In Search of Growth

By Kirk Petersen

St. Martin’s in Houston has been the largest Episcopal church for many years, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. Its 2016 average Sunday attendance of 1,871 is more than 30 percent higher than the next-largest church. The Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., rector of St. Martin’s since 2007, has been a prominent voice among evangelicals in the church. He recently spoke with me for well over an hour. The interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and narrative flow.

How did St. Martin’s get to be so big?
A consistent pattern of engagement with members; a Christ-centered ministry. Our mission is to make and grow disciples for Jesus Christ. I think that’s what the world hungers for. I think they hunger for connection with God, and I think we within the Anglican-Episcopal tradition can offer a very clear, concise message of helping people become connected to our Lord.

Houston is an extraordinarily diverse city. A lot of things are changing, and I think people look for something that’s not changing. We have six services on Sunday. Four are Rite I traditional liturgy. One is Rite II, more contemporary liturgy, for young adults, and there’s another that I would almost call Rite III; it’s Anglican-Episcopal shaped but it’s more child-friendly. But our fastest-growing service and the one where most of our members enter is our 11:15 a.m. traditional, Rite I Eucharist.

We’ve seen for a generation the church chasing after the culture. It’s not uncommon to go to many Episcopal churches now around the country and the sermons are full of politics, full of issues that easily divide a parish. I don’t care what the issue is, whether it’s abortion, or sexuality, or whatever. We have a particular view of those things here, and we certainly are a traditional evangelical, orthodox church — but we don’t use the pulpit for those kinds of things. The pulpit is always used for the proclamation of the gospel, or what I call pastoral preaching, issues around forgiveness, mercy, caring for others. You see churches that have become kind of a United Way with a cross on top.

We’re very committed to outreach and social justice issues in our community, but that’s never the core. I saw a church not too long ago that publicly proclaimed that the very core of its mission was racial reconciliation. And I thought, no, that’s not the core of the mission of the church. That is a function of the church. We’re a church that has every demographic — black, white, Hispanic, young, old, gay, straight: we are that church. But we’re not defined by those words. Our core mission is making and growing disciples of Jesus Christ.

The current presiding bishop talks a lot about the Jesus Movement. What do you think about that?
I think it’s wonderful. I did have a relationship with the last presiding bishop; we were not close, but we had several conversations. I think there was a disconnect in her leadership with the local church and the great body of the church. I’m sorry to say that, but I do think there was a disconnect.

That disconnect, I might add, played out here at St. Martin’s. People were very supportive of the Diocese of Texas and our bishop, but were not always supportive of the leadership of the national church.

When I heard [Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s] closing sermon at General Convention after he was elected, I thought, this is something different. I actually brought big screens into the church and played his closing address to the congregation, after which there was universal applause. My hope is that he will live into that. It’s one thing to say I’m part of the Jesus Movement, but for him to say what he said in his closing address — we are a church of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans and independents — that is the church. I think the great missed opportunity of the last generation is that we failed to embrace the breadth of our Anglican identity. We’ve traditionally, over the last generation, leaned to the left on almost every issue, and have not listened to the other voices that are in the church.

[Bishop Curry] is providing very strong leadership. It’s got to be an impossible job. It’s different from anything I’ve seen since my ordination 25 years ago. The way he preaches! I have yet to be disappointed when I’ve heard Bishop Curry preach. He preaches with passion and commitment, and I think those are things that we need to be teaching in seminary.

Tell me more about St. Martin’s.
We have a high expectation of the members who join. Everyone who joins St. Martin’s, even if they’re coming from another Episcopal Church, has to go through a six-hour membership class. If you are a member of this church, the expectation is that you will come to church; that you will be involved in Christian education; that you will be involved in a ministry here at St. Martin’s, and committed to our outreach ministries; and that you will pledge to the parish. If you don’t do these things, you’re not going to be an active member of the church.

I think people in our world respond to high expectations. We don’t expect you to be balcony Christians, or spectator Christians, we expect you to be on the stage, on the field, part of the life of the church.

If you come to St. Martin’s and fill out a welcome card, you’ll get a call within 48 hours from a member of our staff, and then you’ll get a letter and a packet from me within a few days. About 10 days out you’ll get another call from a member of the clergy. When we have a [St. Martin’s 101] class, we’ll go back and invite all those people who filled out cards. We have five of these 101 classes a year; the average attendance has been about 40 to 60. Of those, I would say 80 to 85 percent do join, and of that, between 95 and 98 percent pledge.

