In spite of the sadness, however, Sunday he shared with his church an exciting new call he feels God has placed on his life. He’s moving to Charlotte as the new head pastor at Myers Park Presbyterian Church.
After a nominating and voting process, Myers Park Presbyterian officially named Clifford as their new pastor following their 10 a.m. Sunday service. Clifford, 49, will move to Charlotte next month with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children, John and Kate.
“We have found that one of Joe’s leadership strengths is to step up and offer thoughtful perspective in times of confusion, debate or when someone or some issue needs a voice,” said Jamie McLawhorn, who chaired Myers Park’s pastor nominating committee.
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McLawhorn said, after more than 175 candidates, the committee felt the strongest connection with Clifford. But the decision could not have been finalized without the congregation’s vote. When interim pastor Pete Peery asked if they wanted to elect Clifford as their eighth senior pastor, the sanctuary filled with a resounding “yes” — the decision was unanimous.
“As a lifelong member, I am without question thoroughly excited, along with everyone I’ve talked to,” said Charlotte resident David Link.
The search for a new head pastor has been going on for almost 14 months. It started when Myers Park Presbyterian’s former pastor, Steve Eason, left to consult with a ministry in Atlanta.
“My immediate reaction was I wasn’t sure I was called to a church like Myers Park,” Clifford said in a video addressed to the Myers Park congregation on Sunday. “I’m an urban pastor, the congregation I serve has a vibrant homeless ministry, and Myers Park is in a wealthy community. And what did I have to offer as a pastor to a church like that?”
He still agreed to be a part of the process, saying it was an honor to be considered by Myers Park Presbyterian, which he referred to as a flagship church in their denomination, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
However, he admitted the timing was horrible.
“It’s been very difficult,” he said in regards to this past week in Dallas. “We’re excited about coming to Charlotte, but sad to leave the people and city we love.”
Clifford said the reactions in his Dallas church ranged from shock and sadness to good wishes and congratulations. He’s coming from a church with about 1,600 members, he said, significantly smaller than Myers Park’s congregation of over 4,800.
“My first goal in Charlotte is working with the congregation to discern what challenges in the community we are called to address,” he said.
He said he’s also looking forward to getting to know folks while learning about the history of Myers Park and understanding the people.
“The church has a great legacy of leadership, and I need to take the time to understand how all that works so I can contribute to it and not screw it up,” he joked.
Though he said he’ll stay firmly neutral in North Carolina’s college basketball rivalries, he is looking forward to cheering on the Panthers. He has visited Charlotte multiple times and has had exposure to the Southeast, as he and his wife are both Auburn University alumns.
He graduated in 1988 with a degree in economics, and spent some time in the finance industry before going into ministry. He went on to Columbia, where he received a Master of Divinity in 1997, and then earned his Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in 2006.
Shortly after, he became the senior pastor at First Presbyterian in Dallas, where he has been ever since. He said he has cherished getting to become a part of the community there, especially with The Stewpot, an outreach ministry that serves Dallas’ homeless community.
He said his first interview with Myers Park Presbyterian is what really piqued his interest. They spoke about how they can expand diversity within the church while developing the outreach programs already in place.
This aim toward a diverse congregation also incorporates his hope for diversity of opinion. With the denomination voting recently to openly ordain gay and lesbian clergy and officiate gay and lesbian weddings, Clifford said he hopes to provide a space where members on both sides of that decision feel welcomed.
“I’m excited about the decisions our denomination has made in recent years,” he said. “But I’m mindful that those who might disagree are integral to the life of the church. We need to model how to be a Christian community when we don’t all agree.”
He said the church and the world need to figure out how to remain united despite differences of opinion.
“The call of the church is to be a community of courage, a community of love, a community that works for reconciliation and brings people together,” he said.
“I think the Presbyterian church offers an opportunity for people to discover community and a relationship with God, who loves us beyond our capacity to understand, and calls us to love one another with a radical kind of love.
“In being a part of the church, we have the opportunity to join God’s transforming work. Ultimately, that’s our life’s highest purpose. To join what God is doing. And then to be transformed in the process ourselves.”
Kiana Cole: 704-358-5357; @kianamcole