Beneath the Water Line

Partners with the President with Acting EFCA President Carlton Harris.

April 16, 2024

In the summer of 2021, I received a call at my home in San Diego, California. It was a search consultant with NL Moore and Associates. She was recruiting for an open position at the EFCA, Executive Vice President of National Ministries. 

“I don't know who this person is or why they're bothering me,” I told my wife, Carol, after the call. “I'm sure I’m not what they're looking for.” 

For 30 years, I’d been a pastor—14 years in Cleveland Heights, 16 more in San Diego, neither an EFCA church—I didn’t know much else. I certainly felt I knew little about being a national leader for an entire movement of churches.  

But at Nancy Moore’s persistence, I agreed to pray about the opportunity with Carol for the next two weeks. Four months later, I accepted the job and packed my bags for Minneapolis. 

Free Church roots

My introduction to the Evangelical Free Church of America came the summer of 1981 in Wichita, Kansas. A Free Church pastor by the name of Mike Andrus hired me as a pastoral intern at First Free in Wichita. Mike took a chance on me—with my big afro, mutton-chop sideburns and blonde-haired bride—and people left his church because of it. 

Old photo of a man and a woman standing together, smiling, in front of a mantle.
Carlton and Carol in the early 1980s.

Mike had a profound influence on my life. Beyond his belief in me and Carol, Mike was a brilliant preacher, committed to the Word of God and had a deep heart for church planting. When I accepted my first senior pastor position in 1992—a struggling multiethnic congregation in Cleveland Heights, Ohio— Mike and several other members of First Free continued to pray for and encourage me. When Carol and I moved to San Diego 14 years later, Mike preached my installation service.

I accepted the position with the EFCA in the summer of 2021 for multiple reasons, but at the core of it was the people.

Everything Mike did was rooted in preaching the Bible and loving people. That was it. It was simple, but it stuck with me. 

I want to be around people like him, I remember thinking. And I want to be around churches like this. 

Although God’s path led me away from the EFCA for most of my pastoral ministry, my time in Wichita gave me a sweet tooth for the Free Church. Even as I pastored non-EFCA churches, I kept my eye on the movement. I subscribed to the Evangelical Beacon and Pursuit Magazine (the EFCA’s two major publications at the time). I read that stuff constantly. I had my heart toward the EFCA, but a door never opened for me.  

That is, until Nancy Moore called, exactly 40 years after Mike hired me in Wichita. 

I accepted the position with the EFCA in the summer of 2021 for multiple reasons, but at the core of it was the people. People like Mike Andrus, who had hearts for God’s Word and the Great Commission. Free Church people.  

For years, I’d been asking God to help me finish well in life. Now, I was asking Him to multiply my impact and make the final season of my life more fruitful than all the others combined—and He led me back to where it all began.

Going beneath the water line

Christianity is about relationship. It’s a relational religion. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about the greatest commandment in the Law, He said: 

“'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40) 

In my experience, people are transformed in three primary ways: the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the people of God (Articles 2, 6–8 of the EFCA Statement of Faith). As evangelicals, we are people of the Book. Everything we do is deeply rooted in Scripture—and I love that about our movement—but I want to make sure we’re not missing the other two.  

Everything in the depth of people’s hearts—emotions and motives—is below the water line. That’s where true change happens.

I’m all for the study of Scripture. I love the left-brained, intellectual side of evangelicalism. In seminary, I hosted a Q&A radio show where I explained all sorts of theological topics through debate with callers and co-hosts. I had an answer for everything—divorce and remarriage, tongues and spiritual gifts, you name it. I had my views packaged up with bows, but that wasn’t what changed me—at least, that wasn’t all of it. 

In my late 20s, I started to loosen my uncharitable grip on some of those views. In his book Inside Out, Dr. Larry Crabb introduced me to the illustration of people as icebergs. Above the “water line” of our hearts is seen and conscious behavior. Below the water line is unseen and often unconscious. 

Everything in the depth of people’s hearts—emotions and motives—is below the water line. That’s where true change happens, and it happens in the context of safe relationship. 

A black-and-white photo of two men in suits standing in front of a sign for Dallas Theological Seminary.
Carlton at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Reading Dr. Crabb’s book prompted a season of great change for me. At one point, Carol looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I don’t know you anymore.” I agreed. 

When we began our ministry in Cleveland Heights, God began a work in my heart. I felt (what I hoped was) a holy discontent. As a new pastor, I saw how easy it would be to isolate, to be the “lonely pastor,” to only allow people to see the tip of the iceberg. But God called me in a different direction, to relationship, and my life changed because of it. 

