In God He Trusts
John Cleghorn is giving up a lucrative, influential career in one Charlotte institution —- Bank of America -— to join another -— the church
Written by Ken Garfield
"Behold, I will do a new thing…" —Isaiah 43:19
The tug was too powerful for John Cleghorn to ignore.
He felt it as he wrote business stories twenty years ago at The Charlotte Observer, beginning to build a career in journalism as the son of one of the nation's most respected newspaper men.
He felt it when he was hired to write speeches for Hugh McColl Jr., helping McColl express his vision of NCNB (now Bank of America) using its power to transform Charlotte and beyond.
For all the successes in Cleghorn's two careers, though, it was never enough. That tug just wouldn't go away, ultimately leading to a question that demanded an answer: "I was raised to believe that God has a purpose and a call for everybody's life. Am I doing what God wants me to do?" Cleghorn kept asking himself.
Having decided the answer was neither journalism nor banking, Cleghorn said yes to a new thing.
When the call comes and he leaves Bank of America, he'll go by the Rev. John Cleghorn: a banker reborn as a forty-six-year-old, entry-level pastor in a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation he hopes will be in or around Charlotte. The church world is filled with second-career preachers—middle-aged men and women who grow weary of chasing a buck and find new life baptizing babies, burying the dead, and offering hope in between. But you won't find many third-career pastors walking away from a high-ranking job in one defining Charlotte institution to start over in another. But as soon as he's called to a church, that's exactly what Cleghorn plans to do.
For a man of deep intellect and lifelong faith, the call to enter the pulpit comes not with a bolt of lightning but with a slow, steady, analytical realization. As Cleghorn puts it: "The best and highest use of my experience and skills for the rest of my life is in direct service in the church."
Once he decided that this is where God is leading him, that was it, despite the practical challenges it raises in his family's life. The Rev. Tom Currie, dean of the Charlotte-based Presbyterian seminary from which Cleghorn graduated, says his counsel to middle-aged men and women who come to New Testament class with a dream and a mortgage is blunt: "Have you talked it over with your spouse? Have you talked it over with your checkbook?"
As far as his checkbook goes, Cleghorn will only say that leaving Bank of America corporate communications—he has supported many top executives since McColl retired, most recently Global Risk Executive Amy Brinkley—will bring about a "significant" change in income for his family. "We've done a lot of careful planning," he says, "but it is a leap of faith."
Kelly Cleghorn sensed this coming from the day she married John in 1991. She knew that God's call weighed on him, and that he wouldn't be satisfied until he responded. Once he decided to continue working at the bank during the week and start attending seminary on Saturdays, he seemed at peace, even if it cost him his play day with their daughters, Ellison, twelve, and Sophie, eight. A preschool teacher at Christ Episcopal Church, Kelly recalls looking out the window of their Elizabeth home one day and wondering why her husband was talking to himself as he mowed the lawn. Then she figured it out. He was working on Greek pronouns for seminary class. And he seemed so content.
McColl isn't surprised Cleghorn enrolled in seminary, either. "I'm surprised he didn't do this sooner," McColl says, calling Cleghorn "a reluctant business executive" who helped fill the unofficial role of "conscience of the company."
Others find banks soulless. Cleghorn embraced his as a powerful platform for change. "The bank was consuming and exciting and fulfilling," Cleghorn says. "But every year or two, I'd still feel the tug."
Cleghorn's devotion to his faith started early.
He grew up in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, spending much of his youth in Trinity Presbyterian Church. His mother, Gwen, was an English teacher and school administrator. His father, Reese, was a reporter and then a columnist at the Atlanta Journal. Reese, who became dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland and wrote a book on the South and civil rights, served as The Observer's editorial page editor from 1971 to 1976. During that stint, he gave a young cartoonist by the name of Doug Marlette his first newspaper job.
With his parents active at Trinity, Cleghorn got involved with the church. He was elected a youth elder at age eighteen, taking his place beside adults as one of the lay leaders of the politically and socially moderate Presbyterian congregation. "I always joked that I turned eighteen in a church session meeting," he says.
Despite the passion that had begun taking hold of him, he didn't yet see the church as his life's work. When he graduated in 1984 from Washington and Lee University he set out on a career in journalism.
He landed his first job at The Charlotte Observer, in the Statesville bureau, writing stories about everything from T-ball to the KKK. Like so many young bureau reporters, he worked himself silly for two years before writing and begging his way into the main newsroom, on the business desk. He covered airlines, furniture, housing, tobacco—most everything except banks.
Ken Gepfert, then The Observer's executive business editor and now vice president for public relations with the Luquire George Andrews marketing firm in Charlotte, knew he had a keeper in Cleghorn. But he figured Cleghorn's first career wouldn't last long.
"He clearly had the brains and talent to be a big success in journalism," Gepfert says, "but he became increasingly interested in participating in the business world rather than observing it."
