A 2021 survey by the Barna Group found that 38% of U.S. pastors have thought about quitting full-time ministry. Many cite burnout – the physical, mental and emotional stresses related to managing the demands of their congregations.
The Rev. Jerry Cannon says he doesn’t fall into that category. Yet, after 30 years serving as senior pastor of C.N. Jenkins Presbyterian Church on Statesville Road, he stepped down earlier this month to take an administrative job with the Presbyterian Church, USA, the denomination’s governing body.
Cannon, who grew up in Kannapolis, is now vice president of ministry innovation for the denomination’s Board of Pensions. He and his wife, the Rev. Veronica Cannon, will continue to live in Charlotte.
Early in his tenure at C.N. Jenkins, Cannon determined that his ministry would focus on three pillars – teaching, preaching and visitation.
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He also focused his ministry on (1) embracing persons in recovery, (2) assuring that Sunday worship service has multigenerational appeal, and (3) providing worship experiences that affirmed the Black church experience.
Cannon calls it his “secret sauce,” and he grew C.N. Jenkins from a church with fewer than 200 members to one with more than 800 members and three Sunday worship services.
As Cannon was preparing to preach his final sermon at C.N. Jenkins – literally packing up and cleaning out his office – he sat with QCity Metro to talk about his pulpit ministry, how Covid-19 has changed his approach, declining church membership nationwide, as well as crime and economics in Charlotte.
His answers are edited for length and clarity.
You’ll preach your final sermon at C.N. Jenkins 30 years to the Sunday that you were installed in September 1992. Was that intentional?
No. We had planned to have a 30-year anniversary celebration at the end of this month, to culminate the 30-year installation. And when I was given this offer to join the Board of Pensions, it became an anniversary/sendoff/farewell.
So how did this all come about? Were you looking to make a change?
Well, I’ve always wanted to expand the territory and be more of a mentor and a coach, giving back to the next generation of preachers, taking, if I could, best practices from C.N. Jenkins and helping those be applicable in other venues. I did not want to be the old preacher in the corner talking about how things used to be. So, I still had some runway left on me. As I spoke with some members of the board and they indicated what they would like to do, they literally said, “Hey, would you consider doing these things for us and this that you said you wanted to do at a larger scale.”
How has your ministry changed in 30 years?
I’ve changed as well as the congregation. I did a long-term pastorate kind of retreat at the end of seven years, with the question of, “What are the strengths, the pros and cons of long-term pastorate?” And what was told to me then is that the pros are that you build trust, and the longer you’re there at a place with some honesty and integrity, the more trust you have to take greater risk. The cons, as they said, it can be tough on your family because your family continues to be under the spotlight for a long term. So, they watch them grow from elementary, the middle to high school to college, and that’s been our case. The pros again, allows you to build some deep roots in the community, and that’s been a big plus for us. When Walter G. Byers came out of the ground as an elementary school, we were there. There was no school there 30 years ago when we arrived. To look at how North End has morphed. When I came here, there was Fairview Homes and Double Oaks. There’s no longer Fairview Homes or Double Oaks, but we have new residents that now benefit from the gentrification of the community.
But how has your approach to ministry changed?
Exponentially after Covid. The approach prior to Covid was, how can we become that magnetic attraction? How can we make C.N. Jenkins a place that you would literally drive past other churches to get to? What was the secret sauce? It was intentionality, inclusivity, being multigenerational. So, we sing to them every Sunday so that persons who wanted to hear a hymn from the hymn book — you got it. Also, the person who wanted to hear something from Praise 100, they got that gospel song. There was somebody else who wanted to possibly hear a contemporary artist that wasn’t as gospel but neo-soul, we would put some of that in there, too. So, our approach prior to Covid was, again, how can we become a magnetic pull that people would want to come learn about God, be in a good community fellowship and then leave feeling better than they came? Since Covid, we recognize that you still have to deliver that, but you got to do it through different means — practically, virtually.
How difficult was Covid for you as pastor?
Oh, it was tough, because I feed on the give, on the call-and-response. And so, the preaching to a camera when nobody was there but your band and your AV (audio visual) team, it was like giving a speech. But we learned. We learned how to speak to the other side of the screen. That was one of the things that a friend of mine told me — he said, you’ve got to realize you are now Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. You got an audience, but your main appeal is folk on the other side of the screen. And I was told by another friend, he said, don’t forget; Oprah only had 150 seats, but she had a three-year waiting list for people to see her as she spoke to 3 million people every day. So that’s the different approach. People, they still want to get something, but you got to deliver it differently.
Has attendance come close to rebounding since Covid?
No, it hasn’t, no, no. We’re still doing two services because we’ve taken out some pews and we want to be Covid safe, and then we have overflow. But our attendance with our pews taken out now is about maybe 80- 85% at 9 o’clock service and maybe 50% at the 11 o’clock service.
