More than a pastor

Guideposts|August 2020

More than a pastor
My business was hanging by a thread. So was my spirit. Then my good friend and mentor was struck down by Covid-19
BILL COURTNEY

The call came late on a mon-day evening. It was an elder at my church.

“Bill, I just heard from Kathe,” he said. “Tim died.”

Tim Russell was an assistant pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, where my family had worshipped for years. He’d been diagnosed with Covid-19 a little more than two weeks earlier. He was gasping for breath the last time I’d called him. Now he was gone. No visitors had been allowed at the hospital, not even Tim’s wife, Kathe. He’d died alone. He was 62.

Tim was more than my pastor. He was a good friend. A spiritual mentor. The man who’d taught me more about God and being a person of faith than just about anyone I knew.

There would be no funeral. Memphis was on lockdown, and public gatherings were prohibited. I hung up the phone, feeling shattered. How would I get through this coronavirus pandemic without Tim’s guidance?

I’d leaned on Tim for years, especially recently. I own a lumber mill, and starting in 2018 an international trade dispute had wiped out a third of my revenue. I’d laid off nearly half my workforce, sold equipment, sold my car and cut my salary by a third. After two years, I remained in the most tenuous financial position imaginable, just hanging on and praying to avoid another setback.

Then the virus hit. The market for my mill’s American hardwoods cratered. Supply chains froze. My operations manager and I oversaw a skeleton crew at the mill and sent everyone else home to quarantine with their families.

Through everything, I’d held to Tim’s unwavering teaching about the providence, goodness and grace of God. “That’s the Jesus I know,” Tim would boom out in his James Earl Jones voice whenever someone at church told a story about God at work in their lives. Tim helped me know that Jesus too. To trust that God held all things in his merciful hands.

“Tim’s gone,” I said to my wife, Lisa, who’d drawn close when she heard my voice on the phone.

“Oh, Bill,” she said, and we held each other. Tim was Second Presbyterian’s pastor to adults. He had mentored our whole family, not just Lisa and me. We often shared meals with him and Kathe, sometimes inviting them over for lunch after church—we call it dinner in the South. We’d get into theological conversations that lasted for hours. Lisa’s parents live with us, and they loved Tim too. He’d been deeply involved in our now-grown kids’ lives.

We all could have used some of Tim’s unshakable faith. Lisa and her parents rarely left the house now. Our youngest son, who was still in college, was sheltering at home with us. Our three older kids were scattered around the country.

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August 2020