The Rev. Dr. Joe Clifford of First Presbyterian, Dallas. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Big Churches, Big Business

Religion is a big deal in North Texas, and these major local congregations prove it with multimillion-dollar decisions.

First Presbyterian, Dallas

Members: 1,600
Staff: 100
Annual Budget: $3.5 million
(all numbers are approximate)

The Rev. Dr. Joe Clifford spent six years in the banking and finance business in Tennessee before he began working with Presbyterian churches. The background’s come in handy, as the pastor and head of staff at Dallas’ First Presbyterian Church, an economics major from Auburn University, has had to do some fancy figuring to help keep the Dallas church on track over the last three years.

The 150-year-old-plus mainstream denominational church is located in the midst of a growing urban center. It has a re-energized farmers market a few hundred feet from its steps and a new $14 million building rising on its property.

But Clifford says the church has had to innovate to balance its books. “We’ve done creative things like use a Lilly Grant for a pastoral residency program,” he says. “We’ve had hiring freezes and no pay raises, but we were very glad to survive with no layoffs.”

At the same time, Clifford says, “our pledge Sunday for the capital campaign [came in October 2008] right in the middle of the stock market crash, and our congregation pledged over $9 million. That’s astounding.” 

Clifford, who came to First Presbyterian from a similar position at a suburban Atlanta church in 2006—just as the Dallas-area economy began to struggle—says he faces the same balancing act in his church every day.

“The church is a divine instrument, but a human institution. It’s a balancing act every church must face,” he says. “It’s certainly more complicated than what I did in the corporate world. I can promise you, most businesses don’t see themselves as a divine instrument.”

 First Presbyterian’s building project—it includes a new “welcome center” as well as various renovations and additions—was originally discussed in 2008, but construction didn’t begin until late last year.

“That helped us in a sense that we were bringing money in on the capital campaign, but not spending it,” Clifford says. “When we actually began construction in late 2009, we got a better price from our construction company, because they were hungry for business. Plus, the price of building materials had also dropped, so that was a big advantage, even though we didn’t plan it.”


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