Can you foresee it returning to pre-Covid levels in the near future, or do you think this change may be permanent?
Well, I think we’re going to have to judge church attendance and measure it differently, i.e., that the persons who are watching from 8:55 until 10:05 at home, on their computer, on their TV screen, they are very much in attendance, just as those who would drive from Rock Hill…or drive from Cornelius and drive from Beatty Fort Road. They’re still present. So, to get to the pre-Covid attendance, I think it’s going to be just a different terminology. The goal, from my estimation, is not going to get to pre-Covid. My goal is going to be on what’s going to be our audience and how can we get the most maximum of our audience.
You did some things here, at least to my eyes, that were kind of innovative. You had motorcycle Sunday and some other things like that. Where did that come from?
Just really talking and finding out that people in their affinity groups love the Lord but did not move away from being honored and recognized. And so, we would host, yeah, motorcycle Sunday, and we would host Founders Day for Sigma Gamma Rho and the Alphas and the Kappas and asked the Omegas to come. We were intentional about having St. John’s Day, which was a Masonic lodge worship service. So those parts of our community that sometimes the church has not been intentional to embrace, we wanted them to come to C.N. Jenkins and be highlighted. And so that was also part of the pre-Covid attendance, because even though our church members were coming at the three services, at least twice a month, we were having some affinity group here. So, we kept building up the invited guests.
What about in terms of numbers, membership? How has it grown?
We are recording, I think, it’s 882 members. When I got here, we were a little under 200. The denomination requires us to purge the rolls, and so we are continuously looking to see what our membership is. Now, we haven’t done it since Covid, so I’m sure that 800 number is not 800 any longer.
This church sits in the shadow of uptown on a valuable property. Yet you didn’t opt to build a bigger church. Instead, you had three services. I would imagine you’ve had offers to purchase this property. What kept you here?
Sure, as of March 2020, we were about ready to launch a capital campaign to build a larger facility so that we wouldn’t keep doing the three services. And we were hoping that with a larger facility we could serve more people. But Covid definitely put the brakes on that and really caused us to reevaluate what is the best usage of this property. We’ve done surveys, so we know that there is a need for childcare in the community. There’s a need for affordable housing. And how does the church see itself addressing those needs? And so that will be one of the challenges of the next called pastor. Members did not want to move to the suburbs. They really said they enjoy coming downtown. And less than 10% of our community shares this zip code. And so that means 90% of the folk who are coming to C.N. Jenkins are driving and coming from a different zip code.
So, what are you going to do now on Sunday mornings?
Well, I told Dr. (Leonzo) Lynch (of Ebenezer Baptist Church) and Dr. (Ricky) Woods (of First Baptist Church-West), I got to find me a church that allows me to wear a suit, and I want Communion on first Sunday. Now that’s first Sunday. I don’t know what the other Sundays are gonna look like. I might be like some of the members (laughs). But policy wise, I will not be able to come back to C.N. Jenkins for a 12-month period.
As a visitor?
As a visitor, yeah. And that is so that the interim pastor — we call them transitional pastors — so that they can do the work that a transitional/interim is supposed to do, but also that when the new pastor comes, they are not coming in the shadow of Jerry Canon.
But you will be in church somewhere?
I will be, yeah. My momma is going to make sure I’m in church. At 102 years old, she’s going to call me and say, where did you go to church today?
I sent you an article a while back about pastoral burnout. Does that describe you at all?
No, I’ve avoided burnout because of some self-care practices. I’ve had three sabbaticals and was getting ready to go on one in the spring. The denomination asked us every seven years to take a sabbatical, and I was going to take one. I was scheduled for one during Covid, but that was not the time to take a sabbatical. So that’s helped me avoid the burnout. And then I guess, the other part is just working locally and at the denominational level so that you don’t get so inundated with the tending-to for the local church. You get on a plane, and you go teach a class someplace or you go to a workshop.
Do you see burnout in your colleagues?
Oh, I do. I think some of it is because you lose the joy of the call. You get so much involved in institutional management… Nobody is going to drive to the church and look for the budget chair’s car, the musician’s car, the clerk of session’s car, the chair of the deacon board’s car; they going to see your car… Once you recognize that you are the spiritual leader, the CEO and the CFO of the organization, and people are buying into the vision God gives you, all that institutional stuff, it’ll take care of itself. And that’s been my focus — feeding spiritually, being present for people… Yeah, I think that’s why clergy do that burnout thing. They just get so inundated about, “I got to go to the church.” You can’t build a congregation sitting around a desk.
What does that mean?
I think it’s relational, relationships in the community where people are, not so much worried about, I got to answer four emails because somebody didn’t agree with the sermon. I tell people all the time, I give the greatest invitation of life, and people say no to me all the time, every Sunday. But they keep coming back, okay? So, I can’t sweat the idea that, “Rev. Cannon is embracing a thought that says everybody is welcome, and I just don’t agree with that.”