In trusting relationships with a community of believers, Carol and I navigated the deep waters of pastoral life. We did life together with our church community. We unpacked personal issues. We raised a family. We married and buried people. We learned from people. We walked with people—in seasons where it felt like God was smiling on our ministry, and in seasons of spiritual, emotional and physical struggle.  

Through all of it, we saw how the people of God can impact one another as vehicles of God’s healing love. That was at the core of our ministry, beneath the water line. Or, in the words of my good friend Kevin Kompelien: 

“I firmly believe that all ministry is based in relationships, all relationships are based on trust, and trust grows as we minister together in meaningful ways" (Partners with the President, February 2016). 

"He's for real."

When I first met Kevin, we did the typical, “professional” dance when you’re a candidate for a job. I wore a suit and tie. We exchanged small talk. Tip of the iceberg stuff. After the interview, when I still wasn’t sure about the position, my good friend Mike Andrus reassured me: “Kevin’s a good brother,” he said. 

As a man and as a leader, Kevin Kompelien models loving, trusting relationships, and I hope to carry on his legacy.

Near the end of the process, Kevin and his wife Becky flew to San Diego to visit me and Carol, and we spent the day together at one of our favorite restaurants. After we dropped the Kompeliens back at the airport, I turned to Carol and asked, “So, what do you think about Kevin?” 

Without missing a beat, she said, “He’s for real. I trust him.” I couldn’t have agreed more. 

When I started with ReachNational in September 2021, Kevin onboarded me with wisdom, skill and care. He gave me freedom to lead. He trusted me. He walked with me and supported me as we navigated a new direction for national ministries. He did everything in his power to help me as a leader. 

Carlton and Carol with their six (of now seven) grandchildren.

For the last two-plus years, I’ve watched Kevin live the leadership principle that “more is caught than taught.” I’ve had a front-row seat watching him love the people of the EFCA. Kevin just emotes love and relationship. He cares for people with grace and patience. He loves his family— his wife, his kids, his kids-in-law, his grandkids. As a man and as a leader, Kevin models loving, trusting relationships, and I hope to carry on his legacy as I step into the role of Acting President of the EFCA.  

Continuing toward "one EFCA"

Looking forward, I know the next three years (until the presidential term ends in June 2027) will go by quickly. In my experience, it takes about five to seven years to impact a local church, and about seven to 10 to have an impact on a regional level. As I step into this new role, I’m not fooling myself. My aim isn’t to enact great, foundational change in our movement. Instead, I want to build on the Foundation Stones that are already here.  

In everything, I hope to love first, lead second, but always do both.

During the next three years, I want to continue what trusted EFCA leaders have started. I want to foster the sweet relational unity and fellowship among district leaders (which, in my view, is one of Kevin’s greatest legacies). I want to reinforce our deep commitment to the Great Commission—in local churches, districts, national ministries and around the globe. 

I’m asking God to use the EFCA to raise up the next wave of leaders to lead churches that transform lives and, in turn, communities. I’m asking God to deepen our sense of “all people,” to use churches and global workers to populate the great heavenly scene of “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). I’m asking God to empower us to "keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), to keep us grounded in our ethos and values, and to give us a courageous, humble and joyful spirit.

I pray that, as I step into these uncharted waters, I will lead out of my personal and relational wealth—rooted in the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the people of God. I will not be a lone ranger or the “lonely president.” In everything, I hope to love first, lead second, but always do both. 

In closing, I want to turn us back toward Kevin’s beautiful vision of “one EFCA,” rooted in trusting relationships: 

"The mission and vision of the EFCA are dynamic and powerful statements of what we believe the Lord wants to do in and through our churches. Yet, unless we are clear in how we are working together, we won’t see the depth and breadth of gospel transformation. I believe we are most effective when local churches and districts, along with the national and international ministries of the EFCA, work closely together to see ministry advance. This happens best when based on shared biblical and ministry values, trusting relationships, and commonly identified areas of ministry focus" (Partners with the President, October 2015). 

I joined the EFCA movement because of the theology, the vision and the people—people like Mike Andrus, and Kevin and Becky Kompelien. And because of the people—those of you I know already and those I’ve still yet to meet—I trust that God will guide the EFCA into a future of joy that is rooted in relationship. 

With joyful hope,

Carlton P. Harris

Lead photo: Carlton and his spiritual mentor and former EFCA pastor, Mike Andrus.

Carlton P. Harris

Acting President, EFCA

Carlton started ministry in 1981 as a pastoral intern at First Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, Kansas, and has spent 40 years in church leadership. He began his role at the EFCA national office leading the ReachNational division in September 2021 and was named acting president of the EFCA in April 2024. He and his wife, Carol, are members at New Hope Church in New Hope, Minnesota.

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