After nine years as senior pastor at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church and about 34 years in the ministry, The Rev. Linda Harker is retiring from her post.
Harker's last Sunday sermon will be May 31, but her official retirement date is July 1.
The church's bishop, Rev. Jimmy Nunn, selected The Rev. Rockford Johnson in March to take over as senior pastor after her retirement. Johnson, who has been in the ministry 33 years, most recently served as district superintendent of the Crossroads District of the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church since summer 2013.
Harker said she began her ministry as a youth director in 1986 and had other jobs as a children's director, program director a deacon and an elder.
Harker said she believes God called her to the ministry as a young child, but she didn't surrender to the call until she was an adult. Throughout her church service, people frequently asked her if she was considering ministry work.
“My consistent answer was, 'Oh, that couldn’t be possible. I’m a woman. I’m older. I have a family and I have no formal education,'” she said, but that didn't stop her senior pastor, Rev. Ken Tobler, who insisted — along with her husband Ralph — that she get a degree for ministry.
So, Harker pursued and achieved a degree in religion from Oklahoma City University and eventually surrendered to God's calling after a woman at New Haven United Methodist Church in Tulsa, where she served, asked her to be with her and her family during her dying process.
“I had no idea what I was doing. However, God equipped and I spent several days with her and her family. We sang hymns of the faith that were her favorite, read scripture and I held her hand as she passed from this life to her eternal home. It was truly a holy moment,” Harker said. “I remember walking out to my car and Rev. Tobler was there to visit with the family and asked, 'Well, are you now ready to answer God’s call?' With tears rolling down my face, I said, 'yes.'”
The next week, Harker received an offer to attend Phillips Seminary in Tulsa on a full scholarship.
“I learned the hard way that when God calls you to something, God will never give up,” she said.
When she joined the ministry, Harker said her role model was Mrs. Leggitt, who she met as a young child. Leggitt taught her about Jesus and the importance of the church in welcoming children.
“She taught me the importance of 'seeing' those who might otherwise be overlooked,” said Harker, who grew up in an abusive, alcoholic family in poverty with a father who spent time in prison. “I was one of those who could have been in the category of the 'overlooked.' I’m forever grateful that she 'saw me' and 'loved me into the faith.'”
She said the church, her relationship with Jesus Christ and Mrs. Leggitt saved her from life circumstances.
“It’s why my passion is to serve the church. I know the difference it can make in a persons life,” Harker said.
Harker said her faith has sustained her through every season in life.
“The assurance that I do not walk alone and that God is with me to strengthen me is the greatest blessing of life,” she said.
Harker said her decision to retire came during a time of discernment from God. She received affirmation later when a colleague told her, “It's time, Linda.”
Her retirement plans include spending time with her husband and grandchildren, enjoying a slower pace of living and continuing to be a witness to God's saving grace.
Harker said she will miss the people at McFarlin the most and the ministry they have shared.
“They have been so good to me and it has been a privilege to serve alongside them,” she said, adding that the people are some of the most faithful and generous Christians she has known who have a passion for living out their faith.
She said her biggest supporters have been her family, including her husband, Ralph, and children Michael and Elizabeth. She also has received support from lay people and clergy.
“There is no greater calling than to find that place where God has called you to serve in response to God’s love and grace. I am humbled to have had the privilege of serving as a pastor,” she said.
Karen Hill, chair of McFarlin's Staff Parish Relations Committee, has worked with Harker since she was appointed in 2011.
“As a pastor, Linda is servant-oriented. No person is beyond her reach ... She has a heart for the hurting and the hopeless,” Hill said. “Pastor Harker believes that all people matter to God, so they also matter to her.”
She said Harker taught her that God continues to use ordinary people like herself for extraordinary tasks.
Daphne Fix, McFarlin's pastoral assistant and sanctuary worship coordinator, said Harker always goes the extra mile to serve those she meets and leads.
She said Harker inspired her to be a better disciple of Jesus and taught her that reaching out to others can be challenging, but it's worth it when you see lives changed.
Dr. Richard Zielinski, McFarlin's director of music ministries who has worked with Harker for eight years, said he will miss her guidance, sincerity, positive attitude, laughter, smile and her love for everyone.
He said Harker has had a profound effect on his life.
“During these unprecedented times, Pastor Linda has been the light in the darkness and the calm in the storm,” he said, adding that after speaking with her, he always left feeling hopeful about the future.
Stephen Mitchell, McFarlin's business administrator for four years, described Harker as compassionate, loving and a strong leader. He said Harker taught him how to be strong and compassionate.
Miller, who grew up in the Methodist church as the son of a 40-year career clergyman, said Harker's ability to challenge others while showing compassion has helped grow his faith.
Wendi Neal, an associate pastor at McFarlin, has worked with Harker for three and a half years.
“Her heart beats for God and for people, and she is there for you when you need her,” she said about Harker.
Neal said that she will miss Harker's unabashed, infectious joy and Harker taught her that being vulnerable is not a flaw.
“It takes a lot of courage to share your real self with the world,” she said. “People need to know that there is hope, there is healing, there are second chances. That is the gospel and that can and should be the witness of the church.”
Harris Phillips, a lay leader at McFarlin, said he has worked with Harker for nine years. He described her as a visionary leader who has worked tirelessly to help the church fulfill its mission. He also said she has a gift for resolving conflicts and helping others through tough times.
He said Harker has helped him view those with opposing viewpoints with love and understanding, and she has inspired him to be more involved in faith-related activities outside of the church.
Tara Koetter, administrative council chair and safety team director, described Harker as a strong but collaborative leader who appreciates good teamwork.
“She has a wonderful presence in the pulpit. She strives for excellence in all things. She loves people well,” Koetter said.
She said Harker ends every sermon with “marching orders” that challenge the congregation to reflect and act on their faith.
Harker said she hopes McFarlin will “continue to be a mission minded, life-changing body of Christ that makes a difference in our community, our state and our world.”
Harker said McFarlin has formed a relaunch team. The plan is to reopen the day care, Children's Day Out and McFarlin and Friends on June 1. Services will be online until the church can be safely reopened for worship.
Michael Andres, McFarlin's executive minister, said he joined the church's staff in October 10, eight months before Harker started.
He said Harker is deeply compassionate, genuine and generous.
“You never have to guess where you stand with Linda because she lives and seeks out transparency. She has often stated that she would be just as happy ministering to a congregation of 10 as she would a congregation of 1,000. She loves people as they are and where they are,” Andres said.
He said he owes a great deal of his own ministry to Harker because they found a natural partnership and their strengths and weaknesses compliment each other well.
“I am going to miss the moments where she tears up because of how moved she is to care for a person or a family in need. I am going to miss her shepherd’s tone as she reminds me to not be so dogmatic and attached to plans or systems when the needs of people should come first,” he said.