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Clay Gatlin on Positive Working Relationships Between Lay & Vocational Church Leaders



Clay_Gatlin_podcastWelcome to this week’s episode of the unSeminary podcast. I’m pumped for today’s conversation with Clay Gatlin from Faith Christian Community in Anchorage, Alaska.

Faith Christian Community is a non-denominational church in Anchorage, which was created by the merging of two other churches. Clay says that Anchorage is an extremely diverse city, full of broken people who need a welcoming place, and God has blessed Faith Christian Community in being that place they can come to. Their emphasis is not on being a church as in a “place”, but in truly being a community that people can come home to. Clay notes that the whole congregation says “Welcome home” when a new person finds their way to Faith Christian Community’s doors.

  • A loving community. //Anchorage is a very diverse city. Clay says it’s not uncommon for people from the lower 48 states to find themselves in Anchorage after running away from their problems back home. And while the city has high crime and a lot of substance abuse, it’s also a very loving and accepting place, Clay tells us. He says that Faith Christian is the most loving and welcoming community he’s ever worked in. This focus is a key part of the culture at Faith Christian Community: welcoming people and loving them where they are while plugging them into community. “Anything that doesn’t have that at its core is just doing church,” Clay says, “so we really strive and thrive on that the central part of our service.”
  • Pastor-led and elder-governed. // The only job in the bible that is called by God is that of shepherd. Everything else is man-called. So the elders play a pivotal role within the frame of Faith Christian Community’s structure. They act as shepherds to the younger members and share their wisdom and experience. But as Clay says, they still don’t act as the “boss”. So while there are lay elders who don’t serve on the actual staff, but still share opinions and shepherd the people as needed, there are also staff elders who are active members of the staff and make the actual decisions.
  • Remember the biblical role. // In a non-denominational church, most of the people usually come from some religious background and bring their experiences there with them. So it becomes interesting at times to blend all of those experiences together into something that works well and serves God’s people the way God intends. One thing that Clay says they hold onto is remembering their biblical roles. In other words, it’s not what other people may think that member of the church staff should do in their position, but what God has called them to do within the bible. “That’s what we’re doing daily,” Clay says, “coming back to ‘what does the bible say we should do as a shepherd?’ Not: ‘What has man done with that role or that title or seat?’”

You can learn more about Faith Christian Community and watch videos of their services at their website

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Episode Highlights

00:38 // Rich introduces Clay and welcome him to the show.

01:02 // Clay tells us about Faith Christian Community.

02:28 // Clay talks about the culture of Anchorage.

04:18 // Clay tells us about the church’s ministry and services.

05:29 // Clay talks about the leadership within the church.

07:07 // Clay explains how the different leadership roles work within the church.

10:07 // Clay compares the Tibetan herdsman to great leadership.

13:25 // Clay talks about his leadership style.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Online magazines. Evernote

Ministries Following // Gateway Church

Influential Book // Walking with God by John Eldredge. Jesus Only by Vance Havner. That I May Know God by Kenneth Boa

Inspiring Leader // Robert Morris

What does he do for fun // Hiking. Mountains. Fishing. Hunting. Anything outdoors.

Contact //

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. My name’s Rich, I’m so glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us. Happy Thursday, we know that you’ve got a lot going on, as you head into this weekend at your church and we’re honored that you would take some time out, to spend with us today.

I’m pumped for this conversation, this is with Clay Gatlin from Faith Christian Community, all the way from Anchorage, Alaska. So I’m pumped to have him with us today. Welcome to the show Clay.

Clay – Thank you. Good to be here.

Rich – So as a Canadian, who’s now living in the States, people are always making fun of Canadian weather and I feel like you’re the guy that I can kick even more about having… because you have real winter there, even more so as a Canadian living in Jersey.

Clay – That’s right, we’re already covered in snow and ice.

Rich – That’s incredible, that’s great. Well why don’t you tell us about Faith Christian Community? I’d love to hear more about your ministry.

Clay – Yeah, Faith Christian Community is a non-denominational church. It was actually merged by a Church of Christ and a Baptist Church, can you believe that?

Rich – Cool.

Clay – The two churches merged years ago. We’ve just got a strong basis to conserve the church, but it is a church that, for whatever reason, God has entrusted a lot of broken people. Anchorage, Alaska is full of broken people, hurting people. That’s just kind of our culture here. So God has blessed this church with being such a warm and safe place. So we receive just person after person who come with needs and they find this to be a place of home.

