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CSLR Interview with Terri Montague
By CSLR | Emory Law | Feb 11, 2022 7:02:00 AM

On the last day of January, the Center for the Study of Law and Religion welcomed our newest colleague, Terri Montague, to Emory’s campus. An alumna of Emory Law School and Candler School of Theology, Montague is embarking on a three-year fellowship in residence at CSLR. During that time, she will conduct research, teach courses at the law school, and lead collaborative efforts to develop “large, bold, rational solutions” to some of the biggest challenges facing communities today.

We sat down with Professor Montague to learn about her path to Emory and her plans for the future. It was a fascinating conversation that ranged from her early role in developing the Atlanta BeltLine to her recent work at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and how religious faith has informed her life and career. We are delighted to share some of the highlights of that conversation below.



Welcome back to Emory! Starting this spring, you will be serving as a McDonald Distinguished Senior Fellow at CSLR and Senior Lecturer in Law at Emory Law School. You have already led a remarkable career in the private and public sectors, most recently serving in impactful roles at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. What made this the right time for you to transition into the academy? 

The time definitely seems ripe for me to pivot to the academy and share my expertise and lessons from twenty plus years of business and legal practice. The present reckonings on racial and economic justice have prompted calls for equity in many aspects of American society. These calls dovetail with my recent assignment to help HUD address what “equity advancement” means for federal housing policy, programs, and practices.

Also, while my time in public service has been immensely productive and rewarding, federal government attorneys face certain necessary ethics restrictions around community involvement to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest or undue advantage for jurisdictions and institutions that benefit from HUD programs. At this time, I believe I can best help advance certain policy approaches and community interests through an advisory role or in partnership with government and other stakeholders.

Now more than ever, I see the need to equip students and emerging leaders to more confidently and effectively navigate the changing institutional, social, and political landscape. I also hope that my new role will allow me the time and space to further develop and pursue my research interests, engage other thought leaders, and collaborate in creating more equitable and inclusive systems and communities.


You’ve studied at the University of Chicago, MIT, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Candler School of Theology, and Emory Law, earning a total of six degrees. In each of these programs you focused on themes surrounding community, affordable housing, and sustainable development. How has your interdisciplinary training – in economics, city planning and real estate, theology, and law – shaped your understanding of the challenges facing American society today, and helped you navigate the tensions between these disciplines?

From my perspective, American society is undergoing radical changes in social, economic, and institutional norms such that new regulatory frameworks, institutional forms, and partnerships are needed for fiscal and social transformation. I believe the high-impact persons and institutions of the future will need to be able to engage with diverse constituents and translate complex concepts into concrete, morally, legally, and fiscally sound business models through both traditional and nontraditional partnerships. Interdisciplinary training promotes this kind of versatility and prepares students for real-world complexity.

Navigating the tensions between disciplines requires translating across the disciplines and bridging gaps. Interdisciplinary training has honed my capacity for meaningful, productive dialogue and problem solving. Being able to view problems through multiple lenses enhances the potential to develop solutions whose value exceeds the sum of their parts.




Your professional career includes leadership roles in diverse institutions and settings – e.g., a global real estate investment corporation, a national operating foundation, a quasi-public redevelopment agency, faith-based and para-church organizations, the federal government, etc. How do you understand the connections among these experiences?

My career has been grounded and galvanized by an overarching, pervasive concern for and commitment to community – its purpose and potential, its requirements and rewards, and its development and durability. Each role afforded me opportunities to learn new institutional languages and cultures, gain new skills, share expertise, develop or hone leadership instincts, and experience and enrich diverse community. Along the way, I also discovered that the “mystic ladder” rises to heaven from the marketplace and public square as well as from the sanctuary, and can daily transform places of common responsibility into places of uncommon service and grace.


The Atlanta Beltline has become a defining feature of our city and a major driver of economic development. As the Founding President and CEO of Atlanta Beltline, Inc. between 2006 and 2009, you played a leading role in both envisioning the Beltline and making it a reality. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in those early days? In hindsight, what is one of the main lessons or insights that you have taken away from that project?

The BeltLine is a legacy for Atlanta, and it rightly continues to be recognized for its national  significance. During the early phase of implementing the BeltLine, we focused most on aggregating land and right-of-way, building momentum by delivering tangible projects, solidifying partnerships, and getting Atlantans used to new approaches to planning and growth.

Despite having galvanized broad public support and approvals from all the sponsoring governments and agencies (the city, Fulton County, and the Atlanta Board of Education), BeltLine success was not inevitable. Early on, the project encountered an unexpected lawsuit that challenged the legality of its primary funding source (BeltLine Tax Allocation District (TAD)). The Georgia Supreme Court eventually dismissed the lawsuit, and voters reaffirmed the BeltLine TAD structure. We also had to overcome community perceptions that lagged existing realities regarding the forecast need for more housing and mobility options. Other challenges included the funding and operating silos in city government, and the need for credible, inclusive engagement of the public to overcome skepticism and past negative experiences among some communities.

