Not the norm for a pastor to serve 30 years with one congregation, ministers who served 12 years, a short time and 12 years preceded Senior Pastor George Russell of the New Hope Assembly of God Church in Cotati. The congregation marked his anniversary Sun., July 14, with a celebration at Sally Tomatoes. His district superintendent delivered the keynote speech.
Russell, in discussing his service, emphasized the people business aspect of his ministry. “It’s 90 percent relational; it’s really more of a family relationship.” He describes the experience as “walking through life with others.”
The Pastor, raised in a Catholic home, came to his faith when he was 17 as he “felt God calling me into the vocational ministries.” After graduating from high school in Watsonville in 1974, Russell soon attended Bethany Bible College in Scotts Valley.
During the next six years he worked on becoming credentialed as a minister as he served as a youth pastor involved with Christian education in Soquel. He then served as a senior pastor from 1985 through 1989.
As he and his wife, Fran, felt their time at this church coming to an end, and because this church had a special connection with New Hope in Cotati, Russell sent his resume in. The pastor in Cotati, familiar with what the Russells had done, especially with food distribution, set up interviews and the opportunity for Russell to preach to the Cotati congregation, all of which led to his election.
Even though they would be leaving a beautiful facility that included a 600-seat church and a 200-member congregation, Pastor Russell felt a calling to come to Cotati.
The Russells arrived on July 1, 1989, to a welcoming congregation. Three months later as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake, Russell discovered an immediate need: the building (actually two buildings attached to each other) needed a refit. The pastor applied his ministry philosophy: raise the money and then do the project. Another early financial issue happened as the church was required to fund new sidewalks along East Cotati Avenue. Since those two issues, the church has been financially solvent.
The sermon, a central task for any minister, needs much prayer and study. Russell said, “You must know your congregation.” And as he delivers his message, he watches his congregation seeking to know if he is being heard or if he needs to make adjustments. While his work centers on the 16 core values of the Assembly of God, his sermons focus on the needs of his congregation.
Russell goes far beyond retelling Bible stories as he explains the moral principles behind the stories. Yet, he keeps opinions out of the sermons. His mission is to explain the Bible stories and then leave it up to each person to apply the lessons to his or her life.
As the church brochure states, “His desire is to faithfully preach the Word of God and see people come to salvation and to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.” Russell puts it more simply: “My job is to help folks and see them through things.” His humility and humanity are refreshing.
Russell not only sees his role as a leader of his congregation but also as a member of his Cotati community. While the church is located just a block east of La Plaza Park and the Cotati downtown on East Cotati Ave., Russell and his church members reach into the community. One notable project benefits Thomas Page Academy as the congregation prepare Christmas presents for the students, pillows and pillowcases for more than 400 students. Fran Russell popped in during the interview to mention that she had completed 21 pillowcases that day.
Last year New Hope presented each Page teacher with a $100 gift certificate from Office Depot. (Teachers in the Cotati-Rohnert Park receive only $50 per year to purchase supplies from the school district.) The church also brings lunches to the teachers and staff from time to time. And last year it presented more than 400 students each with a pair of shoes and socks.
Often the church prepares lunches for those living down the street in the Burbank Housing Project on Charles Street. The Russells believe that it’s important to impact lives in the community as well as in the congregation. No surprise, then, to discover that Pastor Russell was one of the founding members of the Homeless Prevention Group of Rohnert Park, Cotati and Penngrove.
Russell told how he lost his father at the age of 14 and how he took on menial jobs to help his family as a teen. He worked as a janitor, as a 7-11 clerk and as a paint store clerk. These experiences helped him to appreciate the things that he worked for, especially getting through Bible school and helping his family survive. He learned about responsibility and accountability.
In November, the Russells will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. They have three adult children, four grandchildren and a grandchild on the way.
Pastor George Russell, content with his work and his life, sees his future is in Cotati. “I’ll be here until I feel God has released me to somewhere else. I’m like an old mule plowing until the boss has me go elsewhere.” And knowing whom his Boss is, the pastor will answer the call as he has for more than forty years.