In fact when people come to our church and they join, the first thing we tell them, the whole congregation says, “Welcome home.” So we take our name really serious, Faith Christian Community. That’s why it’s actually not called Faith Christian Community Church, or Faith Christian Church, it’s just called Faith Christian Community, because we value and emphasize on not being a church in the sense of a place, but truly being a community.

Rich – Why don’t you give us a sense of Anchorage? I think a lot of people wouldn’t really have a sense of what is going on in Anchorage. Give us a sense of the culture that’s there and then how your church kind of dovetails with that.

Clay – Yeah, so we’re a church, we run about between 15 and 16 hundred on weekend service.

Rich – That’s incredible.

Clay – Anchorage is probably close to 400 thousand. So let’s say 375, 390. You hear different perspectives. But the whole state of Alaska has less than a million, like 750 thousand people.

Rich – That’s incredible.

Clay – But because Anchorage has a lot of… it’s a place that people run away from to get to. So a lot of people from Lower 48 run to Anchorage, Alaska and, according to latest reports, it’s the actual most diverse city in the country.

Rich – Really?

Clay – In fact we have two of the top three most diverse schools in the United States of America. It’s a melting pot. So we have people from all over different countries that just come and flee and end up in Anchorage for whatever reason. It’s not a cheap place to live, so it can’t be to come like to the South, you know?

Rich – Right.

Clay – So we’re made up of just a whole bunch of people that are getting away from something. But interestingly enough, the community is extremely loving.

So we have high crime. We have all kinds, domestic things really is what you see the most of. Alcohol abuse and drug abuse is rampant here, but the community itself is just so welcoming. In fact, in almost three decades of ministry, this is by far the most amazing church and amazing place I’ve ever been a part of.

Rich – Interesting. So then, give us a sense of the flavor of the ministry. When people arrive at Faith Christian, obviously like you’re saying, it’s a loving and caring community, give us a sense of the structure of your ministry, how things work, what are you doing on weekends, how does that all work together?

Clay – Yeah, so again we thrive on the whole realistic piece of the church, how it operates in the community. So I say that’s the realistic piece in that anything that doesn’t have that as its core is really just doing church right? So we really thrive and strive to make community the central part of anything that we do.

So our weekend service, we have one on Saturday night and three on Sunday.

Rich – Okay.

Clay – So we have four services total. We have, one of the state’s, I think one of the country’s best, but certainly the State’s largest and best Celebrate Recovery ministries and the State Director is a member of our church. So we kind of draw on that.

So what you expect when you come here is to get connected. So that’s what we, even as staff, as pastors, we really strive to make sure that you don’t just come in and get out.

So even if you just say, “Hi,” we just want to make sure that you know that someone saw you. So it’s just that kind of a church, that people notice other people.

Rich – Very cool and what’s your role there at Faith Christian Community?

Clay – I’m the Lead Pastor.

Rich – Great, great stuff. Now tell us about your structure. Are you a staff led kind of church? How would you articulate how things are kind of led within your church?

Clay – Yeah actually we’re kind of morphing as we speak.

Rich – Yes.

Clay – Yeah we’ve been transitioning. So it’s kind of been a hodgepodge of different paradigms if you will, in terms of governance, church governance. But right now, what we’ve just recently, even as of last week, I’ve made some solid decisions on this, we are really pastor led and elder governed, but our elders are a little bit different too though, because we don’t just have a group of lay elders.

So elders are separate to pastors, in fact it’s the only call in the Bible that’s a call from God. Everything else is man called. So every job on the planet is man called, but that of shepherd is God calling.

So we value lay elders, but we also think that they don’t serve as the boss, right to the pastoral, or there’s those that are called locationally that are serving on staff.

So we’re moving into having this great team of staff elders and lay elders serving together, in order to shepherd the body, because even with a team like that, there’s still not enough shepherds to shepherd 15 to 16 hundred people.

So we value the lay elders and the body, we value, we call those inactive, who are not serving on an administrative team, but those on an administrative team are just active lay elders, serving with our pastoral elders, to help shepherd and love and lead our church.

Rich – I think sometimes there could be a tension in that, between kind of lay elders and then pastoral or vocational elders. How are you working that out? How are you finding a good partnership between those groups of people, to care for the folks that are coming to your church?

Clay – Yeah well, it’s in the making still.

Rich – Good.

Clay – You’ve been through a lot of that right? But you’ve got all different kinds of models. There’s something about a non-denominational church, is most people come from something.

Rich – Yes.

Clay – So they kind of bring in all of those perspectives. So God’s been very gracious and it just shows the resiliency of our people and our leaders and their humility, because we’re having to kind of give and take to figure out, not what’s my role and your role, in a sense of, “I want this position,” but it’s more of how we’re going to work together best to serve God’s people and lead God’s people, care for God’s people, protect God’s people.

