Sunday, December 10, 2023

New Azle Christan Church pastor returns to ministry after 10-year hiatus

Finding home


AZLE — When Russell Clark visited the Trunk or Treat at Azle Christian Church last year, he never would have guessed he’d end up pastor.

Clark has been serving as interim pastor at the church since June 2023 and On Oct. 8, Clark was unanimously approved as the church’s 39th pastor by congregational vote. The trajectory of Clark’s career has been unusual by many metrics.

Clark, originally from Arlington, obtained his bachelor’s degree from Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth in 2005. He graduated with a master of divinity from Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth four years later. Clark’s wife of 18 years, Shannon Clark, is an Azle native who grew up attending Azle Christian Church. Her job in human resources moved the couple out of Texas from state-to-state. As a United Methodist Church (UMC) pastor in Florida, Russell Clark struggled with church leadership.

“The UMC told me, at the time, that I didn’t respect authority, I was always going my own way and that I didn’t understand emotional context,” Clark said. “I got fed up with the politics and I just walked away.”

Having grown up in the UMC, Clark described himself as a loyal member and was heartbroken after the falling out. For the next 10 years, Clark dedicated himself to being a stay-at-home dad and an author. In 2017, Clark wrote “Loser,” a book about his time as a pastor, experiencing loss and going through tough times. In 2020, Clark wrote his second book, “Raising Presidents,” about breaking parental stereotypes and being a stay-at-home dad for his daughters, Kennedy and Reagan. According to Clark, he never fully gave up on ministry, continuing to talk with people about faith in-person and online. Clark has always had a special interest in reaching those in the LGBTQ+ community, atheists, agnostics and other individuals who may have felt excluded in traditional church settings.  

“For years I think my wife and I had PTSD from the church,” Clark said. “We were so hurt by things and my wife didn’t want me to go back to church because she didn’t want me to get hurt again… One thing I’ve said from the beginning is I don’t want to forget those voices from the trenches and the people who have been hurt. (I want) to show the church those voices and how we can be better at doing church differently and caring for those people that need that healing. Jesus loved the outcasts and loved the ones the world loved to hate and that’s what we’re called to do, too.”

Reverend Ashley Dargai was senior minister at Azle Christian Church for over three years, but left in February 2023 to be a chaplain in the Cook Children’s Medical Center system. For the next three months, services were led by several guest pastors. Among those pastors was Clark, who quickly found renewed interest leading the congregation. When it came down to it, Clark found ending his decade-long hiatus to be an easy choice.

“Everything’s telling me to go for it,” Clark said. “My wife will tell you I haven’t felt so alive and so joyful in years. I get really emotional a lot lately because I’m excited to be back doing what I love. Ministry is what I went to school for, it’s what I felt called to do, it’s the only job I ever really had. This is the only thing I ever wanted to do.”

Clark is excited to be leading an ecumenical and inclusive church which shares his values. Going forward, Clark’s mission is one of “radical hospitality” stressing that all are welcome through the church’s doors.

“Our church leaders aren’t scared that we have people who think differently at this church,” Clark said. “We’re actually excited that we have a place where people feel comfortable, to know we’re all messed up, we all have questions, we don’t all have it together. It’s a place where anyone can come and grow; a place that welcomes everyone and really invites people to be a part of our story and what we’re doing. No matter what your background is and who you are, you’re beloved and you’re loved by this church, and I can honestly say that you’ll be welcome in this church.”

Clark also hopes to reach community members who may never even walk through the church’s doors and hopes to continue initiatives feeding the community through the church’s blessing box.

Continuing the outreach of past leadership and building connections within the local church community are important goals for Clark, as well. Azle Christian Church hosts Wednesday night dinners with Revive Methodist Church and also allows them to use its space for Bible studies on Thursdays.

“Being unified churches together in a world that’s just so divided is important,” Clark said.

From Oct. 15 to Oct. 29, Clark’s messages will be about what he calls the “Affirmessy Process.”

 “It’s about affirming the mess we’re living in, (where) we don’t have all the answers, we’re all messed up, that we had messy lives, that we can ask those messy questions and go on this journey together,” Clark said. “Suffering exists; it’s a part of our everyday lives. I think Jesus isn’t about taking us out of that mess necessarily, but Jesus sits with us in that mess, so we know we’re not alone. (When you) know you’re not alone, suddenly suffering doesn’t have the weight or the value it held in our lives. That sin doesn’t have control in our lives. The mess doesn’t matter as much.”

Azle Christian Church will host its annual Trunk or Treat on Oct. 29 from 5-7 p.m. at 117 Church Street..

In the future, Clark hopes to continue utilizing social media in his ministry and hopes to start a series helping parents have difficult conversations with kids on topics like suffering and grief.

zach freeman