Community grieves death of Second Presbyterian pastor

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 01, 2020 9:46 AM CT | Published: March 31, 2020 4:10 PM CT

Friends and colleagues said Tuesday, March 31, they would miss the big heart and loving nature of Tim Russell, an assistant pastor at Second Presbyterian Church who died Monday night of COVID-19 complications.

Russell, 62, assistant pastor to middle adults at the East Memphis church, had been doing well Baptist Memorial Hospital before taking a turn for the worse Monday night.

He leaves his wife, Kathe.

<strong>Tim Russell</strong>

Tim Russell

Although a Pennsylvania native, Russell and his wife adopted Memphis as their home. He was president of Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies in the early 2000s. He also served three years as headmaster of Westminster Academy, an East Memphis Christian School. 

“Tim just had a huge pastoral heart,” said Sandy Willson, pastor emeritus of Second Presbyterian and interim senior pastor of Covenant Presbyterian in Birmingham, Ala.

“There is profound grief in the loss and profound comfort in confidence that he is rejoicing (in heaven),” Willson said.

Willson met Russell in the early 2000s while interviewing for a job at Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies.

“He told us about his parents, and I was so moved at the Christian parenting he received from working-class parents,” Willson said, noting he wrote Russell’s parents a thank-you note for raising a wonderful son.

Russell would go to the library after school, Willson said, and read until his mother called the librarian asking her to send Russell home. When he got home, Russell told Willson his parents asked him about what he had read, and it was often history.

Willson said Russell noted his parents weren’t very interested in what he read.

“He looked back on his childhood and realized his parents were cultivating him,” Willson said.

The story was one of many “moving moments” Willson said he had with Russell.

“Tim always had a tender, caring heart and a steady heart in a crisis,” Willson said. “He would mediate and calm people and bring them together.”

He loved mentoring younger men and cared for people in any form of distress, Willson said.

And the Russells had a “beautiful marriage,” according to Willson.

“He and Kathe had an exemplary marriage,” Willson said. “You were just always grateful when (the) pastor is mirroring what you hope everyone in the congregation will have. He was devoted to her and she to him. In a healthy way.”

Willson also said Russell was intellectual.

“As a Christian, he was wonderful in his views of how Christ rules in every realm of life,” he said.

Often in the congregation, according to Willson, Russell would say: “That’s the Jesus I know.”

Willson said he thought those were Russell’s first words when he got to heaven Monday night.

“He (was) a very well-read, tender-hearted brother in Jesus,” Willson said. “All of us grieve.”

Willson was confident Monday that Russell had been cured of COVID-19, but added:

“The ultimate cure for COVID-19 is Jesus Christ, and Tim proved it yesterday. We find the deepest possible comfort in knowing Tim is with the Lord, so amidst the tears there is profound comfort.”

Holt Hall, a friend of Russell, said he was as deeply moved by his death more than anyone outside a family member.

Hall met Russell during his time as Westminster headmaster. Hall was hired “on the spot” as Director of Development following a conversation.

“Then he (Russell) did something most unusual,” Hall said, when he accepted the offer. “He said, ‘Can I pray for you?’ He got down on his knees, put his face in his chair and prayed for me, my wife, my marriage and our children. I knew in that moment I was in the presence of a godly man.”

During Russell’s time as the leader of Westminster, Hall would review ideas with him.

“He would say, ‘That’s a great idea, run with it,’ ‘Let me think about it’ or ‘Holt, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Get that out of your mind.’ ”

Hall said he and Russell became good friends. The two of them were “jovial” together. However, Russell was cordial and polite when their wives were around.

“You would think we were royalty,” when they were invited to dinner at the Russells’ home, Hall said.

Russell had a passion for history. The Halls and Russells traveled to England together. Hall said one of the locals noted Russell knew more about the area than the natives.

At any Second Presbyterian function, Hall said he and his wife would seek out Russell and his wife. He noted Russell loved Memphis and incorporated praying for the city in his prayer life.

“He was a good and godly man,” Hall sad. “The city is missing a great pastor and a great leader.”

While Russell was serving Westminster as headmaster, he also taught Sunday School at Second Presbyterian. Jane Mims was in his class at that time.

She had known him for about a decade at the time of his death.

“He was so loving,” she said. “(He and Kathe) embraced me so much.”

She said she met Russell when she was new to the church, about a decade ago. He and his wife made her feel “at home” in a large congregation.

The Russells did not have children, so Mims felt like she, her husband of eight years and her daughter were family to them.

“They considered us family,” she said.

She said the Russells were “spiritual mentors” to her and many throughout the congregation. Most didn’t ask for it, it was natural for the Russells.

“They lived out what they believed. … Tim did definitely,” she said, noting he “loved without limits.”

She said the “deep, comfortable friendship” displayed in the Russells’ marriage was “inspirational.” She said she will miss seeing the couple together.

“When we heard he had coronavirus, I reached out to Kathe,” Mims said. “She said all they needed was prayer. We thought he was going to recover and then the turn came and he’s gone.”

Mims admired his larger-than-life and friendly personality.

“He was one of those people who never met a stranger,” she said. “He would never say an ill word about anyone.”

In Sunday School, he would ask a question that was sometimes met with an uncomfortable silence. Mims said he would place his hands behind his back and pace back and forth. Then a grin would come over his face.

She said when she and her husband now ask each other a question and is met with silence, one will say to the other: “Don’t Tim Russell me right now.”

Mims said she was a single mom when she first met the Russells, and they helped her find comfort.

“He was so kind and whenever I was scared or needed a word, he and Kathe always had something,” Mims said.

When she initially heard of Russell’s death, she was shocked, but then she thought of things she and Second Presbyterian’s congregation will never hear again.

She said in services he would shout a “booming ‘Amen!’” and his “lusciously delivered ‘That’s the Jesus I know.’”

She said she will also miss his special spirit. She said just as Jesus invited the children to come to him, Russell let people come to him.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on,” she said. “If it’s a very dark time, he brings light into it. Even if it’s his own difficulty, he always looked to light. Obviously, in his life, the light was Christ.”

When he closed out Sunday School, he always prayed “Jesus come quickly,” Mims said. “I asked him about that once.”

She knew he wanted to meet the Jesus he knew and longed for the world to be restored.

“For him, he got his prayer -- not in the way he probably envisioned it, but it came in the way that was destined for him.”


Tim Russell Second Presbyterian Westminster Academy Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies
Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren is a lifelong resident of Shelby County and a graduate of the University of Memphis. She has worked for several local publications and covers the suburbs for The Daily Memphian.


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