What About Southeast?
By Darrel Rowland
A renowned church leader wonders if Bob Russell stayed a little too long at Southeast Christian Church.
The rapid growth of the megachurch in Louisville, Kentucky, plateaued a bit in Russell’s final two years there—he stepped down in June 2006—and successor Dave Stone’s first two.
Russell seemed a little slow to move to a multisite model, which in the past few years has sparked renewed growth to nearly 21,000 a week meeting in three facilities.
And, frankly, near the end of his 40-year run at Southeast, Russell didn’t show as much energy as he did before.
Who has audacity to question one of the legendary Christian church ministers in America?
None other than Russell himself.
“The loss of energy is so subtle and gradual that we don’t sense it as we age,” Russell, now 68, acknowledged. “I found myself thinking at age 58, I’m glad this will be my last fund-raiser. When another became a necessity, it was harder to get pumped up about it.
“At age 60 I was not as quick to embrace the satellite church concept as I should have been. I probably became a little too cautious in my 60s. I liked the quote, ‘One of the tests of a leader is to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.’ As we age we tend to get gun shy and try to avoid all confrontations—labeling them as emergencies when they really aren’t.”
To remain effective, Russell said, even a preacher with a highly successful ministry can’t be too proud to share the load—especially with the next generation.
“The fact that I was surrounded by younger visionaries the last 15 years or so was part of the reason Southeast continued to grow. I think one of the best things a leader can do is share the pulpit and leadership with younger guys. This is difficult to do and can be a blow to the ego. But in order for leadership to be effective long-term, the leader needs to be up front less, not more.
“If the preacher is greeting, announcing, welcoming, leading every new initiative, etc., in addition to preaching every week, the congregation becomes ‘voice weary.’ They’ve heard it so much they no longer respond. To be effective long-term, the people should want to hear from the senior pastor more, not less.”
Southeast’s gradual attendance decline began in 2005 and didn’t turn around until 2009, when a satellite location was opened across the river in Indiana.
Stone said he didn’t see a drop in Russell’s effectiveness.
“Bob Russell stands as an example of humility and kingdom concern by graciously stepping aside when he was a young 62, and passing the baton to a 44-year-old,” said Stone, now 50.
He recalled Russell saying, “If you wait until those closest to you tell you it’s time to leave or retire from your position, then it will be too late.”
Stone said, “Elders need to be more involved in the transition process, and senior leaders need to be more willing to step aside for the good of the church, even if they have more years of service.”
If the leader continues to adapt his methodology, he said, then adding integrity to longevity will give the minister credibility. Having younger staff members and elders also can lengthen the years of effectiveness for a senior minister.
“I personally think that longer ministries can be responsible for growth as opposed to stagnation or regression,” Stone said. “While some pastors outstay their welcome or effectiveness, and may hurt the church, the fact also remains that we have countless shining examples within our fellowship of preachers who stayed for 20 or 30 years and the church experienced consistent growth.”