John Cleghorn served as speechwriter for Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl during the trememdous growth that built the second-largest bank in the US. John's speechwriter role was the first of a successful 18-year career at the bank that also included a job as head of Issues Management.
At the age of 46, with a wife and two young daughters, John has just left his career in banking to answer the call to ministry.
In this first of a two-part interview, John talks about finding his new church while managing his career at Bank of America.
“'Wait a minute!' 10 years earlier I had gone to work for a small company that was interesting and exciting and intoxicating, and it had become this big conglomerate.”
Read the full interview:
Avocationist: Our conversation is taking place at a very interesting time in your life. Is this the biggest transition that you have ever made?
"If there is a bigger one out there, I quake in my boots to see what that one might be."
John: If there is a bigger one out there, I quake in my boots to see what that one might be. I retired from Bank of America just a few days ago and I am going to be ordained as pastor of Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church in two weeks. Right now I am at home cleaning up a honey-do list before I dive into a new career and see what the ministry holds after 18 years of banking.
Avocationist: You have accepted a call to be senior minister at a small church in Charlotte. Tell us how that came about.
"They were prepared to close the doors because they couldn’t find a way to get it going again."
John: It is a wondrous story in and of itself, absent in any role that I played. Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church was a once a significant church in Charlotte. It was founded in 1912. Membership grew to about 800-1000 members until the 1960's and 70's. As with many other American cities, people were fleeing to the suburbs. About 20 years ago the neighborhood began staging a comeback, but the church never did quite turn the corner. By 2006 it had dwindled down to about fifteen folks in the pews, with only an interim part-time pastor. They were prepared to close the doors because they couldn’t find a way to get it going again.
Avocationist: How did you become involved with the church?
"Because Charlie was a second-career minister like I am, Sara said, ‘You should get to know this fellow.’"
John: Well, God works in mysterious ways. I was just about to finish my Master of Divinity Degree, having already decided that this was my new path, when I was invited to a social event at the home of one of the bank executives that I worked with. I ran into a woman named Sara Belk Gambrell whose family had lived just two blocks from Caldwell Memorial when she was child. Caldwell was the Belk family's church when she was growing up. After her father died she moved her membership, but continued to follow the church and became a friend of Charlie McDonald, the interim senior pastor. Charlie was a spry 77-year old sent there part-time to help guide the church to whatever end it was going to find. He had rural churches and big corporate churches and everything in between. Because Charlie was a second-career minister like I am, Sara said, “You should get to know this fellow.”
"Well, it’s funny, because we have just decided to keep the church open."
John: At the time I was very busy, but about 6 weeks later I finally called Charlie and told him, “Sara Gambrell said you and I ought to talk. I am about to finish my degree and I just want to hear about your journey.” He said, “Well, it’s funny, because we have just decided to keep the church open.” I asked if there was anything I could do to help, because my classes were winding down and I had some time. He said, "Sure" and then one thing lead to another. The church remained open, a new flock formed in the pews and by last fall church membership had grown beyond part-time to full time. They did a search for a full-time replacement to Charlie and for whatever reasons called me to be their pastor.
Avocationist: Fantastic. Of course, you have made more than one transition in your career. Tell us something about your journey.
"It was a wonderful life, but I could see the trajectory of the newspaper industry and realized that it was not going to be the career my father had."
John: I grew up the son of a journalist and an English teacher, so I was always drawn to writing and the language. I spent 6 or 7 years in journalism, which was my father’s career. I was in my 20's and journalism was really my graduate school. I was working at the Charlotte paper, the Charlotte Observer, and for me that was the most natural application of my interests and my abilities and my orientation. It was a free excuse, in some sense, to do exactly what you are doing—sit down with a lot of interesting people and ask questions—and the next morning and there was your byline in the newspaper. It was a wonderful life, but I could see the trajectory of the newspaper industry and realized that it was not going to be the career my father had. I also felt the need to be more hands-on, not just an observer. I wanted to get more involved, either through leadership or through service. That started the wheels turning.
"I first considered going to the seminary when I was 29, not so much because I felt a distinct call, but because I knew that I wanted to try something else."
