From the spotlight to the sanctuary, TV anchor leaves newsdesk to become full-time pastor
Chris Justice is giving up one of the highest-profile jobs in town, a six-figure salary and life in the limelight.
Come April 4, the evening anchor on WCNC (Channel 36) will chuck it all to become a full-time Southern Baptist minister.
For two years, Justice has been the part-time pastor of Lee Park Baptist Church in Monroe. On his first Sunday, there were about 55 worshipers. “And that was a good Sunday,” Justice says.
Last Sunday, there were 503.
As the church grew, so did demands on his time. Sometimes he heads to hospitals to visit parishioners after newscasts. Sometimes he comes to work after doing a funeral.
On Wednesday nights, he bolts from the news set at 6:30 p.m., drives 40 miles to preach at Lee Park’s partner church, Morgan Mill Road Baptist Church in Monroe, then returns to the studio to prepare for the 11 p.m. newscast. He handles church business on his cell phone coming and going.
“I realized in September I was a full-time anchor, a part-time pastor, a part-time husband and a part-time dad,” says Justice, a father of four ranging in age from 12 to 5.
“I thought I could juggle it. But it grew and grew. I can’t see my kids as much and I’ve got to see my kids.”
During a vacation in September to their native Ohio, he talked with his wife, Becky, about the pace of their lives.
With his contract at WCNC coming up for renewal, he says, it seemed like the right time to make the switch.
He gave his notice to his boss when he returned, telling no one else except his co-anchor Sonja Gantt.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” says Gantt, who had been to the church to hear him preach. “I remember seeing him up there and thinking he is so comfortable and so at home up there.”
His is the latest in a string of high-profile departures at WCNC, where chief meteorologist Terri Bennett and anchor John Snyder have left the NBC affiliate since summer.
“It’s a blow,” says Mary Alvarez, news director. “But I can’t compete with God.”
Disaster changed career
Justice came to WCNC from a station in New Bern in 1996 as weekend sports anchor.He was on the air doing his sports report on May 20, 2000, when word came in about the walkway collapse at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
For nearly two hours, he took over anchoring as details came in from then-sports director Chuck Howard at the track.
Alvarez says Justice’s calm, steady handling of the chaotic situation made executives realize he was cut out for bigger things.
Soon he became a news anchor on the station’s morning show and in 2004, moved into the key 6 and 11 p.m. spots with Gantt.
He wasn’t confident at first he could make the switch from sports to news, or that people would take him seriously enough. “Fortunately, Paul Cameron blazed the way,” Justice says.
Following Cameron’s lead
Cameron, Justice’s counterpart at rival WBTV, set the precedent locally by moving from sports into the anchor position at Channel 3 in 1996.
“I respected his ability as a sportscaster — never the clown, just someone who confidently knew his stuff and presented it in lively fashion,” says Cameron. “Obviously, he’s intelligent and a good communicator at heart — someone who loved sports yet had other interests in life.
“I am a bit surprised he’s leaving TV for the ministry, but then, it’s still the communication business, isn’t it?”
Felt the call, took classes
Justice was a member of Charlotte’s Hickory Grove Baptist Church when, in 2001, he says he felt a calling to preach.He studied at a satellite campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and was ordained in 2005. He is still taking courses to get a master’s of divinity.
He had been invited to preach at churches as far away as Mobile, Ala., when Lee Park asked him to speak two years ago.
Its brick church, which fronts U.S. 74 across from Carolinas Medical Center-Union, was in need of interior renovations and spiritual revival. Justice felt instantly at home.
“I walked in the door and said, `This place is beautiful,’ ” Justice says.
Preaching draws new families
About a week later, he was asked to become the part-time pastor.
And his preaching — a blend of stand-up comedy and straight-ahead gospel — quickly began drawing new families.
Soon, classrooms were bulging with Sunday school students, a youth group sprung up and a second Sunday service had to be added to accommodate the number of worshipers.
Justice says the thing he’ll miss most about TV is the friends he’s made at WCNC in his 12 years there.
But he’s also ready for the next step. “I can’t wait.”