Last year, the Rev. Jerry Russell decided he no longer wanted to be a General Conference delegate.
He has been elected many times to represent Holston Conference and to make decisions, along with other leaders, for The United Methodist Church.
However, prior to last summer’s election for the next delegation, the 71-year-old retired pastor decided to invest in the future of the church in a different way.
“I want to put my energy into developing young church leaders,” he says.
A missionary and former senior pastor with decades of service, Dr. Jerry Russell now spends his year preparing the next generations to pick up the yoke. From January to December, he puts promising young people from different backgrounds on the same mission teams and sends them off to do big things together all over the world.
Among the recent fruits of his ministry is the launch of the first-ever Resurrection spiritual weekend in Costa Rica in October 2019 -- a combined effort of young Methodists from Costa Rica collaborating with people from the United States. The East Tennessee version of Resurrection has existed for 34 years.
“I think God sees what’s on the horizon,” Russell says. “We have a tendency to want to protect, but change is on the horizon and we have to look over the horizon like God does.”
Last year, Russell had reasons to be discouraged. Hiwassee College closed after 170 years, including the years Russell served there as chaplain, coach and later, interim president.
The church where he grew up, St. Luke United Methodist Church in Knoxville, also closed in 2019.
Russell says that participating in the special session of General Conference in St. Louis as an alternate delegate in February 2019 was a significant downer.
“It took me several weeks to get over it emotionally,” he said, referring to the raw chasm between delegates who disagreed on how the church should deal with gay clergy and same-sex marriage. “It breaks my heart to see another person ache when you can’t agree. Pastors spend their whole lives trying to help people not separate, and when they do it’s very emotional and intense.”
Russell responded by continuing to do what he has always done: Stack his calendar with mission projects, but with a ramped-up focus on developing church leaders for the future.
The year 2019 started with a bang. In January, Russell led a team of seniors from Maryville Christian School to Guatemala to provide vacation Bible school in rural, poor neighborhoods.
Year of connections
Also in January, a group of young Costa Rican Methodists whom Russell has worked with for years came to Holston Conference (Pigeon Forge) to learn about how to put on a Resurrection spiritual event in their own country.
In March, a youth group from Fairview United Methodist Church (where Russell served as senior pastor for 25 years before retiring in 2015) went to Costa Rica to do construction work and provide vacation Bible school to Nicaraguan refugees.
In May, Russell took students from Holston United Methodist Home for Children, combined with Costa Rican and Mexican team members, to Guatemala for more construction work and vacation Bible school.
In June, Russell helped organize athletes from Blount County schools to provide daytime sports camps for children in Costa Rica. In the evenings, the Tennessee athletes played basketball against local Costa Rican teams. Testimonies were shared during halftime. Sixteen children were baptized.
“They were building relationships with new friends, because relationships are the doorway through which you can share the gospel,” Russell said. “It really affects the life of the student body. They actually see the world. They can see beyond the horizons of the Smoky Mountains.”
In August, Russell was once again part of the annual Hands-on Mission Project that has been near and dear to Holston Conference for 24 years. A team was on the ground in Zimbabwe when a shipment of food, health and school supplies, collected by Holston churches, arrived for the children of Ishe Anesu. Russell and his team also offered a week of vacation Bible school that started with 750 attendance on the first day and reached 1,800 by the last day.
The year was topped off when the first Resurrection in Costa Rica was attended by 750 young people and drew hundreds of commitments for future ministry.
In December, Russell worked with a team from Fairview United Methodist Church as they provided a retreat for young clergy couples in Latvia.
Time to move onJust a couple of weeks into 2020, Russell has already led another team to Guatemala, and he’s gearing up for Resurrection 2020 happening Jan. 24-26 in Pigeon Forge.
There, a group of Costa Rican Methodists will report that their second annual Resurrection will be held Oct. 9-11, 2020 in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. The Costa Rican band Save Our Souls (S.O.S.) will also share their praise music with the 8,000 or so U.S. teenagers in attendance.
Together with the Rev. Jason Roe, leader of the U.S. Resurrection design team, Russell also has some dreams about the next phase for the youth spiritual event:
“Our goal is to plant Resurrection in other places,” Russell said. “We’re beginning to store away funds to do that. ... I think Africa is the next natural place, but we’re waiting for the Holy Spirit to open the door. We’re sharing our dreams with the leaders in Zimbabwe, and we will wait to see if they would like to be in a partnership and relationship.”
Russell’s decades of service include a missionary assignment in Boliva in the 1970s and a stint in Argentina in the 1980s. His relationships on mission fields all over the world could fuel many more years of collaborations and leadership training through his nonprofit organization, Samaritan Hands.
Yet Russell says upfront: "There’s going to be a day when I can’t do Zimbabwe.” As Holston Conference walks with other United Methodists toward the next General Conference (to be held May 5-15 in Minneapolis), Russell says that change in the church is coming. A separation plan between United Methodists who disagree on scripture and homosexuality is among the possibilities.
Jerry Russell just doesn’t want Holston Conference to stop being the mission-driven conference it has always been.
“I want our conference to invest in our young leadership, with the world as our parish,” he says. “I understand that there are differences, but we can share the things we agree on.”
Last summer, Russell took his name off the list of clergy eligible for election to General Conference. He had already been elected to vote on behalf of Holston Conference seven times before.
“I’ve seen it come and I’ve seen it go,” he said. It was time to move on.
Still, Russell makes it clear the next General Conference is in his prayers.
"I will be praying and fasting for wisdom and guidance for all those who go," he said. "This is 2020, and change is coming. My prayer is that it will be a God-led change and a Holy Spirit-inspired change.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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