I preached on stewardship yesterday, and I was crystal clear: our understanding is that you work toward achieving the tithe. We have all of our leadership — clergy, vestry, and senior council [which is all the retired wardens] — sign a public statement to the parish saying that they are committed to the principle of tithing in their personal giving. We can’t grow outreach if we don’t have people participating financially.

Is there a downside to being as big as you are?
Yes. The downside for me is, before here I was at Christ Church in Pensacola, and I knew everybody who was in the hospital. I probably visited most of them once or twice a week. I knew most everybody whose family was in crisis. I knew everybody who had a new baby. I don’t know that here. There’s no way for me to keep that kind of pastoral touch as a rector. However, I do have 12 clergy. We get together every Tuesday at 12:30 for an hour, then we eat lunch and we pray and we go through the list [of people who are in the hospital or recently released].

You have 12 clergy in addition to you?
That’s right. Four of those are part-time retired folk. We’ve got a wonderful 88-year-old deacon who’s still very engaged and present on the campus. We’ve got a young priest on our staff — her husband is a priest in town, and they have two children. We worked out an arrangement where she’s three days a week, and Sundays as available. She is such a gifted young woman that we were willing to work almost anything out with her.

I am so fortunate to work with incredibly gifted colleagues. I know where my deficiencies exist, and over the years I have hired people who can fill in the gaps that I can’t as a rector.

How many staff do you have?
At St. Martin’s we have over 220 full- and part-time staff. That’s inclusive of our preschool staff. Probably 80 percent of them are full time. We have a 15-acre campus and about 220,000 square feet of usable space. We try to be good stewards of the space we’ve been given. So, we have a pretty big buildings and grounds staff.

Do you have any programs devoted to the LGBT population?
We do not. We’ve discussed it. I’ve always sat and cocked my head [at conventions] when we’ve had yet another resolution that says something about a specifically identified group. To me, that actually diminishes the validity of the Baptismal Covenant. I think that covenant requires that I respect the dignity of every human being, and I don’t need another resolution that tries to do one better than the covenant I’m already part of.

We do not offer same-sex marriage. There are Episcopal churches right down the street from us that do. We do have gay couples here who are married, or want to be married. If they want that, I make sure we find a parish where they can have that. And they remain active at St. Martin’s, which I think is a great statement again about the breadth of Anglican identity.

When churches and dioceses started leaving the Episcopal church, did you consider that yourself?
Not for myself. I did have people who wanted me to consider it. [At Christ Church Pensacola in 2003, with the election of Bishop Gene Robinson], there were people who supported being combative about it. I certainly did not support that at the time. I think we’re called to be the body of Christ together.

I’ve tried to stay actively engaged with some of those groups that have broken away. We actually have on our staff a former [Anglican Mission in America] priest; a priest who was ordained an Anglican, he never was an Episcopalian; and we’ve had an [Anglican Church in North America] priest.

I think reconciliation with the other Anglican bodies needs to be something we continue to work on. I think the presiding bishop has got the bully pulpit there.

What do you think of the term megachurch?
I don’t describe us that way. We are a big church; I’m not apologetic about it. But we are a family. People say to me when they join, I felt welcomed from the first time I came. I was greeted at the door, I was made to feel welcome in the pew, I got a card and got a phone call. There is a methodology to it.

We have poor, middle class, and rich. We have everyone from people who work in the service industry to a former president of the United States. We have doctors and lawyers. One of our fastest-growing demographic groups is Nigerians who have come here to be in the oil business.

The former president is the elder Bush, right?
Yes, he and Barbara. They are very active, they are not sometime members. If they’re in town and there’s not a health challenge, they’re in church. They’ve played an active role in everything we’ve asked of them. She taught Sunday school, and it was not uncommon before he went to D.C. to see him serving coffee on Sunday morning, that sort of thing.

Do you hold out hope for a reconciliation of the various factions of the Episcopal and Anglican church?
Yes. I’m a prisoner of hope. I always hope for reconciliation. I pray for that. I think that’s what Jesus prayed for in the Garden of Gethsemane. I can’t give up on that.

We’ve got an opportunity to say, here’s a church that’s made up of all these different kinds of people. Some of them do same-sex marriages and some of them don’t, and yet they can still come to the Lord’s table together. They have different opinions about pro-choice and pro-life. They are Democrats or Republicans. Living into that’s not easy, but I do think it’s the Christian way.

So that would be a hopeful sign for growth in the church?
I think so. I hope so. I hope the whole church grows. And I think we have an opportunity to do that.

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