By Brad Dupray
Bob Russell says he “anticipated staying four or five years” when he came to Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1966. “I saw myself going back to Pennsylvania, preaching somewhere near my hometown.” God had other plans. In 40 years of ministry at Southeast Bob has led the church to weekend attendance of 19,000. The church has become a force for evangelism, a help to those in need, and the conscience in its community.
The word on the street is Bob Russell is retiring. How would you define this transition in your life?
I think it’s more accurate to say I’m moving to another chapter in my life. I can’t just sit back and not do anything that’s not me.
What are your initial plans?
I’m involved in the London Institute for Evangelism, Corona, California as chairman of the board. I’m going to do some mentoring of young preachers. I’m going to write and do some preaching on the weekends, and I’m going to do some Bible study videos for small groups.
Are you going to stay in Louisville?
Yes. I thought about going elsewhere, but I’d have to go as a divorced man (laughs). With six grandchildren, we want to stay close by.
Will you go to church at Southeast?
I’m going to stay away from Southeast for an entire year for Dave’s sake, for the church’s sake and for my sake.
Does it feel like it’s real after all these years?
I thought when I got to this point I would be melancholy, but since I made the decision I’m kind of matter of fact about it. Most importantly I think this is what God wants me to do, and I’m looking forward to moving on to the next chapter. You can ask people who had four children, “Did you enjoy your four children?” and they’ll say, “Yes.” Then you ask, “Do you want four more?” I’ve enjoyed all four decades, but I’m ready to move on.
You’ve been working on a book with Rick Atchley. Can you tell me a little about it?
It’s called Together Again . Rick and I became friends just prior to the North American Christian Convention in 2003. We were riding home from the convention and he said he believed the 1906 census was the first time the a cappella and independent churches were counted separately. I said the 2006 convention is going to be in Louisville wouldn’t it be great if we could have a family reunion. We coauthored the book for the 2006 convention about why we should recognize each other as brothers and sisters.
We did workshops together at Abilene, Tulsa, and Pepperdine. The response of leadership in the a cappella church has been good. There are some who are still skeptical and concerned that they are giving up something. But a good segment of the a cappella church has been anxious to reach a hand across the keyboard.
How would you define “unity” in the church?
We’re not asking that they sing with instruments, nor are they asking that we sing without instruments. We want to recognize that we are brothers and we can work together to evangelize. After Hurricane Katrina, a cappella and independent churches combined efforts. Maybe the focus ought to be how to serve together throughout the week. Then it will be an easy transition to how we worship together on Sunday.
You had Rick Atchley speak at the 2003 NACC in Indianapolis when you were president. How did you originally connect with him?
I was speaking at something at Barry Cameron’s church, and Rick asked Barry if he could meet with me or if I would be willing to talk to his elders. We went and played golf together. Then, in lining up Bible studies for the NACC, I though about Rick. He said, “I’d love to do that.” He’s a very good Bible study teacher. I said while you’re here, what if you gave a greeting to the whole assembly? I thought it was a wonderful statement he made that night. It was the highlight of the night.
Did you expect the kind of response his statement brought out?
I loved the response that night. To be honest, it’s easier for us to reach out to them than for them to reach out to us. If you’re conservative it’s a little more risky for you to have fellowship with someone perceived to be a little more liberal then you.
What is your prayer for the future of the Restoration Movement?
I would really pray that we begin to become acquainted with those who are brothers and sisters in Christ on a one on one basis and regard one another as part of the same family. That we would have the kind of unity for which Christ prayed and for which the heart of the Father yearns.
You had to have a vision when you came to Southeast 40 years ago. What was it then?
I was 22 years old at that point. I really hoped I could help the church grow to 300 or 400 people. I just laid the seed and God gave the increase. I would like to say I was smart enough to have had a great vision, but I didn’t. Ministry has been a tremendous joy for me. I hear people say, “I wasn’t able to accomplish what I dreamed I would accomplish,” and it’s been just the opposite for me. God has blessed me immeasurably beyond anything I could ask or imagine. I’ve been dumbfounded that he’s been able to use me.
What was the most exciting day of your ministry at Southeast?
I guess the day our capital campaign goal was $26 million raised over a three year period, That seemed such an impossible goal. But the total commitment turned out to be over $31 million. It was so obvious that the Lord was in it, not because of the money, but because of the common sacrifice and commitment the people had.
If you could roll back the clock and change something, what would it be?
I would put more of an emphasis in getting every member involved in some kind of small group or relationship in the church. People need to be in groups where they know other people’s names and their names are known. I would almost make it mandatory that every member be plugged into some small group or Sunday school class.
Who has been the influential person to help you in your ministry?
At different stages there were different people. A guy who has been with me all along is Butch Dabney. He was chairman of the pulpit committee when I was hired and is still with me now he’s in his 80s. He taught me about a commitment to excellence, and he set the mood for a spirit of joy in the church.
OK, your team’s down by two points, there’s 10 seconds left on the clock, and you’re coming out of a timeout. Do you want the ball?
I always wanted the ball.
Do you shoot a two pointer for a tie or a three for the win?
It would depend on the circumstances, but I believe I would shoot the three pointer.
Brad Dupray is director of public relations and advertising with Provision Ministry Group, Irvine, California.