Idlewild’s Montgomery retires with lasting impact on the community

By Published: May 05, 2019 12:34 PM CT
<strong>After nearly 20 years as senior pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery will lead his last service on Sunday, May 5.</strong> (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

After nearly 20 years as senior pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery will lead his last service on Sunday, May 5. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

The Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery, the senior pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church who will retire on May 5, credits two sources for his Christian worldview and passion for justice.

“One was parents who opened their doors to a wide variety of people in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1960s,” Montgomery said.

“My mother was in charge of the refugee resettlement program for our church, and we often had multi-nationals living with us. Our house was one of the few places where blacks and whites could party and have fun together at the time, and I had the view that God is a big God and not the exclusive domain of white America.

“The other was when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I was in Richmond and some of my classmates applauded the assassination. I was shy, and I kept quiet. I wish I had spoken up. At Idlewild, I have tried to be a voice for people who didn’t have a voice.”

Idlewild, a member of The Presbyterian Church USA, was founded in 1891 and has been in its location at 1750 Union Ave. since 1926.

In 2000, when Montgomery became lead pastor, there was anxiety about whether a mainline church like Idlewild had a future, he recalled. The membership numbers were dwindling and people were moving to the suburbs.

“I said, 'Let’s just do what we can do, and do it better,'” he said.

Under his leadership, Idlewild has been involved in the city's struggles – with race relations, homelessness, issues in the LGBTQ community and alterations in the city’s school systems. Montgomery often writes editorials on hot topics of the day from a faith perspective, challenging both his congregation and community to think differently about difficult subjects.

Parishioners, colleagues and friends say Montgomery’s passion is tempered by a quick wit, humor and accessibility to all.

<strong>Located in Midtown, Idlewild Presbyterian Church and its impressive Gothic elements were designed by architect George Awsumb in the 1920s.</strong> (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Located in Midtown, Idlewild Presbyterian Church and its impressive Gothic elements were designed by architect George Awsumb in the 1920s. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

One of the first programs Montgomery was drawn to at Idlewild was More Than a Meal, a program started by laypeople at the church to offer friendship, prayers and hot meals to the homeless population in Midtown. When Montgomery arrived, the program met in the basement of one of the older church buildings. Within months, he had moved it upstairs into the congregational hall. It might be a metaphor for his approach to issues of the day that affected the church and the community – head on and in the light.

Idlewild experienced a shift in its demographics during Montgomery's tenure. When he arrived, the congregation's largest age group was 65 and older; now 25- to 45-year-olds represent the biggest group.

“I think it’s because there really are a number of young people who are hungry for traditional worship and progressive theology that reaches out,” he said.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Montgomery contacted various faith leaders in the city and put together a prayer service at Idlewild that would bring everyone together to grieve.

“Whenever tragedy strikes, where do you go, and what do you do?” said Rabbi Micah Greenstein at Temple Israel in Memphis and a close friend of Montgomery’s. “How do you get through that? Steve’s answer has always been to join hands with all the people made in the image of God.”

Greenstein recalls the two men stepping into leadership at the same time around 2000.

“I heard about Steve, and I called and asked him to meet me for lunch at Fino’s, where I was on the meal plan,” Greenstein said. “I asked him how I would know who he was, and he said, ‘I’m the one who probably looks more like a rabbi than you.’ We met that day and began a friendship and a shared ministry.”

Temple Israel and Idlewild Presbyterian Church have a long history of partnership. The two churches were founding members in 1968 of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), for which Montgomery served as chairman of the board.

“Interfaith has been at the center of (Montgomery’s) service,” Greenstein said. “The cross is two directional. Many people do well with the vertical direction, but not the horizontal, and that is one of Steve’s biggest strengths.”

Montgomery’s legacy at Idlewild includes relationships he has built with Jewish and Muslim communities in Memphis, and with the city's LGBTQ community.

Kyle Veazey, deputy chief operating officer of the City of Memphis and a member of Idlewild, recalls when he and his wife, Courtnay, were traveling to various locations to decide on a seminary for Courtnay to attend. When they said they were from Memphis, two questions came back to them – “Do you know Idlewild or do you know Steve Montgomery?”

Within the Presbyterian USA denomination, Idlewild and Montgomery are widely respected, Veazey said.

“I think the thing that makes Steve special is that he believes you can take your brain to a theological conversation,” Veazey said. “He embraces that questions and doubts are part of the faith journey, not contrary to it.”

Community and Global Engagement

Montgomery also engages in the city's civic life. Greenstein recalled that when the Memphis City Council was considering whether to dissolve the Memphis City Schools charter in 2011, Montgomery was at the forefront of the discussion, holding a panel discussion at the University of Memphis on equitable education for all kids. Greenstein and Montgomery co-authored an editorial on the subject.

As Memphis prepared for the MLK50 celebration last year, Montgomery served on the planning committee and raised funds for the event as well as spearheading the church’s $100,000 donation for renovations to the National Civil Rights Museum.

Under Montgomery’s leadership, Idlewild has partnered with Juan G. Hall Presbyterian Church in Cuba and has organized several trips to Ghana to help establish clean water systems and then turn them over to local residents. The children’s ministry offering at Idlewild each week goes to sponsor the education of girls in Africa and Asia.

Montgomery also helped to raise $10.5 million for the Jones Educational Building renovation on Idlewild’s campus. It houses the Children and Family Enrichment (CAFE) program, a separate 501(c)(3) organization. The newly designed building’s first event will be Montgomery’s farewell potluck in the gymnasium Sunday, after he preaches his final sermon.

Montgomery will stay in Memphis, but his plans are uncertain.

“The first thing I will do is put away my alarm clock,” he said. “I won’t be needing that anymore. And I will be buying a bicycle.” He is looking forward to spending time with his wife, Patti, and his two grown children.

“Memphis will miss one of its leading religious lights when it comes to the design for Memphis, and a better world grounded in justice and shalom and interconnectedness of all people of faith,” Greenstein said. “Steve can rest easy knowing he made as big a difference as anyone of any faith could as a pastor of a large congregation in the Mid-South. Idlewild will go from strength to strength because of him.”


Idlewild Presbyterian Church

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