Vols fans may appreciate the heart in McCluskey, the pastor for 25 years at North Cleveland Baptist Church. His lifelong commitment to the Tennessee Vols is just a taste of the loyalty he shows among friends, at work and within his marriage.
“I try to be the same person in the pulpit as I am on the streets,” he said. “When you stay around people for so long they see the real you; you can only be someone you are not for so long.”
McCluskey was born and raised in Knoxville in 1960 to the Rev. James and Elizabeth McCluskey. McCluskey’s father presided over the same church for 37 years and has clearly passed the legacy on to his son.
“I always enjoyed being the pastor’s kid and I have always loved the church,” McCluskey said. “It’s a community of believers coming together — they are my extended family.”
McCluskey said he is happy he could provide the same experience for his two sons, John and James. He is also thankful that he has had his wife, Michelle, with him these past 25 years at North Cleveland Baptist. The happy couple recently celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary.
“My advice for young couples would be to stay committed. There will be challenging days; I know that every marriage has its tough seasons. Part of staying together is forgiving each other for the hurt you cause each other.”
The two originally met at Carson-Newman College. It was the night before a test and he was in the library to study when he happened across Michelle talking to one of his friends. McCluskey and his future wife were still talking after his friend left and when the library closed that night.
As McCluskey puts it, “I [had to] forgo studying to meet my wife.”
During his college years McCluskey experimented with several fields of study before settling on business. He is quick to point out that he was only one hour away from graduating with a religion minor.
“It is possible that no other business major attending Carson-Newman at that time ever took New Testament and Greek.”
Following nuptial bliss on May 14, 1983, the two moved out to Louisville, Ky., so McCluskey could attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. During this time he had his first part-time pastorate at a small-town church in Indiana.
“I’ve always said the greatest contribution that little churches like that make to the Kingdom of God is probably just letting young preachers learn how to preach,” he said.
Of his inaugural sermon, McCluskey humorously said, “That first sermon ... I’ve never preached it again. It was that weak. I buried it in my files as deep as I could; I’m not even sure I kept my sermon notes.”
In the summer of 1986 the great courtship between McCluskey and North Cleveland Baptist Church occurred. By August the church had a pastor and McCluskey had his first full-time pastorate. Dewayne Morrow, a longtime member of the church, still remembers the first time he saw McCluskey.
“He was a very well-spoken, talented individual. He had some very good and strong thoughts on how to grow and revive the church on the means it had at that time.”
Over the years McCluskey has been steady and consistent, said Morrow.
“Jay has very strong convictions of not only making sure the church is run properly, but that the members are taken care of in a fair manner that is best for everyone.”
Sam Bettis, a member of North Cleveland Baptist, met McCluskey several years before joining the church and was always impressed.
“Jay never considers anyone to be important or unimportant, he treats everyone the same,” he said.
In McCluskey’s words, “I would like members of the congregation to say, ‘Oh, Jay is my friend and then my pastor.’ By getting to know them on a personal level there is a feeling of trust and understanding. Deepening the relationships helps with the longevity.”
Bettis and Morrow both agree that McCluskey has a gift for presiding over funerals.
Said Morrow, “I don’t mean this in a morbid way, but people always say he does a great job at conducting funerals. Jay makes it a very personal experience; it is not a canned funeral service. He does research into the person’s background and presents it in a personal manner.”
On the Myers-Briggs personality test McCluskey remembers that he scored right down the middle for introvert and extrovert.
“I think it works well for a pastor because you need to be able to mingle with people, but you also have to be able to lock yourself in your office to work and seek the Lord.”
During the week McCluskey enjoys socializing through recreational sports as well.
“I am currently one of the oldest guys playing church league softball. I’m not very good, but they let me play because they let everyone play. We play to win, but it’s all for fun,” he said.
McCluskey also enjoys tinkering with both music and electronics. In college he almost pursued music before realizing, “I would rather play at music than work at it.” Currently he is proud to fill his self-appointed position as lead singer of the Congregation.
Another legacy passed on from his parents is McCluskey’s love for traveling. He has traveled to parts of South America, Europe, and Africa for both pleasure and missions trips. McCluskey said he enjoys the adventure of going somewhere new the best.
His love for traveling does not mean he will be uprooting anytime soon. Of his immediate future McCluskey wishes to share a meal and some time with the people who have had a deep impact on his life. For the distant future he hopes to be where he loves best: living in east Tennessee among loyal Big Orange fans and friendly faces.
“I want to see continuing work at this church, to follow the Lord’s plan. I would like to retire here; I hope my church wants me to retire here as well.”