During his senior year of high school in 1961, Bob Russell and his teammates had only one goal – winning the Pennsylvania state basketball championship.
They had been the team everybody was pointing toward for years, the weight of a small town on their shoulders. They were good and everybody knew it. Their time had arrived.
“We had won everything from ninth grade on,” he said. “The goal was to win the state tournament when we were seniors.”
They made it to the state tournament and even led by 14 points in the fourth quarter before collapsing and eventually losing in overtime.
“My life fell apart,” Russell said.
As it turns out, even though he didn’t yet know it, life was really just beginning.
Bob Russell went to visit his sister at Cincinnati Bible College and liked what he saw around campus but didn’t think it was for him.
“I thought, ‘That’s a great school. Too bad I don’t want to be a preacher.’”
It was basketball that was still his passion. He even had dreams of becoming the coach of his high school team one day. Only 5-foot-9, his skills were good enough that a career in college certainly wasn’t out of the equation.
“Clarion College in Pennsylvania wanted me to play and invited me over,” he said. “Everything went wrong on the trip. Looking at the contrast (of the visit to Cincinnati Bible College), that’s when I started looking at becoming a preacher. Up until that point, I wanted to coach.”
God’s calling on his life had begun to change him inside. His heart was tugging him into the ministry.
But Bob Russell never imagined the scale to which the ministry would take him. He enrolled in Cincinnati Bible Seminary where he graduated in 1965 Russell guided a couple of small churches, including one in southern Ohio, when at the age of 22 he became the pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville.
It was a congregation of 176, with 73 charter members, and Bob Russell was “scared stiff.”
“I’m going from the country to the city with a BA degree from Cincinnati Bible,” he said. “There were people with Ph.D’s in that church. But this thing started to grow and grow big. It was a constant learning experience.”
Forty years after stepping into Southeast Christian Church, Bob Russell retired in 2006 as the pastor of one of the largest churches in America with more than 18,000 members attending four worship services every weekend.
The former preacher of one of the largest congregations in America will be in Ashland next weekend at Beech Street Christian Church. He will be leading a leadership conference on Saturday morning and preaching in the Sunday morning service.
Russell, a humble man, said growing the church to such heights was nothing he did.
“God is able to do immeasurably more than what we ask. People will come to the church and say, ‘It’s marvelous what you’ve done here.’ No human being could do this on their own. It’s almost a surreal experience when I think about what happened there.”
Southeast Christian’s congregation doubled every five years under Russell’s leadership. He was witnessed some 35,000 come to receive Salvation. Russell understands the mission of a church is “to go into all the world and preach the good news to all creations.”
When Bob Russell retired from Southeast Christian, he didn’t retire as a worker for God’s kingdom.
He does play some golf when the opportunity comes although, admittedly says, “I’m not very good at it.”
Russell still keeps a busy schedule leading weekend conferences all over the country and he’s also a prolific author with more than a dozen books to his credit. He and his wife, Judy, have been married for 47 years and they have two married sons and seven grandchildren.
So there’s plenty to keep him busy. He’s also always available as a leader and guide at Southeast Christian Church whenever he’s asked.
One of his sons, Phil Russell, is on the Louisville Metro Police Department as well as being a film actor with the Screen Actors Guild along with serving at Southeast. His other son, Rusty Russell, is the lead pastor of the New Day Christian Church in Port Charlotte, Fla., after serving many years at Southeast.
Bob Russell said serving the 40 years at Southeast was always a learning experience. He was always careful not to get ahead of what God wanted for the church.
“I’ve learned a lot of leadership lessons from the mistakes I’ve made,” he said. “I was very blessed to have good elders. The elders at Southeast Christian Church have always been good. They knew they had a lot of potential. They went for a year without a preacher and decided maybe God wants us to hire a younger man.”
That “younger man” became one of the most dynamic preachers in America. Bob Russell put a transition plan in place when it was time for him to step aside and let someone else lead. They identified the new pastor and began what was a five-year process.
“When I retired I agreed to stay away for a year,” he said. “They didn’t need me looking over their shoulder. I travel so much and speak so much I was rarely there. I still feel like I’m a part of the church. They’ve done well without me.”
Russell said there have been many changes in the church over the last 50 years.
“Music is incredible but there’s a lot of unrest. Change comes hard. A lot of older people don’t like some of the music. Dress styles have changed. One of the big changes is the liberalization of culture that has made ministry really tough. Cohabitation and gay marriage puts preachers on the spot. He wants to stand for the gospel but be a compassionate minister to people. It’s tough to be in ministry.”
Russell says previous generations of preachers took the role of recruiting preachers more seriously than they do today.
“Now we pass that along to student members and we’re not recruiting as many young people. It used to be almost everybody is training for ministry; now it’s only a handful.”
Russell says social media is both good and bad.
“It can be a tremendous distraction when you’re talking with someone and hear that ‘ping.’ When I talk to preachers I tell them to turn it off or leave it with the secretary. But there are some positives, too. Guys are on Twitter promoting what’s going on and books that are out. There are some very positive things but negatives as well.”
Russell said he’s been to the area a few times, including some teaching stops at Kentucky Christian in Grayson. He said his first church in southern Ohio had a member, Kenny Aulen, who was from Ashland. “That was when I was in Bible College, preaching on weekends.”
Russell said he tells fellow preachers that every preacher needs a hobby. “You need something you do to get away from the church. Mine is two-fold. One is golf, although I’m not very good, and the other is University of Louisville football and basketball. I’m excited about this fall.”
Russell does understand his audience. He’s visiting an area where the University of Kentucky remains king.
“Louisville may not be something we talk too much about,” he said.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.