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Dec. 30—When Phillip McClendon retired from his duties as senior pastor at Joplin's Calvary Baptist Church in 2010, he expected to reduce the amount of stress in his life while increasing time spent on area golf courses.
But then the 2011 tornado tore apart Joplin, galvanizing him to once again assume various leadership roles.
In 2013, he was asked to take the pulpit as the full-time pastor at Neosho's Hilldale Baptist Church, the same church where he and his wife, Jackie, exchanged their wedding vows in 1966 and the city where McClendon grew up. It was at Hilldale, in fact, where McClendon, at 17, decided to dedicate his life to God and go into the ministry.
Two years ago — when another natural disaster was again threatening his community, this time COVID-19 — he began working as a part-time chaplain at Mercy Hospital Joplin. The past week alone he has booked more than 30 hours.
He admitted with a chuckle that he probably works just as hard now in retirement as he ever did during his 26 years at Calvary Baptist. But with a wink, he added that he doesn't really mind the crunch as much as he lets on.
"When I'm needed, I try to do what I can to help (others)," said McClendon, who described helping those in need as his No. 1 calling in life. "Learning to cope with stress and helping people walk through that process is a part of my life and just a part of what I do."
In addition to his duties at Mercy and growing Calvary Baptist to more than 1,300 members, he has also inspired many people through his popular "Motivational Minutes" on KOAM-TV. Many of these pieces were collected in his book, "Reflections," which recently saw a second printing.
He has served as senior chaplain with the International Fellowship of Chaplains and has been the chaplain of the Joplin police and fire departments. McClendon was also appointed to a governor's committee on mental health by then-Gov. Matt Blunt in 2006. He has been the chaplain for a day in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, and served on then-U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt's candidate advisory committee for service academies. His involvement with mental health services, along with serving a stint on the Ozark Center board of directors, dates back to 1985, according to Joplin Globe files.
But it was the resilience he showed in the aftermath of the Joplin tornado that would garner the attention of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
The McClendons rode the storm out huddled in a closet; their house sat five blocks from St. John's Regional Medical Center, right in the heart of the storm's path. In that dark space as they hugged one another, his wife whispered to him, "We're not going to make it." But then, just as suddenly, they were spared. The sounds outside subsided. The winds died down. When they left the closet, it was the only portion of their house left standing. Neither of them had suffered a scratch.
"God left us here for a purpose," McClendon said, reflecting on what happened to the two of them 10 years ago. "He wasn't done with us yet. And that was a motivating factor for me — giving us back the gift of life."
God, he continued, spared him for a purpose, "and so my goal was to find that purpose."
He was originally interviewed by a Springfield-based television station in the days after the tornado. Last May, during the tornado's 10th anniversary, the same television station spoke to him again about his renewed purpose in life.
"I had started (on) my own a study of resilience in people, a Bible study — what helps people to be resilient during a tragedy?," he said. "I did it because I never really talked about the tornado because I didn't ever want to feel like I'd been a victim, so I didn't say a lot about it. But when (the television crew) came and asked me about it, I shared."
What he shared with that reporter — about his renewed sense of faith and wanting to help others in need in whatever way possible — touched a lot of people, including Schmitt in Jefferson City.
When the attorney general's office contacted him in June, McClendon was left scratching his head with confusion.
"I thought, 'Why would they want with me?' I mean, who wants the attorney general to call you?" he said. "But then they sent me the letter."
Schmitt's letter informed him that he was being given a Missouri Attorney General Honors Award for "giving back to the community" and "setting an example for fellow Missourians."
The award was a key part "of our celebration of the Missouri Bicentennial, (where) we are recognizing those extraordinary citizens who have gone above and beyond to make our state a better place to live," Schmitt wrote in a letter to McClendon. "Your tenacity and resilience during and after the Joplin tornado is remarkable and worthy of recognition. As you well know, the Joplin tornado that ripped through Joplin was one of the deadliest natural disasters in Missouri history and I am inspired by your ability to transform a deadly disaster into a renewed dedication to faith."
"I was overwhelmed," McClendon said.
But then again, he really wasn't all that surprised.
"God rewards you," he said. "If we just take the time to look around, we'd see there are opportunities everywhere around us. When you help someone else, God helps you."
"We have been just so blessed," he said, smiling, "far beyond anything that I could dream of."