KNOXVILLE — When Jay McCluskey celebrated his 37th anniversary as pastor of North Cleveland Baptist Church, Cleveland, in September, it was a major achievement for him personally.
Though he acknowledged that crossing the “37th year milestone does not merit the notoriety of other major anniversaries” it did have special meaning for him.
Jay McCluskey finally caught up with his dad — longtime pastor and former Tennessee Baptist Convention president Jim McCluskey who retired in 1996 on his 37th anniversary as pastor of Wallace Memorial Baptist Church in Knoxville.
While there are probably other father-son ministers who had lengthy and possibly longer tenures as pastors, the likelihood of two men from the same family with 37 years at one church is slim, given church statistics.
Researcher and writer Thom Rainer, former president of Lifeway Christian Resources, wrote a blog in 2018 noting that the average tenure of a pastor is three to four years.
The McCluskeys have far exceeded that total. A McCluskey has served as pastor of a Tennessee Baptist church since 1959 and Jay McCluskey has no plans to retire anytime in the near future.
The similarity between father and son is striking. Both men had pastorates while in seminary. Jim McCluskey became the second pastor of Wallace Memorial after serving only one other church in Kentucky for three years.
North Cleveland was Jay McCluskey’s first pastorate after seminary. He joined North Cleveland in 1986 when his father was in his 27th year at Wallace Memorial.
“That was literally my whole life,” Jay observed, noting his dad was a great role model.
“From my infancy I witnessed their work for the Lord through the ministry with that congregation. As we (he and his wife Michelle) prepared for our own vocational work, we saw their devotion and faithfulness. We also saw the joy and blessings of a long term pastorate.”
The elder McCluskey has not only been a role model for his son, but also for 15 other ministers who he considers his “preacher boys.”
Of those 15 pastors, six (including Jay) have served one church for 15 years or more. They include: Lon Shoopman, retired pastor, First Baptist Church, Madison, 41 years; Mike Segars, Inskip Baptist Church, Knoxville, 33 years; Tim Perrin, Grace Baptist Church, Woodbridge, Va., 22 years; Keith Johnson, East Maryville Baptist Church, Maryville, 20 years; and Mark McCoig, Sharon Baptist Church, Knoxville, 15 years.
“We thought long-term pastorates was the way you did it,” his son said. “I grew up in Wallace Memorial and I thought every church was like Wallace,” he continued. “I got in the real world and learned it wasn’t true.”
Jim McCluskey, who still attends Wallace Memorial and is the pastor emeritus, recalled that he came to Wallace Memorial “when I was 28 years old and green as a gourd.”
Keith Johnson was baptized by Jim McCluskey. “He was a tremendous influence on my life and so many others,” the East Maryville pastor said. “He was an inspiration as to how a pastor should live and serve,” Johnson added.
He noted that he is not an advocate of “pastoral authority, but I do believe in pastoral leadership. The church wanted a leader, and I was blessed to have a church that was good followers.”
The key to a lengthy tenure is to develop trust, Jim said. He said pastors should not “panic” when a crisis arises and look to leave, but instead stay and help the church through the crisis.
“The longer you stay, the more trust you develop and there are less questions about your leadership,” he said.
The elder McCluskey noted Wallace Memorial made some “drastic changes” in his early years there, and church members followed his leadership. The changes apparently were successful.
When he arrived in 1959, the church’s average attendance was about 200, he said, adding that when he retired, the church averaged around 1,000 in Sunday School. In addition to the men who entered the ministry during his tenure, the church also had ties with 125 individuals who went into full time Christian ministry.
Jim McCluskey, now 92, offers advice for pastors today.
• Be patient.
• Be steadfast.
• Don’t give up easily.
• Don’t be afraid to lead the church to change. “We live in a changing world and if you don’t have a changing approach, you will get left behind,” he said.
• Have a focus on missions and ministry. “That keeps people excited,” he maintained.
During his tenure, McCluskey was never really tempted to leave. He noted that one church contacted him after he had been at Wallace Memorial for 10 years. And, though he was interested at first, “that bubble burst” and he remained.
“I was satisfied and felt that Wallace Memorial was where I was supposed to be,” he recalled.
“We have been blessed.”
Jay feels the same about his congregation at North Cleveland. In a letter to members in September, he wrote that they could not have stayed at the church for 37 years without their support. “You have loved us, prayed for us, helped us and encouraged us through the seasons.”
The younger McCluskey noted that Naomi Gibson served as the church office coordinator at North Cleveland during his first nine years before she retired.
“She repeatedly admonished that we could not leave North Cleveland Baptist until we had stayed here just as long as my parents served at Wallace Memorial.”
He noted that Gibson died last year before he accomplished that feat. If there was a way to get a message to her in eternity, McCluskey said he would tell her, “We made it, but we are not going anywhere.”
There is still excitement about what God is doing at North Cleveland, Jay said. “While it is a joy to pause and see how far you have come, the journey still lies ahead.” B&R