Charlotte TV news anchor leaving for ministry

CHARLOTTE -- Chris Justice is giving up one of the highest-profile jobs in town, a six-figure salary and life in the limelight.

On April 4, the evening anchor on WCNC (Channel 36) will chuck it all to become a full-time Southern Baptist minister.

"It will be a substantial pay cut," said Justice, 39. "But it's not about the money. It was never about the money."

For two years, Justice has been the part-time pastor of Lee Park Baptist Church in Monroe, N.C. On his first Sunday, there were about 55 worshipers. "And that was a good Sunday," Justice said.

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 goes to work after conducting 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," said Justice, a father of four ranging in ages 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 said, 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," said 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.

Disaster coverage changed career

Justice came to WCNC from a station in New Bern, N.C., 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.

Soon, he became a news anchor on the station's morning show, and in 2004, he moved into the key 6 and 11 p.m. spots with Gantt.

Justice was a member of Charlotte's Hickory Grove Baptist Church when, in 2001, he said 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 said.

About a week later, he was asked to become the part-time pastor. 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 sprang up, and a second Sunday service had to be added to accommodate the number of worshipers.

Justice said 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."