I’ve been thinking a good bit about Steve Montgomery in recent days. I’ve thought about his ministry, and how his life intersected mine. I’ve wondered about Idlewild and what it means for a flock to lose a spiritual leader, even one who had retired. I’m familiar with a loss like that, and while the context for my understanding is markedly different, the emptiness of loss never asks how it happened in order for it to be felt. Like a weighted blanket draped on the soul, it labors the capacity to breathe in the Spirit.
Long ago and oh so far away, I was introduced to Steve by Scott Morris. As is often the case, Scott had an idea, and this one was to bring together an ecumenical, interfaith cohort of progressively hearted clergy from the city for mutual support, the joining of voices as issues arose in the city, and for fellowship. For me, it was a profound gift to be in the room with these folks, and I’ll always thank Scott for the opportunity to be part of that.
Steve was one of the guys I met straight away, and I was taken instantly by his curiosity, his laugh, the prescience of his theological insight, and his genuine sense of presence when he engaged in conversation.
He also had a lengthy friendship and history with Scott, which for me held hope that I might I gain some insight into the enigma that was my then Associate Minister. The enlightenment I gained was simply this - each held deep affection for the other.
Our group met monthly for several years. We ate in each other’s homes. We went to Israel together. We made a statement and facilitated a city-wide service in the wake of the Lester Street killings. We voiced support for public education in the city as surrounding municipalities were standing up their own school districts.
After I returned to St. John’s in 2014, I didn’t see Steve very often, a few times here and there. The group had long since faded and reconstituted in other ways with other characters. I knew of Steve’s retirement and was so glad he had achieved that moment of clarity to do so when he did.
A couple of weeks before we shut down from COVID, I was surprised to see Steve come in the front door of St. John’s. He looked great. I was so glad to see him. As announcements were being shared from the chancel, we stood in the narthex catching up. He said that in retirement, he enjoyed attending churches all over the city. “You’re my Methodist stop, Johnny.”
I shared with him the news that I was retiring from pastoral ministry and would welcome the chance to learn from him how it's done. We hugged (back when we did such things) as he was making his way to a pew. At that moment, it hit me, “Oh shit, I better be good today!”
I don’t know if I was any good, but I saw him taking notes. Steve Montgomery was taking notes on my sermon. Wow! After the service I saw him in the “enjoyed it, preacher” line. He smiled, pointed at his bulletin on which I saw his handwritten notes, and said, “Thank you, Johnny. A challenging word. Let’s talk before long about retirement.”
“I’d love to.” I said.
That was the last time I saw him or talked with him.
Whether or not I was at my best that day, Steve surely made me feel as if my work mattered, that it was a valuable contribution. That’s what Steve did. That’s who he was. Always learning, always curious. He made us want to be more than we’ve been, more fully what our faith can bring out of us.
Memphis lost a powerful voice at a time when it’s most needed. So we step in. We stand up. We carry that prophetic imagination on.
And I’m the better for having known him—a better witness to the faith, a better listener, a better person.
Peace, my friend.