Charlotte, like every city, has a lot of problems — teen violence, guns. Is there a role for the church and all that, or how would you evaluate how the church is doing?
I think we can do more, but I think what we can do is ask a different kind of question. The different question is not, should guns be legal, or should everybody have a conceal-and-carry license? The different question is, how am I in relationship with my neighbor, that I can talk, that I can agree to disagree? How can I be in a relationship with somebody who may have a different political view than I have, but can still respect them because they are a child of God? What did we teach that child at the church about making good decisions? What did we teach them about not picking at folk because they wore the same sneakers every day, or they made a D on the test? Did we call them dumb, or did we say, Yo, what can I do to help you? So, I think when we raise a different kind of question, we may get a different answer.
When there’s a crisis in the community, some leaders often go to the Black church, Black pastors. Is that misguided?
It is. Statistically, we only have 18% of the population, so you got 82% that’s been influenced by media and others. And so, when something happens, let’s get the preachers. But the folk that really have more influence are the people who have that power to say, “Stay tuned after these commercial messages.” That’s where the influence is. And so, I’ve spoken very openly and freely to our elected officials. One, when they come and they want to get elected, first question I ask is, “Do you have an account at Mechanics & Farmers Bank?” And for those who don’t know what that is, I said, “No, you can’t come here.” For those who know what it is, I said, “Well, do you have an account?” You can’t represent Black folk if you don’t have any green money in the Black bank. I ask that of preachers, I ask that of teachers, I ask that of churches. There should not be a Black congregation in this city that does not have at least $10,000 on deposit at the bank. And the reason we need to do that collectively is so then we can say to the bank, make half a million dollars available to some entrepreneurs, make half a million dollars available to some home loans. I say that to the city manager. I’ve said it to the county manager, said it to the mayor, said it to the sheriff. I said it to the D.A. I’ve said it to everybody…make sure you have an account at the bank. That’s the first thing you do for Cannon.
And have they opened them?
It’s lip service. Some say they have; some say they haven’t. But come on, you understand the value of having green money in a Black bank. This whole society is based on economics, and if you don’t have any money to back that up, it’s very hard for you to now come and say, I want to do something to help our community. We talk about how our dollar doesn’t turn over in our community. It’s like, no. My checking accounts are with Wells, I’ve got one at Bank of America, I’ve got one at Truist. The church has one at Truist, one at Wells and one at Mechanics and Farmers. And all of our Black churches, all of the Black funeral homes, all the Black businesses…the old ones in Charlotte, they all got an M&M bank account.
What are you going to miss the most?
I would say, oddly, it’s going to be the visitations with people, hanging out with folks. I’m going to miss that. My wife says, I got to find something to feed it.
Christian church attendance is falling in this country. What’s driving that?
I think that’s the authenticity of what the church is able to offer now. I mean, what is it that we as believers of a religion can do differently than the Kawanis Club, the Lions Club, the fraternities, the sororities? What is it that’s so unique about us, and we don’t know? One of the things I would say is that, because the church has not looked to raise the why question. It’s been more focused on what can we do to get people to come back, as opposed to why have people left, or why would people want to come back? And I think if we answer the why question, then those might fall into place.
Is the Black church healthy?
I think it is, but it’s also in need of some rehab as well.
What does that rehab look like?
Moving away from that traditional idea of thinking that we’re going to get people to come to us. One of the things I’ve learned from Covid, and going before Covid, is, I just used the Charlotte airport as an example, one of the busiest in the country, but it’s busy not because of the departures but because of transfers. If the church can see itself as a place where I come, I get what I need and I transfer to go someplace else, all churches, Black and white, I think, we are now able to feed and serve more people.
So, if you were continuing here, you’d be okay with that model, knowing that a significant percentage of your congregation might be virtual or even transient?
Oh, yeah. I would invest heavily in the technology as well as the psychology of how you communicate a gospel message to a hybrid audience. I would do that with intentionality. I would do it to the point that if I can model the Oprah Winfrey Show, meaning if I can have a three-year waiting list for people to come in, but knowing that I’m going to speak to 3 million from that 150 audience, that would be my goal.
Any final thought?
The realities of pastoring now are different. You mentioned Charlotte being a transient place. What we found since Covid is that so many people have moved in, but they are still looking for a community. They wanted to come to Charlotte because Charlotte was open and friendly and business friendly and all those kinds of things. Well, now that they’re here and they’ve seen you online, they want to go meet some people. What we’ve told our AV team to do is prepare, put the sermons in a series, because just as you binge watch on Netflix, you’re going to binge watch church. Haven’t been to church for a couple of weeks, we’re on our way to Myrtle Beach, we got four hours…let’s pull up the series. He did a series on the five love languages, so let’s do that. I got a workbook to go with it. Well, by the time you get to Myrtle Beach, man, you’ve got all of July and August. Oh, man, this was good. All right. You check back in Thanksgiving.