Meet Karen Russell - New Transitional Executive Presbyter for Holston Presbytery

The Rev. Karen Russell grew up as a daughter of the church. Her father was a Baptist pastor and her early life found her in church at least three times a week. As she became an adult, Karen found that the shoes of the Baptist tradition pinched her feet a bit and she found her way into the Presbyterian Church. It was there that, as she puts it, the scales fell from her eyes and she began to see possibilities that she had never before dreamed. Karen has been living into those dreams and dreaming new ones ever since.

A graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, Karen has served as a congregational pastor with a ten-year detour working for the Presbyterian Mission Agency in the office of Theology and Worship. Karen says that one of the greatest gifts of the Reformed Tradition to her personally is an understanding of the breadth of the ‘community of faith’ expressed both in local congregations and in the wider universal church. It is that vision of breadth and possibility coupled with a depth of personal faith that Karen brings to this new call.

Two factors came together to help Karen hear the Spirit’s call to this new ministry. One was her love for the Appalachian Mountain region. “Everywhere you look there is beauty,” she says. “The other is the toughness and steadfastness of the people. They have a determination that any forces that might defeat them will never win.”

Karen’s colleagues at the Mission Agency use one word to describe Karen and her gifts: nimble.

The people of Holston Presbytery recognize that they, as indeed the whole church, are at a crossroads. Pandemic has forced into the open the changes that have happened around us over decades. Karen says that these changes offer opportunities for creative thinking as well as strategic planning. Karen’s voice lights up when talking about the possibilities and the joy of helping people put things together in new ways, preserving what brings life and releasing that which is spent. “Everything has a shelf life,” Karen says. “That is good news! We are, after all, a faith that is built from dying and rising.” In talking about the challenge of these days, Karen uses imagery from the prophet Isaiah who calls the people to prepare the way of the Lord. “That means dismantling as well as building sometimes. It is hard work. Real joy comes when the new begins to emerge. ” Holston Presbytery is clear about the crucial moment in which they find themselves. They see in Karen a pastor, a creative and strategic thinker, one who takes serious things seriously and still with a gentle touch that sees the “humor, irony and ridiculousness and grace” of much of life.

Karen tells the story of when her son was in the 5th grade. One night, as he was heading to bed, he came to her and said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. Tomorrow I need a show-and-tell to go along with 2000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Her son then turned and went to bed, unworried. Karen, a mom who prided herself on being able to solve any problem, stayed up all night making an octopus out of whatever was at hand. “I am used to being blindsided,” Karen said. “I can deal with the unexpected. I can’t always promise that I can pull an octopus out of the tank, but I CAN roll with the punches!” Holston Presbytery is in good hands! Our Synod is blessed by her presence and we all hold her in prayer.

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