A few short months ago, Pastor John Mark Harrison was perfectly content serving the congregation of Biltmore Baptist Church in scenic Asheville.
Then he received an unexpected phone call that put his life on a new and exciting path.
The pastor search committee from Apex Baptist Church contacted Harrison and asked if he would like meet for maybe an hour or two.
That meeting turned into a five-hour discussion that left both Harrison and the committee feeling they had found a perfect match.
“The first time we met him was at a Panera Bread,” said search committee member Amy Carroll. “We thought we would talk with him for an hour or so and we ended up sitting there for five hours. There was an instant connection and we enjoyed talking to him so much. God led us in the same direction.”
Harrison laughs when recalling that initial meeting with the Apex contingent.
“My wife was worried about me that day,” said Harrison. “She was wondering where I had gone. It was very natural and easy and we sat there for a good four or five hours. It was a great meeting.”
Harrison took over as pastor of Apex Baptist Church on July 15 and was quickly embraced by his new congregation.
Just 31 years old, the former walk-on football player at the University of Alabama never thought he would get such a wonderful opportunity at such a young age.
Apex Baptist is a church of 1,500 members with long and deep roots in the community. Its former pastor, Phil Qualls, served at the church for nearly 28 years and was highly-loved and well-respected throughout Apex.
Early in the search process, Harrison didn’t think he was a serious candidate and wasn’t even sure if he wanted to leave Asheville.
“I was minding my own business in Asheville when one day I received a call from the pastor search team,” said Harrison. “They asked me to pray about visiting with them. I prayed about it but it felt like a long shot with such an established church that has such an incredible pastor for so many years. I wondered if they would really want somebody my age.”
But he believes very strongly that a higher power has been guiding the process right from the start.
“God began to bring our hearts together and it was an exciting journey,” said Harrison. “We loved Biltmore Baptist and we still have a lot of great friends there. We didn’t necessarily want to leave but we wanted to follow the Lord more than we wanted to stay comfortable where we were.
“It was very clear throughout the process, His calling us here. It was confirmed time and time again that this was the right place at the right time. (It happened) faster than I anticipated but God’s timing is perfect and you could see His hand all through it. It was surprising when it all came together.”
Harrison was born in Tallahassee, Fla., but considers Gardendale, Ala., as his true home. Although he is the son of a pastor, Harrison resisted following in his father’s footsteps until he finished pursuing a much different dream.
“I sensed God calling me to the ministry in high school but I didn’t necessarily respond to that until I was almost through college,” said Harrison. “After high school I was a walk-on football player at the University of Alabama. I didn’t play very much but it was an amazing experience. That was kind of a dream of mine and I got to do that.”
But soon the calling to serve God became too strong to ignore. He began serving as a part-time student pastor at a small church in Tuscaloosa.
Eventually, he transferred to Samford University where he changed his major from communications to religion.
“I wanted to become a coach for the longest time and then God really refined that to my calling to the ministry,” said Harrison. “For a long time I was thinking ‘I don’t want to do what Dad does’ but God began to clarify that call in my heart. My dad is my hero and it has been great to lean on him and learn from him.”
After graduating from Samford, Harrison earned his master’s degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is currently pursuing his doctorate.
Harrison’s first church after college was in Houston before making the move to Asheville.
Now, he and his wife, Brigitte, and three-year-old son, Cade, are ready to settle down in Apex.
“They are such wonderful people here in Apex,” said Harrison. “It is just a great church body. They have been so loving and kind and have shown such great hospitality. It’s been so much fun getting to know the congregation. It’s been a wonderful (two months).
This church loves God’s word and they love the Bible being taught. It makes it easy for me to fit in because I love to teach and preach the Bible and study it. It’s been a great journey.”
As for taking over for the highly-regarded Qualls, Harrison views it as a true blessing.
“They are big shoes to fill,” said Harrison. “Phil Qualls is a phenomenal man and a wonderful leader. He prepared this church in the last few weeks and months he was here to take the next step with a new leader and a new direction.
“I consider it a blessing to come here and stand on his shoulders. He has developed a great staff team. The components are here for a wonderful church experience.”
While the men in charge have changed at Apex Baptist, the message is no different now than it’s ever been.
“The message is the same,” said Harrison. “Our methods may differ a little bit but the message of Jesus Christ and his gospel stays the same. There is plenty of commonality between the way Phil led this church for so many years and the way I get to lead it know.
“We want to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our community. We want our community to know that we really care. This church does such a wonderful job loving on people and caring about others. We want to continue that and continue to reach out to those who do not have a church home and don’t get to experience that community of faith that the Bible talks about and our church offers.”
From the first day she met him until now, Carroll hasn’t wavered in her belief that Harrison is the perfect person to lead the congregation.
“We are very happy to have him,” said Carroll. “He has wonderful leadership abilities and also a deep love for mission work, which is something that is already very important at our church. It seems to be part of his DNA.”
It probably is. Just ask his father.