The Rev. Russ Levenson, retiring from largest Episcopal parish, says ‘lead with love’ in face of divisions

By David Paulsen
Posted May 3, 2024

The Rev. Russ Levenson, rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, will retire this month after celebrating his final services May 5 at St. Martin’s, the largest congregation in The Episcopal Church. Photo: St. Martin’s Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Russ Levenson was packing boxes when Episcopal News Service reached him by phone for an extended interview in mid-April. At that time, he had two more sermons left to preach at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, before he would embark on an unknown, new adventure: retirement.

Priest retirements rarely merit news coverage. That said, St. Martin’s is no ordinary congregation. Founded in 1952, it is by far the largest congregation in The Episcopal Church in both average Sunday attendance – 1,100 as of the 2022 parochial report – and membership. When Levenson began as rector in 2007, St. Martin’s membership totaled about 8,000. In November 2023, it welcomed its 10,000th member.

All numbers aside, Levenson has a unique story of his own. He is an Alabama native whose Jewish grandfather immigrated to the United States from Russia. Levenson’s father grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition and was confirmed as an adult in The Episcopal Church. Russ was baptized the same day.

Levenson, now 62, pinpoints his own spiritual turning point to one night when he was 17 years old. It followed a conversation with a campus minister from the University of Alabama campus in Birmingham, where he grew up.

“I went in my room that night and I closed the door, and I got down on my knees and I invited the lord to be my lord and savior,” Levenson recalled. “And then I waited for music or a light or an angel to tap me on the shoulder, and none of that happened.”

But when he woke the next morning, he felt a change. “Never ever since that moment in July of 1979 have I not known the presence of our lord in my life,” he said.

As a priest, Levenson said he generally avoids preaching about politics, though he sometimes has faced criticism for his own theological belief that marriage is intended for a man and a woman. His congregation does not allow same-sex weddings to be held at St. Martin’s, and Levenson personally will not marry same-sex couples because of “where I am in my own theology.” Those couples, however, can marry in other nearby Episcopal churches, he said, and they will be welcomed and respected at St. Martin’s.

Levenson and his wife plan to retire in Birmingham, where much of their family remains. His last Sunday services at St. Martin’s will be May 5. While leaving parish leadership behind for now, he can see himself someday becoming “the old guy on the staff somewhere” as a retiree. “That’s probably what I want to do the most.”

The following Q&A has been lightly edited and trimmed for clarity and length.

It must have been life-changing in 2007, to be called to lead a parish like St. Martin’s.

Yeah, it was a sea change. People said, how do you do that? I said, you know, really, it’s just size. You do stewardship the same way. You do pastoral care the same way. It’s just a lot more to take care of. The staff then was 170. Now it’s at 220. So just managing that was a huge piece.

The Rev. Russ Levenson, rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. Photo: St. Martin’s Episcopal Church

There’s got to be a different set of responsibilities if you’re one of three people on a church staff versus one of 200 ministering to 10,000 members. How did your role as a rector change?

I think the biggest thing and the hardest thing is to be a pastor, which I think I am. I enjoy that part of the work. When I was in Pensacola, Florida, [as rector of Christ Episcopal Church] we did double in size in my years there. I think we went from 1,100 to 2,100. And I knew everybody who was in the hospital. I did almost every wedding, did almost every funeral. I knew which marriages were in crisis, which children were having trouble and more. And when you move to St. Martin’s, you can’t do that. There’s just absolutely no way. It would kill me. It’s not that I gave up pastoral care. I can’t make the kind of expansive deep connections that I could when the church was 2,000 members, but I am in touch. I do still go to the hospital. I do still pick up the phone. But I can’t do it to the degree that I did.

I’ve spoken to you before about how you do not marry same-sex couples. And same-sex couples cannot be married in your church.

They cannot. Back in 2009, I had only been here about a year and a half, and we had to have a parish meeting to amend our articles of incorporation. Basically, we won’t perform any service inconsistent with the theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the way it defines marriage. The senior warden got up and read the amendment. The parish hall was packed. For the vote, every single hand in the room went up except two. And that was done, and since then it hasn’t been an issue.

Based on the last few General Conventions, the acceptance of same-sex marriage is now part of The Episcopal Church’s teachings, or at least the church makes accommodations for that. But you’ve alluded to some of the continued divisions in the church. In fact, you were once disinvited from a speaking engagement when church leaders learned of your views on marriage.

Yes. I won’t name the church because I want to respect their decision, but it was a church in California. I was a guest speaker at a service that was being hosted by the church. And I got this note saying I was uninvited. I said, shouldn’t we talk? I don’t want to change your mind, but it seems like this is kind of an opportunity to learn from each other. I never heard back. But the redemptive part of that story is, this last year I was invited to preach at at the investiture for the Order of Saint John at All Saints Beverly Hills, which is not known to be a conservative church. I thought, well, before I do all that, let’s just make sure. I don’t want to suddenly find out All Saints’ Beverly Hills doesn’t want me to do it. The prior of the order said, they’re fine. Don’t worry about it. And honestly, they could not have been nicer. It was a lovely service. It takes a lot more work, but it pays off. It really pays off.

