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Steve Montgomery

Steve Montgomery was ordained in 1980 and became senior pastor at  Idlewild Presbyterian Church in 2000 after serving churches in Appalachia and Atlanta. He retired from Idlewild May 5, 2019. 

12 things I have learned in the ministry

By Published: May 05, 2019 12:40 PM CT

After nearly 20 years as senior pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery leads his last service before retiring on Sunday, May 5. The Daily Memphian asked him to summarize his thoughts as he steps away from the pulpit. He replied with a list of "12 things I have learned in the ministry."

1. Jesus never used the word “tolerate.” Tolerate one another? Tolerate your neighbor? Tolerate your enemy? Nope. “Love one another.” “Love your neighbor.” “Love your enemy.” There is all the difference in the world.

2. I have always grown the most spiritually, intellectually and emotionally from those who are different from me: women, members of the LGBTQ community, Central Americans, Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, and yes, evangelicals.

3. Though I have had good days and bad days, hard days and exhilarating days, I can say that I have never had a boring day in 39 years of ministry.

4. Children are not the future of the church. Enough of that nonsense. They are the church now. And they need the church’s nurture and advocacy.

<strong>Steve Montgomery</strong>

Steve Montgomery

5. The phrase “Jesus is Lord” is a political statement. To shy away from the hard realities of the political implications of the Gospel is to offer a watered-down gospel.

6. The Apostle Paul gets a bad press. Anyone who wrote “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” can’t be all bad.

7. The prophets did not proclaim, “Let charity roll down like waters.” Rather, they proclaimed, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Charity is needed. Feed the hungry, provide hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, visit the imprisoned.   But to show concern for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make that person an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving. Justice takes the next step.

8. Being Presbyterian, I am all for doctrines and creeds, but it is bad religion to deify them. They are only to be used as signposts and not hitching posts. Doctrines, you remember, supported slavery and apartheid. Some still support the marginalization of women and members of the LGBTQ community. Love alone is the hitching post. Faith can divide, but compassion can unite.

9. Whenever you engage with the Bible, make sure others are a part of the conversation, or else we ended up baptizing our own prejudices. My friendship with Rabbi Micah Greenstein and my reading of Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt, have helped me understand the times and religion of Jesus; thus, they have made me a better Christian and hopefully a better human being. (The only problem with that is that I had to throw away a number of my early sermons about the Pharisees!) And make sure some of those voices are from “underneath,” those from the underside of society whom we have often relegated to silence. I’ll never forget studying the Bible with a base community in Central America. I realized that I have more pharaoh in me than I had previously thought!

10. Jesus gets a bad press from… no, not the media, or atheists… but from my brothers and sisters in the fundamentalist wing of Christianity whose faith in Jesus leads to a rigid exclusivism. For me, Jesus is both a mirror to our humanity and a window to divinity. So when I see Christ empowering the weak, scorning the powerful, healing the wounded and taking on the principalities and powers of the day, I see transparently the power of God at work. What is finally important is not that Christ is God-like, but that God is Christ-like. Sit with that for a while.

11. I continue to be inspired by those who struggle to make it to worship with their walkers, who find a way back to church after losing a loved one, who move here without friends and enter a church for the first time, who juggle two, three and four children’s activities and still make church a priority. But those who have provided the most inspiration for me are those in the LGBTQ community who have had the courage and steadfastness to stay with the church even when the church did not have the courage and steadfastness to stay with them. I personally have been blessed to have them in my congregation leading us toward a more faithful future. We have married them, baptized their children, visited them in the hospital, learned from them, and have elected them as elders and deacons. I realize that these words are hard to hear for many, for I have found that change is indeed discomforting. But those of us who are straight really need to sit down quietly and compare our own discomfort with the discomfort of those in this community who for years have been excluded, isolated, silenced, abused, neglected by parents and even killed. And Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr. and President Trump, please take note: Words have power, and the seeds of disrespect often blooms into hatred and violence.

To those who find these words difficult, please see numbers 1-10 above.

12. Joy - it really is a joy to be with irrepressible people who are so precisely because they follow the One who said, “I have come that your joy might be full.” Or to be with people of any faith who decide not to be members of the Bystanders Association, but rather embrace life fully. As Bishop Iraneus said early on: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!” It is a joy to be loved. It is a joy to love others.

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Steve Montgomery Idlewild Presbyterian Church

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