I first considered going to the seminary when I was 29, not so much because I felt a distinct call, but because I knew that I wanted to try something else. I got as far as narrowing my choice down to 2 seminaries, either Princeton or Columbia, and was pretty sure that would be my path. Along the way I had some informational interviews with people in the banking industry to see where a communication skill set might be needed. When I came back from a trip to Princeton I had two phone calls, one from First Union Bank (now Wachovia), the other from another bank, NCNB (now Bank of America). Both were calling with offers to be the speech writer for their CEOs.
Avocationist: Did you limit your search to seminaries and banks, or did you explore other options?
"God in his wisdom had me do such a bad job on the GRE that I wasn’t admitted anywhere."
John: That is a great question. I was typical of a lot of people in their late 20’s. I was single and untethered. I was wide open and at the same time I was searching and confused and uncertain and looking for guidance. I looked at other newspapers. I had wanted to go to graduate school, but couldn’t find a graduate school that suited me. I didn’t want to get an MBA, I didn’t want to go to Law School and there was no need to get a graduate degree in journalism. I thought about going to Public Policy school, but God in his wisdom had me do such a bad job on the GRE that I wasn’t admitted anywhere. I took one of those great career tests that measures your interests and I think I came out highest in a tie between ad executive and social worker. I was further befuddled by that, but upon reflection I sort of see the point of it. Pastor actually ranked as a potential profession as well.
Avocationist: And now you had job offers for two of the biggest banks in the world…
"I would be catching these companies and these leaders at a remarkable time in their own ascendance."
John: …which I had to really back up and look at as a bit of a “burning bush” experience at that point in my life. I was not certain that I wanted to go into the parish ministry or be a minister. For me at that point, seminary was a time-out. I did due diligence on the banking opportunities and determined it was really a no-brainer. I would be catching these companies and these leaders at a remarkable time in their own ascendance and I just had to choose which one. I went with Mr. Hugh McColl at NCNB (now Bank of America) because I felt like there was a little bit more opportunity and security.
Avocationist: How did it happen that you ended up with an offer from both banks? There must have been something about you.
"I am a big believer in who you know and keeping conversations open but I didn't have any backroom connections or anything like that."
John: It wasn’t about me. I am a big believer in who you know and keeping conversations open but I didn't have any backroom connections or anything like that. Charlotte has always been a town where there is license to call on just about anybody and if you have any viable connection to them and say, “I would like to know more about what you do.” I had done that with Joe Martin, a gentlemen from my church who was head of corporate affairs at NCNB. At the time it was probably a 15-member department, including Public Policy. Honestly, I just called Joe one day to set up a meeting, and he asked if I could be in his office in about 2 minutes. That was about the time it took to walk from the newspaper to the bank building, so I said, “Yes sir,” and that just led to ongoing conversations. NCNB was growing and the chairman, Hugh McColl was getting far more active in his own personal communications and they saw a need for someone to help with that.
Avocationist: Did joining NCNB turn out to be a good decision?
"It was the ride of my life."
John: Absolutely. It was the ride of my life. NCNB was a bank that was in about 4 states at the time with $60 billion dollars in assets. It was duking it out with 2 other North Carolina banks for prominence in the southeast. Throughout the 90’s we doubled in size roughly every 2 years. By the time Mr. McColl retired in 2000, the bank had grown to about $800 billion and had become what is now Bank of America. It was a great ride.
Avocationist: Were you with Mr. McColl the whole time he was there?
"I needed to carve out a different identity at the bank."
John: All except for the last 2 years. I had worked for Mr. McColl for 7 years. I was on his team, a sort of aide de camp. I knew that one day he would ride off into the sunset, so I needed to carve out a different identity at the bank. So I took a different position about a year before he left, going into Issues Management, which was a Public Policy role.
Avocationist: So you did get to do Public Policy after all. What motivated you to begin thinking about moving on beyond the bank?
"John you never really intended to be a corporate guy your whole life."
John: Mr. McColl left in 2000, and Joe Martin, my other mentor, retired about the same time. The bank had become a global institution. It was now Bank of America. We had become the leading consumer bank in the United States. We were in about 35 states, with over $1 trillion in assets. I had advanced up the ladder and into executive management, which gave me an enormous amount of responsibility. It also gave me reason to say, “Wait a minute!” 10 years earlier I had gone to work for a small company that was interesting and exciting and intoxicating in some ways, and it had become this big conglomerate. That gave me a reason to say, “John you never really intended to be a corporate guy your whole life.” Then the seminary opened 2 miles from my house and it couldn’t have been more obvious to me that this was my chance to at least get exploring that path again.