Also see Pray for Our Leaders
Each Wednesday morning during certain times of the year, a Bible study meets in Bill Harris’ office. “Usually there are 10 or 12 of us,” he says with a soft drawl. “We have a leadership Bible we’ve been through probably three times and we use the Daily Bread (devotional). Various people will lead a discussion on a particular topic or I’ll bring in (sermon) notes from Dan Allan, my pastor, and that will be our study.”
A Bible study in a downtown office building in Columbus, Ohio, might not be unusual. But Bill Harris is not the typical worker in the bustling Ohio capital. His office in a spacious corner of the state’s Greek Revival capitol is filled with historic photos, maps, and reproduction 19th century furniture. He is the Republican Senator from the Buckeye State’s District 19 and the Senate President, presiding over the 127th session of the Ohio General Assembly.
Harris, a member of the Grace Brethren Church in Ashland, Ohio, believes his elected position is a divine calling. “There’s no question that my strength, as a legislator and as a person, is my faith in Jesus Christ and the guidance and direction that I get through my faith and through His grace,” he is quick to stress. “My wife and I feel very confident that the Lord’s in charge and that I’m doing what He wants me to do.”
Harris makes the hour and a half drive each day from his farm outside Ashland to downtown Columbus. When the legislature is in session, he stays in a Columbus hotel during the week. It’s during those months, usually from February through July and again in the fall, that a group of legislators, staffers, and others meet at 7 a.m. each Wednesday in Harris’ office for Bible study.
“It helps keep us focused because we know as we go into the day, there are all types of things that create animosity and dissension,” he notes.
“We’re done before 8,” the senator stresses. “That way we don’t interfere with the work schedule.”
He has led the study since he was first elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1994. Then-Governor Bob Taft appointed him to an open seat in the Senate in July 2000. That fall, Harris was elected to complete the remaining two years of the term.
“We talk a lot in our Bible study about the full armor of God,” he notes, “because we know that the ones who attend the study are probably more susceptible to having bigger egos than anybody else,” he admits. “Satan can use that to discredit anything we’re trying to do in regard to what is good public policy. So if we keep focusing on having that full armor, we can shield ourselves from Satan manipulating that ego. We can be more focused, like Nehemiah, in doing what God wants us to do.”
Living Faith in the Public Eye
He stresses that the study helps each participant live his or her faith in the public eye. “We do our best,” he says. “Our faith is our life, but we’re not saying because we know Christ, we are the only ones who are right (when it comes to public policy),” he says. “We’re trying to do what Christ said: the two commandments are to love God with all our heart and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
He told a Columbus Dispatch reporter last fall that his faith permeates many, if not all, of his decisions. “On tax reform: ‘If I was doing that just to benefit Bill Harris, my conscience would have a terrible time.’ On gay rights: ‘I think the Bible is clear that homosexuality is not what Christ wants us to do,'” the Dispatch reported in September 2006.
As senate president, he sets the agenda for the legislature, appoints committees, and speaks on behalf of the senate, in addition to presiding over sessions. He is also third in line to become governor, should something happen to the state’s chief executive and the lieutenant governor while in office.
“It gives me the opportunity to exercise servant leadership,” remarks Harris. It’s something he learned from a career in the Marine Corps and in business, but also in keeping with his faith. “You either walk the talk or you don’t walk the talk,” he adds.
He set the tone in January 2005 when he was sworn in as senate president. ” I have always found the best success to be, not in ruling with an iron fist, but to follow in the example of Jesus Christ and being a servant leader,” he told those assembled in the Ohio Statehouse. “I pledge to you as a servant leader I will facilitate, encourage, motivate, recognize accomplishments and also critique when necessary – it is imperative that we work together and hold each other accountable,” he added. He used Micah 6: 8 as a guiding principle: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your Lord.”
Harris was raised in southeastern Tennessee and northeastern Kentucky. “I went forward (in church) and accepted the Lord,” he recalls, “but I really didn’t practice (my faith) until I was in the Marine Corps.” God finally got his attention while he was on an assignment in Latin America. He needed to return home to Camp Lejeune, N.C. “My wife was in the hospital,” he remembers.
After a battery of tests, Louise, who “had never been sick a day in her life,” was diagnosed with an immunological disease. “It was chronic,” he says. “At the time, we had three children in diapers. That really got my attention.”
He became serious about his relationship with God. “I’m not proud to say this, but I think I probably tried to manipulate the Lord more than anybody,” he admits. “When I needed something, I was His greatest servant. When I was doing well, I didn’t need Him.”
Louise, his high school sweetheart, was ill for the next 20 years. She watched him serve two tours in Viet Nam, saw their four children attend college, and helped establish the family business in Ashland before her death in 1983.
She was also instrumental in introducing him to his current wife, Cay. “Louise had invited Cay to our church,” Harris recalls. “That’s how I got to know her.” In fact, Louise had helped Cay following the death of Cay’s husband, Don. “The Lord puts things in place and makes things happen that, at least in our case, you don’t realize until later,” he notes, “but it’s pretty clear.”
Bill and Cay will celebrate their 20th anniversary next year. Between them, they have 11 children and 17 grandchildren who are scattered around the U.S. His three sons now own the businesses that first brought the family to the northern Ohio city in 1980. The Bill Harris Dealerships sell Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep products and are located on the south end of Ashland.
It was the decision to move to Ashland that also led the Harris family to the Grace Brethren Church. At the time, they were living in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor where Bill was the general manager for a Chevrolet dealership. He wanted to purchase his own business, so was considering an available dealership in Ashland.
During his first conversation with the owner, Dave Sayle, Harris mentioned that he’d need to find a place to worship when they moved. “Dave said, ‘why don’t you drive down here and visit our church?”
The invitation was all it took. “As soon as I heard (then-pastor) Knute Larson, I thought, ‘that’s my kind of preaching,'” recalls Harris. That was in the fall. When the family relocated to Ashland in December, Harris remembers, “the first Sunday we went to Grace Brethren and we’ve been going there ever since.”
Harris was re-elected to his second four-year term in the 19th District Senate seat in November 2006. Because of term limits, this will be his last. He plans to seek the senate presidency for the 128th session of the Ohio General Assembly, but says he will not put his name in the hat for another elected office when his tenure is up in 2010.
“God has given me this tremendous opportunity,” he says, “and I pray and hope that I stay healthy and can continue in a leadership role until my term is completely up.”
Pray for Our Leaders
In 1 Timothy, Christians are encouraged to pray for all who are in authority. Ohio Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) says, “Pray that I stay humble and that I can keep the focus of being a humble servant; that God will give me guidance and direction to do His will, since He is in charge; and that the way I live my life will demonstrate my faith.”
He encourages prayer for elected leaders. “Pray that your legislators know God, that they recognize that God is in charge, and they can get comfort and support as they perform their role as a servant leader,” he says. “Pray also that they will have confidence to know that God is directing and providing.”