Almost four years ago, the Rev. Jerry Russell held a miniature globe in his hands as he spoke to a group of United Methodist delegates in Pittsburgh. He said he would gladly accept a future as a bishop, but he would also gladly return to his pulpit as a “missionary preacher.”
Today, his message is the same.
"There is no higher calling than to be pastor of a vibrant, growing church,” Russell said recently in his office at Fairview United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tenn. “It would be a great joy to be selected as episcopal leader, but there is also great joy in returning to a church that has followed through on their commitment to fall in love with the world and to fall in love with Blount County.”
On Oct. 4, the Holston Conference delegation voted to endorse Russell as a candidate for the episcopacy. He will run for election at the next Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, held July 2008 in Lake Junaluska, N.C.
The delegation leadership released this prepared statement:
"H. Eddie Fox, chair, and Bob Lockaby, vice chair of the Holston Conference delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conferences, announce that Dr. Jerald ‘Jerry’ Russell is unanimously endorsed by the Holston Conference delegation as a candidate for the episcopacy in the United Methodist Church. We are grateful that Jerry is willing to listen to the call of the church. He has the gifts and experience for leadership as a bishop in the church. We request prayer for discernment for leadership in our church.”
At age 59, Russell seeks the title of bishop for the second time. In 2003, the Holston delegation nominated him along with Mary Virginia “Dindy” Taylor.
Taylor was elected bishop in 2004; Russell was not. Taylor now serves as resident bishop for the South Carolina Conference.
For some, the July 2004 election was not a gentle, gracious experience. Taylor was elected on the 34th and final ballot late in the evening. Days later, delegates from other conferences accused the Southeastern Jurisdiction of racism and bargaining for votes.
Today, Russell admits some vulnerability in going through the process again and concern for wife Judy, who he says has stood by his side since he took his ordination vows in 1974.
"It’s a very humbling experience for us as a couple,” Russell said. “It’s humbling in that you are truly offering yourselves into the hands of the church. They will cast their votes and out of that, God’s spirit will work. But it is always the right thing to do, to offer yourselves to the church and Christ.”
In January, Russell will celebrate his 20th year as senior pastor at Fairview. He has not only led his congregation from an average worship attendance of 200 to 1,100, the pastor has also led nearly 100 mission teams from his church to more than 20 countries, and about 20 teams to work on disaster projects inside the U.S.
This summer, Russell received a Southeastern Jurisdiction award for his mission work. The Herman W. Sieldschlag Award for Mission Interpretation was presented by the Conference Secretaries of Global Ministries for Russell’s “extraordinary service in telling the church’s story through mission interpretation and the Southeastern Jurisdiction.” Russell is the first to win the award in Holston.
The plaque rests casually on a bookshelf in his office, along with hundreds of other mementos, photos, and awards from his mission trips and athletic career.
Wearing sandals, a wooden cross necklace, and a Save the Children tie, Russell calls himself a “missionary preacher.” In Holston Conference, both he and his congregation are known for their seemingly unlimited energy for mission voyages.
In 2007 alone, Russell has led teams to Costa Rica, Latvia, Guatemala, Tonga, and Zimbabwe. On Oct. 28, he will leave for Vietnam.
In the last 18 years, his congregation has built 15 Habitat houses, a Guatemalan orphanage, and a Paraguayan school. They have planted two churches in Guatemala, one in Costa Rica, and one in their hometown. Sycamore Tree United Methodist Church, in Maryville, has been identified by the conference Congregational Development Team as one of the most successful new churches in Holston.
Russell says Sycamore Tree is successful because it has the Rev. Jeff Wadley as leader and “the same DNA” as Fairview.
"I believe local churches ought to be out reproducing themselves,” says Russell. “Every local church needs to be declaring and living out the Good News in word and deed. The church becomes alive and exciting to the community when they see that happen. Declaration and practice are one and the same.”
That’s why Russell says planting new churches will be one of his passions if he is elected bishop, along with helping churches to grow and building strong missions programs.
One of the first things he would do as a new bishop: “I would take the whole cabinet out on a mission trip, make them sleep on the ground, carry their own water,” he said. “It would be somewhere that’s not easy.”
"Then I would become a listener. I would listen to the leadership and the church ...”
When Russell was asked how he would prepare for his candidacy, he said he would have to “pray a lot” and be able to “articulate my vision for the annual conference.”
Russell already seems to have the vision part accomplished.
More about Jerry Russell
Education: B.A. in history, geography, and physical education from Emory & Henry College; Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary; Master of Science, with emphasis in physical education, from University of Tennessee; Doctor of Ministry from Vanderbilt University
Missionary: General Board of Global Ministries, serving in Bolivia (1974-1978) and Argentina (1980-1983)
Holston appointments: Second UMC, Knoxville District (1973-1974); Fairview UMC, Knoxville District (1978-1979); Hiwassee College/ Buckner Memorial UMC (1983-1990); Fairview UMC, Maryville District (1991-present)
Athletic background: As a student at Emory & Henry College, Russell was an All-American offensive tackle on the football team and an All-American catcher on the baseball team. As coach of women’s softball at Hiwassee College, he led the team to national titles.
Delegate: Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, 1988 and 1992. General Conference Conference, 1996 (reserve), 2000, 2004, 2008.
Family: Wife Judy, four adult children, two grandsons.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.