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Church Culture Politics

Minister of Nation’s Largest Episcopal Parish Leaving Full-Time Ministry

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After 17 years, the pastor of America’s largest Episcopal church, Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., is retiring from full-time ministry in May.

In a letter to his parish in January, Levenson wrote that the decision to leave his position at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, “has been one of the most difficult decisions in our lifetime.”

The news left many surprised, especially since the church has grown immensely under Levenson’s leadership. During his tenure, the church reached 10,000 members, making it the largest Episcopal church in the country.

“No Episcopalian church in the history of America has hit this mark,” Levenson told news sources in 2023. “It’s a landmark.”

While this number may not seem significant in comparison to the world of non-denominational megachurches, it stands in stark contrast to other Episcopal parishes, which are experiencing a significant decline in membership.

On a typical Sunday, most Episcopal churches in Texas have about 80 people in attendance. By comparison, St. Martin’s sees 2,200 churchgoes per week, with 1,400 on Sundays.

What makes St. Martin’s different? One key factor is its membership process.

“We have a high expectation of the members who join,” Levenson explained in an interview with The Living Church Magazine. “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.”

Another factor is the way Levenson has managed to tactfully navigate hot-button political and theological issues with nuance.

While serving at St. Martin’s, he refused to officiate same-sex marriages, but was willing to refer LGBTQ couples to other Houston-area churches. And even as a self-described Republican, having been the pastor for Barbara and George H.W. Bush, he hasn’t backed down from criticizing the Republican party for its support of Donald Trump in recent years.

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But the main reason for St. Martin’s growth, in Levenson’s opinion, is because politics is not the primary goal of the church; rather, it is “making and growing disciples of Jesus Christ.”

“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,” he said in previous news reports.

Because of this, St. Martin’s is very involved in the Houston area. In 2011, under Levenson’s leadership, the church opened the Hope and Healing Center and Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health care for the community.

While the next rector has big shoes to fill, the church is hopeful and has already begun the work of selecting its 5th rector through the partnership of a search committee, vestry and presiding bishop.

Levenson affirmed the search and asked his parishioners to pray for their next rector.

“He or she is out there…pray that the good Lord is preparing your next leader’s heart to find his or her home at St. Martin’s as we have.”

Main photo: Russell J. Levenson, Jr. / Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church

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Brittany Smith

Brittany Smith is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs. She is the co-author of Unplanned Grace: A Compassionate Conversation on Life and Choice.