Tell me more about the work. You’re saying it takes a lot more work to reach across and understand the other person?

Yeah, it’s so easy – I mean, it’s human nature to just go into our little protective cubby and only be with people we agree with. But I think it’s very godly to try to lead with love. To go back to the Bible, perfect love casts out all fear. And I think people in my camp, on the more conservative side of the marriage debate, would say once we start [allowing same-sex marriage] all hell’s going to break loose. There’s no going back. The truth of the matter is, the church isn’t going to stop doing this. But the fear is, at some point I’m going to be kicked out because I hold this position. I’m not going to be allowed to be a priest anymore. I’m going to be disciplined.

The Task Force on Communion Across Difference just proposed resolutions to ensure people with different theological beliefs would not be barred from discernment processes or employment.

Yes, I saw that.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, center; Washington National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith, left; and the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., right, rector of President George H.W. Bush’s Houston congregation, perform the commendation near the end of Bush’s December 2018 funeral. Photo: Danielle E. Thomas/Washington National Cathedral

Turning back to the significance of St. Martin’s size, do you have thoughts on whether there are tradeoffs? Looking at my own church, its small enough where after the service I can go to coffee hour and talk to every person individually if I wanted to. Obviously, that’s not possible at your church.

Yeah, you absolutely named it. It’s absolutely a tradeoff. You can’t. There’s no way you can have that kind of experience [at St. Martin’s]. But we have a lot of activities. We’re basically back to pre-COVID numbers, so we have 18,000 events a year. That’s 40 to 60 a day. That’s everything from a Thursday women’s Bible study. There are three groups of women that play mahjong. There are 35 recovery groups that meet on campus every week. There are men’s Bible studies. And so you may not have that kind of sit-around-and-drink-coffee, but there’s so much going on. And we have a ton of outreach ministries. I think the budget of the church this year is about $17 million. About 25% of our budget goes to outreach, and we don’t give where we do not have active people on the ground. We don’t just write checks.

There may be things going on at St. Martin’s that could be applied to a church of any size, but are there others that just are not replicable at a smaller church? There are no other Episcopal churches even close to the size of yours, so I would imagine there are some ways St. Martin’s stands alone.

Well, yes and no. I mean, I absolutely agree. There’s some things we can do because of size and scope and budget. But what I’ve learned is, you know, a lot of the energy that [church leaders] spend on certain things in churches is a total waste of time and does not bring people in. And there are certain things to which we ought to doggedly commit our time and energy.

Can you give some examples?

Yeah, like, don’t forget the importance of being a pastor. And in the sermon – I hate to say this, but of all the sermons you ever preach and all the words you’ll ever write, a lot of that is not going to be remembered. But showing up at the hospital at just the right time, that will be remembered. Writing a note to somebody after they’ve had somebody die in their family, that will be remembered. The importance of piety. You absolutely have to be a person of prayer, and not just prayers that we do in church. You have to preach faithfully and in a way that’s engaging and not offensive. I said after Jan. 6 [the attack on the U.S. Capitol], I don’t know any responsible priest who would not have said something about how horrible that was. But a steady dose of that is not what the church is looking for.

Again, you’re leaning more toward the pastoral role of a priest, though I’ve talked to others – I’m thinking of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, about how she strikes the balance between a pastoral voice, but also sometimes clergy need to speak in a prophetic voice, maybe encouraging the congregation to see how its values may be applied beyond the walls of the church.

Yeah, absolutely. Now she – I would say she would do that more than I would. But that’s part of her role in her ministry. We’re very different kinds of people, and yet this is the church as it should be. I really hope we don’t have another great season of division. I’m often asked about St. Martin’s not doing same-sex marriage. We have gay members. But I don’t make it an issue. I want everybody to feel welcome, and I think people do. I know places now that would love to see people like me gone. But how do we find our way to living together for the greater good? That’s my deep hope. I had a very touching moment with Mariann Budde a few years ago. I preached at President Bush’s funeral. We’re at the back of the nave at National Cathedral getting ready, and they’re giving us the last instructions. And I turn around – I get emotional thinking about it – I turn around and unbeknownst to me, Mariann has her eyes closed and she’s got her hands over my shoulders, praying for me. To me, that’s the great breadth of The Episcopal Church. We ought to be the one growing faster than any denomination. I really believe that, because of what [Presiding Bishop] Michael Curry says. We are Republicans and Democrats. We are conservatives and liberals. We are people who hold to traditional marriage and those who want same-sex marriage. That ought to be the church. Part of the DNA that has made St. Martin’s work, we’re by and large a pretty conservative church, but that’s not what we lead with. People know that’s who we are, but mostly they come because they’re meeting people. They’re hearing about the Gospel. They’re getting to serve the lord.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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