The roughly $5 billion Atlanta BeltLine remains among the largest urban redevelopment projects in the U.S. and involved many firsts for Atlanta and the region – for example, the city’s first integrated master plans, equitable development plan, green jobs program, and infrastructure Tax Allocation District. Given the present federal government emphasis on infrastructure investment, I hope to spend part of my scholarship on making more accessible some of the largely untold BeltLine implementation lessons. One key lesson from the BeltLine is to recognize and harness the power of large, bold, rational solutions.


In addition to being a practicing lawyer, you are a practicing Christian. How does your religious faith inform the work that you do?

My faith has strongly influenced my decision to enter public service and devote most of my career to mission-driven work and organizations. Faith helps me to live as a called person and supports the vocational practice of law. My faith informs my understanding of and posture toward truth and has implications for my personal and professional integrity. Over the years, faith has strengthened my resilience and has helped me willingly take on and persevere in unprecedented and hard but worthwhile challenges. My faith has helped me prioritize and practice a kind of people-centered leadership that invests in the potential of others. It also helps me to lead from a place of authenticity, accountability, courage, and hope.

Concern for faithfulness keeps me aspiring to live, work, and relate in God- and life-honoring ways. Like other people, I seek – and like – to win; it matters for me to succeed. But religious faith keeps me mindful that how I win or succeed, at what costs, and with what relationship consequences also greatly matters. In an ultimate sense, my faith helpfully serves to broaden my perspective and inspires me purposefully to keep growing and living for a cause bigger than I am, one that will outlive me.




You are embarking on a new chapter in your career as a scholar. Which scholars, books, or traditions – either historical or contemporary – have been most influential in shaping you and/or your research agenda? Do you see yourself as part of a specific intellectual tradition?

John Witte often reminds me that the field of law and religion is a wide canopy. Not surprisingly, my growing personal library includes a rich collection of legal scholars and jurists; ethicists; policy advocates, prophets, and poets; historians; urban planners and community developers; economists; sociologists; theologians and mystics; as well as biographies, sermons and songs, treatises and testimonials.

I view myself as both an academy- and public-facing scholar seeking to complement my traditional scholarship with academy-community engagement and partnerships. I hope in my scholarship to creatively develop and share ideas and tools for the constructive work of ensuring social justice and social order in reimagined communities.

The focus of my scholarship in this new season is still emerging and may differ a year from now. Given my recent professional roles, the natural starting point and initial themes include: equity and economic justice; housing and community development law and policy; real estate finance law; municipal government law; and faith in the public square. After an initial period of reflection, I also plan to distill and convert some of my past experiences negotiating and mediating high-stakes community solutions or conflicts into useful case studies that help train the sensibilities of aspiring leaders.


In addition to their spiritual functions, religious institutions can play other vital roles in their communities and neighborhoods – providing education and social services, fostering social bonds and networks of mutual support, anchoring local cultures, and more. Recent studies indicate that religious belief and observance is changing in the United States, and in many cases declining. From your perspective, what are some of the main challenges or opportunities that these trends present, especially for low income and underprivileged communities?

Even as faith communities suffer decline in attendance and certain forms of religious observance, I see concurrent evidence of rebirth and resurgence along different parameters. More than ever, the global pandemic, racial and justice reckonings, and the eviction crisis have foregrounded disparities in life expectancy and life opportunity for minority and underserved communities. These developments have summoned religious institutions to revisit and revise their facilities usage, modes of worship, fellowship, liturgy, and community interactions and commitments. More broadly, these trends also have caused some to challenge their own inherited traditions and have prompted religious leaders to reassess their history, relevance, relationships, and forums for engagement.

Underprivileged and underserved communities potentially stand to benefit from these trends and developments as some religious institutions recommit to visions of unity and multicultural community. Already, some institutions have begun reorienting ministries and projects beyond their immediate constituents towards their surrounding communities, creatively repurposing their facilities, and redirecting financial resources to meet community needs or to help fill other service gaps left by struggling nonprofits and government agencies.


Who are some of the people who have most influenced your life and vocational choices?

My parents have been important supporters, enablers, and role models – both had fulfilling careers as private-sector professionals and as public servants. I am fortunate to have been raised in a family that included career educators and education administrators who greatly valued and promoted education as a vital form of social capital and source of social mobility, and who made learning exciting, fun, and accessible.

In my experience, some lessons are taught and some lessons are caught. The many kinds and sources of intelligence and wisdom that have influenced my life and vocational choices include organizational and community leaders, fellow board members, and mentees. I am also the grateful beneficiary of numerous mentors,  conversation partners, and pastors, including the late James Earl Massey (Tuskegee Institute dean emeritus), Carl Patton ( Georgia State University president emeritus), Suzanne W. Haley, Cheryl J. Sanders (Howard University professor), and the late Elder Robert L. Key Sr. and Elder Roland C. Mars.

The Emory professors who have most influenced or supported my academic and vocational pursuits include Frank Alexander and John Witte (Emory Law), and Luke Timothy Johnson, Ellen Ott Marshall, and Luther Smith (Candler School of Theology). I also had the happy privilege to study under Ira V. Frazier and William Spencer (Gordon-Conwell professors), Phillip L. Clay (former MIT chancellor and professor emeritus) and Langley C. Keyes (MIT professor emeritus), among others.