Former Chattanoogan Dr. G. Steven Sallee’s ministerial career included leading the 13th largest United Methodist Church in the United States in terms of attendance.
But Sunday afternoon, it was not his grand accomplishments, but all the little people he touched positively, that were highlighted the most.
“He embraced everyone with the love of Jesus Christ,” said former Holston Conference bishop Ray Chamberlain during a more-than-90-minute funeral at Knoxville’s Cokesbury United Methodist Church, where Dr. Sallee had served as senior minister from 1996.
“He stood with the underdog, the misunderstood, and the mistreated. He was not judgmental and he was forgiving.”
Added the Rev. Stephen DeFur, his longtime associate and a graduate of Hixson High School, “He would bend over backwards to help if he could meet the needs of someone in trouble. There are countless people in Knoxville who are the direct beneficiaries of Steve’s generosity.”
Dr. Sallee, a Chattanooga “City” High School and UTC graduate and the pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in East Brainerd from 1982-96, died Thursday from complications related to heart disease and pneumonia. He was 61.
He had also served at Tyner United Methodist and First-Centenary United Methodist earlier in his career.
Hundreds packed the West Knoxville church’s main sanctuary as well as its more informal worship center across Kingston Pike to pay respects to the man who was known for having the golden touch when it came to growing churches at a time when many mainline denominations are facing declining numbers.
He did it through such innovative ideas as contemporary worship, excellent and diverse music offerings, and ministries to recovering drug and alcohol addicts.
“He will be remembered as an innovator who wasn’t afraid to step outside the box and try new things,” said Mr. DeFur. “Steve was an incredibly gifted man who wasn’t afraid to use to the maximum impact the gifts he had.”
But despite all the different ideas he and his staff developed at the 4,500-member Cokesbury church and previously at Christ UMC in Chattanooga, the thoughts were all grounded in the basic premise of showing Christian love.
“He spoke the words, ‘I love you,” as often as he could,” said Mr. DeFur, adding that he also learned from Dr. Sallee such lessons as to always be an optimist, practice generosity constantly, and stay on mission.
Added the Rev. Nathan Malone, the Knoxville District superintendent and the pastor at Burks United Methodist Church in Hixson until 2012, “He led people into loving other people and he led people into a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
The somber-but-upbeat funeral also included light-hearted but heart-felt comments from fellow staff members the Revs. Rebekah Fetzer and Kenny Faught, as well as comments from Dr. Sallee’s wife, Lynda, that were read by Ms. Fetzer.
Mr. Faught jokingly mentioned that Dr. Sallee taught him not to do anything to embarrass God, the Cokesbury church or himself – and he would often say that right before Mr. Faught was getting ready to preach.
Dr. Sallee was also described as having a deep love and appreciation for church music. As a result, the eulogies were interspersed with such diverse melodic presentations as a piano prelude by Danny Brian, some numbers led by Michael Rodgers, a contemporary version of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” by Kaley Farmer and Sara Clapp Gilpin, and “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy” by Doug Richesin.
The attendees also sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and “Hymn of Promise,” while the church’s chancel choir sang “Amazing Grace” while accompanied by a bagpiper.
Humorous and sentimental videos and slides were also shown, with the Louis Armstrong song, “What a Wonderful World,” accompanying one.
Also, Dr. Sallee’s liturgical robe and a Duke basketball T-shirt representing his favorite college basketball team draped the altar.