do is to restore defeated people and revive dying churches.
As evidence of this, consider the true story of Sammy Harris and Leesburg (Kentucky) Christian Church. God engineered a partnership between this defeated pastor and this dying church that resulted in the redemption of both! It is a grace story indeed.
Sammy Harris grew up in a dysfunctional family in a house with no indoor plumbing along the Ohio River. His biological father abandoned Sammy when he was 2 months old and his sister was 5. His mother, who married four times, was subjected to mental and physical abuse throughout Sammy’s childhood. Providentially, a small independent Christian church was within walking distance of Sammy’s house and it was there that he found the love, acceptance, and peace that were absent in his home.
The local church and church camp were major heart-shaping influences in Sammy’s life. At 13, he was baptized into Christ by a young preacher named Russell Johnson. After graduating from high school, Sammy enrolled at Kentucky Christian College. During his student days, he married his high school sweetheart.
Upon graduating after four years, Sammy spent five years in youth ministry in Cynthiana, Kentucky; both of his sons were born while he served there. His desire to preach took him to Williamstown, Kentucky, for five years. From 1989 to 1994, the church doubled in size from 120 to 240. He was called to Gardenside Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1994, and he served there for six years.
In 2000, Sammy’s personal life and pastoral ministry imploded. The subtle pressure to succeed as a church leader contributed to him becoming a workaholic. The challenges of balancing family life and ministry demands became overwhelming. His 17-year marriage ended in divorce. In addition, the anger and resentment resulting from unresolved issues of his growing-up years reached the breaking point. He began abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. He suffered depression and feelings of shame and worthlessness.
Within a period of a few weeks, Sammy lost everything: his marriage, family, ministry, and dignity. He disconnected from church. By then he was living in a garage and contemplating suicide; he went so far as to plan his death in detail, sincerely believing his loved ones would be better off without him. His plan? Borrow a gun, drive up to Sugarloaf Mountain, and end his life.
Sammy testifies that his “rock bottom” happened on top of a mountain. Lying back in the leaves on that cold afternoon, he cried out to the Lord . . . for more than an hour. And in what he expects will be the closest he will ever come to hearing the audible voice of God, this message came to him: “Now, I can use you. I love you. I am not finished with you.” And, in that moment of surrender, Sammy’s exhausting quest for approval, recognition, and status died.
He began to rebuild his Christian life, doing menial tasks as a volunteer servant at Southland Christian Church. One day, a godly elder and his wife, J.L. and Wanda Hatter, approached him and insisted that Sammy and his younger son move out of the garage and into their home rent-free.
In the summer of 2001, Sammy’s sister encouraged him to attend his high school graduating class’s 20th reunion. He reluctantly agreed and found himself in the company of a small group of two dozen people. One of the attendees was Sheree. Her father had been Sammy’s baseball coach. Her brothers had been his friends. They began to talk. Both were divorced and were single parents. Both lived in Lexington and faithfully attended Southland Christian Church.
That night, Sammy gave Sheree his phone number with this Scripture verse: “Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God” (Philippians 1:3, New Living Translation). Two weeks later, Sheree called to wish Sammy a happy birthday. They began to talk deeply about their formative years, their common experiences with domestic violence, the negative impact of divorce on their children, and their faith. A spiritual heart connection began to form.
The following December 21, they were married and became a blended family with five children in a small, three-bedroom, rented house—and they were happy!
The Story of Leesburg Christian Church
Leesburg Christian Church started in August 1828 on the homestead of Zachariah Graves, next to the present church building. Barton W. Stone preached the first message under a plum tree on the Graves property. The original 10 members pledged themselves to congregational freedom and allegiance only to Christ and the Bible.
The church struggled for the first few years. But in the fall of 1830, Alexander Campbell visited while on a preaching tour through Kentucky. Other great Restoration leaders preached there as well, including Raccoon John Smith and J.W. McGarvey. The church began to grow during the 59-year ministry of John Allen Gano, numbering more than 300 souls by 1847.
The church flourished once again in the mid-1940s under the leadership of Lewis Foster, and grew to nearly 500 active members. It was not unusual for people to stand on the lawn outside the windows to listen to Foster’s sermons.
From the late 1970s through the 1990s, LCC went through a series of ups and downs, dwindling to fewer than 40, in part because the restructuring of the Kentucky highway system bypassed the little community. With only 70 residents in the settlement, prospects for a thriving congregation seemed bleak.
God’s Restoration Story
But God had a plan . . . God was at work to restore a defeated pastor and revive a dying church. He had a blueprint for giving hope to Sammy Harris and a future to Leesburg Christian Church. And so it was that Barb Yearsley, a member of LCC, called Sammy one day in 2002. She said the church needed someone to “fill in.”
When Sammy and Sheree arrived that first rainy Sunday morning, they were put off by the poor condition of the building and the sagging morale of the people. Hard times were evident. And when the furnace kicked on that morning, a haze of black smoke filled the room. Strategically placed buckets caught water dripping from the holes in the roof. The baptistery was empty and the piano hadn’t been tuned in years.
Five people shuffled in for Bible school, and 27 assembled for worship (seven of these were the Harris family—the only early arrivals). But the people were gracious and kind, inviting him back the next Sunday. Sammy was transparent, telling the Leesburg church family his story.
“I am broken,” Sammy said.
“Our church is broken,” someone replied.
Sammy began to meet and pray with a small group of four families.
A “dream team” was formed, made up of 14 people who accepted the challenge of living with two churches—the one that is and the one that can be. From the beginning of this partnership, both pastor and parish have resolved to be a real church for real people. And so, predictably, church attendance doubled quickly. Sammy quit his job in Lexington, taking a large pay cut and sacrificing his benefits. He took a graveyard-shift job at a local factory in the Leesburg area to support his family and new ministry. Many more good and God-honoring details could be shared, but here is an update . . .
By Christmas 2016, Leesburg Christian Church had a record attendance of 1,400 and needed to rent the local high school to accommodate the crowd. Last Easter, LCC held five worship services in their new worship center. The church’s budget for 2017 is $720,000, with 10 percent designated for missions. The active weekly attendance is up to 600 in dual services. LCC now employs five full-time pastors and has four part-time staff positions. The church has been through two building expansions in the last 10 years—the most recent, a $1.6 million remodel of their old building. And the church’s vision is crystal clear: “Meeting, Serving and Sharing Jesus.”
And so there is a real-life happy ending—though it’s not really an ending—to the true story of how our heavenly Father can orchestrate a plan to restore a broken pastor and, at the same time, revive a dying church. It is his favorite thing to do.
Ken Idleman served as the fourth president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, was senior pastor for 10 years at Crossroads Christian Church, a megachurch in Newburgh, Indiana, and is presently mentoring pastors as vice president of leadership development with The Solomon Foundation.