Steve Sallee: Pastor behind Holston's two largest churches

Steve Sallee: Pastor behind Holston's two largest churches

Steve Sallee in his office in September 2008. Photo by Sarah Slack


 In June 2008, the Rev. Steve Sallee received the Denman Evangelism Award from the Holston Annual Conference. The Call featured this story in September 2008. 

Sallee died from pneumonia and heart complications on May 2, 2013. His celebration of life service will be held 4 p.m., Sunday, May 5, at both of Cokesbury United Methodist Church's Knoxville locations: 9908 Kingston Pike in the main sanctuary and 9915 Kingston Pike in the Cokesbury Center. 

See obituary in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

When Steve Sallee was a senior at a Chattanooga high school in 1969, he attended his prom on the same night a lay witness revival took place at his church, Forrest Avenue United Methodist.

About halfway through the prom, Sallee and his date felt an urge to leave and go to church. During a youth sharing time, Sallee, still wearing his formal prom clothes, made a bold and equally formal announcement.

“All of a sudden I felt this strong, compelling feeling to announce that if it was God’s will, I would probably be entering seminary in four years,” said Sallee, whose father was a Baptist minister.

“I never looked back and never doubted it,” says the Rev. Sallee, current senior pastor at Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville District. “Not that I have not had difficult times, but one calming thing is that I always felt wherever I was at that time, that was where God wanted me.”

In the nearly four decades since that pivotal night, Sallee has continued to take bold steps for Christ.

In recognition of his strategies for growing Christ UMC in Chattanooga District and later Cokesbury into the two largest churches in Holston, he received the Harry Denman Evangelism Award for clergy at Annual Conference in June.

As Sallee talked recently from his immaculate office, which features large letters of the word “Imagine” above his bookcase, he said he always felt compelled to lead growing and effective churches.

“I don’t know exactly where I got that,” said the 57-year-old pastor. “I didn’t get that at seminary.”

One of his strategies is to combine evangelism and social action. Many churches, he said, focus on one or the other.

Among the social outreach programs at Cokesbury is Celebrate Recovery, a Thursday night ministry attended by about 400 people with addictions. Another program, Hope Initiative, helps families overcome their dependence on the church food pantry.

On the evangelism side, Cokesbury offers two traditional services and two contemporary services on two campuses. In the 12 years since Sallee has served Cokesbury, more than 900 professions of faith have been celebrated – more than the number of church transfers.

“We are really excited about that,” he said. “We are not interested in taking other churches’ members.”

Cokesbury, which now averages about 2,700 in worship, is also planning a third campus in the fast growing Hardin Valley area of West Knox County.

Sallee began his ministerial career about a year after high school, when he served Tyner UMC while attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. After graduating from Duke Divinity School and serving at Tuckaleechee UMC followed by First-Centenary UMC, he was appointed pastor at St. Paul UMC in 1982.

At the time, the struggling Chattanooga church was hidden on Graysville Road in the East Brainerd area.

“We were down to about 70 when I came,” Sallee said. “Early on, I saw that the Methodist Church was not being well represented in East Brainerd.”

St. Paul eventually merged with Shallowford Road UMC, purchasing 32 acres for a new church named Christ UMC. Attendance was enhanced by obtaining a visible location on East Brainerd Road, opening the building for community meetings, and providing a public walking trail.

About 1989 or 1990, Christ UMC tried something that was new to Holston: contemporary-style worship.

“I received a lot of criticism,” said Sallee, who organized the service after attending a Leonard Sweet workshop. “I had colleagues tell me it was just a fad, but it attracted people who were not coming to the traditional service and who never would have come.”

By the time he was appointed senior pastor at Cokesbury in 1996, average worship attendance at Christ had grown to 750. Years later, Christ UMC continues to grow, which pleases Sallee greatly.

“One of the real tests of whether you are successful or not is what happens after you leave,” he said. “If you are making this about the kingdom and not about yourself, someone can come in behind you and keep it going.”



John Shearer

 John Shearer is a United Methodist and a reporter for The Chattanoogan.