Cleghorn says he couldn't see himself writing for a newspaper for life. He didn't consider himself a reporter who was, as he put it, "out for blood." He yearned to help people directly, not stand to the side and take notes. As that tug became stronger, Cleghorn turned to banking—but not before nearly entering the seminary.
Single at The Observer and free to do this sort of dramatic thing, Cleghorn thought hard in 1990 about attending seminary, having the option of deciding between scholarship offers from Princeton and Columbia theological seminaries. That's when his phone rang. Twice. One call was from NCNB to come and write for McColl. The other was from First Union—from Gepfert, who had left the paper to do PR for the bank—to come and write for then-CEO Ed Crutchfield.
"Maybe that was God's way of saying, ‘Stay in Charlotte,' " Cleghorn says.
He chose NCNB, largely for the chance to work with McColl's right-hand man, Joe Martin, whose focus was more on civic life than high finance.
So Cleghorn was on his way to his second career, a twenty-nine-year-old going to work for one of the nation's most influential bankers.
But not forever. "The seminary bug," Cleghorn says, "never left me."
It's not as if Cleghorn is running away from the bank, though. In crafting communications for McColl, and now Amy Brinkley, he always felt as if there was "a larger reason," as he puts it, "for what you're trying to do." He talks about McColl, in particular, his banking mentor, with near reverence. That famous hand grenade he kept on his desk was for show, Cleghorn says, part of the public legend of the Tough Guy. But Cleghorn always saw him as determined to use his power to build a company that, in McColl's vision, mattered.
"We didn't talk a lot about banking," Cleghorn says. "We spoke about children and education and community development and race relations and diversity and the future of cities."
Flying home from a speaking engagement on the company jet, the two men would pour bourbon and waters and talk late into the night. Cleghorn says he was intoxicated being at the bank and working for McColl—not by the bourbon but by the chance he felt it gave him to put into words McColl's vision for doing something meaningful with the bank's money and power.
McColl says it was great having a speechwriter with a pastor's heart, though sometimes he had to remind Cleghorn that this was a bank and the speech was supposed to be about high finance.
"Sometimes I'd say, ‘Now, John, we're not preaching…' "
Cleghorn's work at the bank has included initiating a partnership with three urban middle schools, part of the bank's involvement in a citywide community-building program. Today, Cleghorn's vision for Charlotte comes from his banker's mind and pastor's heart.
In a way, over the course of his seventeen years at the bank, it felt like ministry to Cleghorn, that "sense of call" as he puts it. And yet the seminary kept tugging at him, though there was a practical snag: He couldn't see himself attending the evangelical-minded seminaries in Charlotte. And he wasn't going to uproot his wife and their two little girls. This was his calling after all, not theirs. He was prepared to remain at the bank, stay active at Covenant Presbyterian, and do God's work without commanding a pulpit.
All that changed in 2002, when Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, opened a campus at Queens University in the Myers Park neighborhood.
Cleghorn cherished every minute of the four and a half years it took him to earn his master of divinity degree at Union. He earned mostly A's in such courses as church history and theology and studied after the girls went to bed.
His reinvention is not quite finished, however. With his shock of prematurely gray hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and well-cut dark suits, he looks like every other bank exec headed for the towers. His friends and mentors in the church world say he'll have to shed that persona if he's going to assume the role of prophet and challenger of authority, which is what the best preachers do.
"John is perceived as a banker," says the Rev. Doug Oldenburg, former pastor at Covenant Presbyterian. "He has that aura. He has to somehow get past that."
Seminary dean Currie says Cleghorn has to remember that there's a difference between a sermon and a speech or opinion piece for a newspaper. A good preacher can moralize some, Currie says, but he or she also has to step back enough to explore context and history. He can't be his dad, firing off passionate columns about race. And he can't be McColl, using a bully pulpit to get what he thinks the city needs.
Cleghorn may have to work on holding back his opinions. Having served as assistant to the pastor at Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Elizabeth community, he got up to preach one Sunday morning after the November election and praised the passage of the school bonds and saving of the transit tax. And though he forsakes fire and brimstone for a style more at home in a classroom or bank tower, he still gets his point across. He told the interracial congregation that taking the risk of being a disciple offers "freedom from our worldly ways and freedom from our worldly woes."
The title of his sermon this day sounded autobiographical: "The Call, Cost, and Joy of Discipleship."
Cleghorn's third career begins with a challenge: Though he has the wisdom that comes with age, Cleghorn has to start over. He'll likely begin by leading a small church for little money, hoping to revive a struggling congregation or grow a small one. In that sense, it won't be much different than what Cleghorn found starting out writing T-ball stories for The Observer in Statesville or promoting the bank.
Only now, after twenty years in the wilderness of the newsroom and the bank, he has answered the question he's been asking himself for some time: "Am I doing what God wants me to do?"
Says Currie: "Most people would think the American Dream would be to have a wife and two kids and a nice house and a senior job at the bank. This is remarkably beautiful."