So it’s been a process, but I would say more than anything it’s remembering and reminding each other of the role, the biblical role of an elder and not so much what we’ve done. Because you know right, in church world, we look very different than the New Testament church, because there’s no model church in the New Testament. We see bits and pieces, great churches and great things, but there’s not one church that you can just model yourself after. Maybe Jesus did that on purpose right?

Rich – Right.

Clay – Because he worshipped that church.

Rich – Yes.

Clay – So that’s what we’re doing, just daily coming back to what does the Bible say that we’re supposed to do as a shepherd? Not what has man done with that role and that title and that seat or that position?

Rich – And how are you doing that? How are you using that kind of biblical description, with your elders, to kind of keep them on the same page? What does that look like with your team of elders?

Clay – Well first, a lot more prayer. I think what ended up happening in the past was, there was a lot of meetings and a lot of conversations. So that meant there was a lot of voices, there was a lot of ‘man’ involved. We really just kind of stopped. In fact, we did this church wide. We took our whole Tuesday night, which was our small group night here at the church and we gave it up for a season and we just focused on prayer. So Tuesday nights is just prayer and it’s open from 6:30 to 9:30 and they just kind of come and go.

We did that in our elder team as well. We just said, “You know what, let’s just pray and see God’s face about the best way to do this.” Like I said, since it’s still morphing and since we’re kind of exploring that, I don’t have the end game.

Rich – Yes.

Clay – It really is more, how are we going to continue to align ourselves? So that’s it man. It’s not rocket science and we don’t have a grand scheme. It’s this, we’re going to pray and pray and pray and pray. Then when we’re going to say, “Jesus, what have you given us that’s black and white in scripture?” Because there’s so much grey right? But let’s start with the black and white and not the grey.

I feel like, in my time in ministry and my buddies who are in ministry at different churches, it seems like we get caught in the weeds of the grey, so we pick and choose what we want and we’ll stand on, what becomes our soapbox and we get diverted from the black and the white. So we’re trying to hone in on what does Jesus say about being shepherds and leaders and servants to the body?

Rich – Very cool. Now how do you differentiate the roles and responsibilities between, let’s say lay elders and then staff elders? How does that work out functionally in your church?

Clay – That’s a great question man. So we’re just starting to put a skin to that, because our pastoral elders, when I say pastoral, I don’t mean that lay elders are not pastoring, but just those who are vocationally called by God, trained, all that kind of stuff and are serving on staff, those are more the ministry. So I drew a ring, if you can image two rings, like one inside the other, everything inside that first ring are staff elders, pastors who are shepherding the body. Then you’ve got this outer ring and the outer ring is where the lay elders and pastoral elders come and so they become a watchman on the wall or in the Old Testament the Gatekeepers. That’s the source of wisdom and wise council that we can just come to and seek… And these guys make sure that they’re protecting the body from stuff getting in, as well as us getting crazy and here making sure we don’t get [Inaudible 00:10:58] right?

Rich – Right, right, right.

Clay – So they just serve as that. So it’s not controlling, it’s nothing like that, but it really is, we entrust them with this responsibility, more than they enforce something. For me, on those outer parameters, as elders to say, “Okay you guys can see things from out here that we can’t see. So what do you see? What do you feel?” So it’s like that.

So our staff are ministering to the body, administratively, ministering to them functionally, in terms of the ministry and the scope and trajectory of all that we’re doing. But then this outer ring, these guys are serving as, not watchdogs, but watchmen and gatekeepers. But also because they’re in the mix as well, they’re amidst the body.

Just a quick ten second deal.

Rich – Absolutely.

Clay – I’ve just got back from Tibet. In Tibet we were watching all of these nomads, these herdsmen, these shepherds with all of these yaks, it was interesting, because I drew a diagram for our elders and said, “If you’re going north, where do you think the shepherd is?” Most of them said, “At the very top,” and I said, “No, he’s actually at the …”

Rich – Back of the pack. Oh okay.

Clay – It’s just awesome. The sheep knew that the yak knew the herdsman right? So he would just start moving in a direction and they would follow him. But not in front, he was just walking alongside them. But then some would kind of stray, so he would walk through the pack, over to the other side and start moving. They would see him and then they’d, “Oh okay, so this way.” So he was just with them. But also there was never just one. There were multiple and they were always just in different places and they were working together.

So the whole point of that is, there’s not some guy at the very front saying, “I’m in charge, follow me,” because he can’t even see what’s behind him then right? But he was with them and moving amongst them. So having a team of shepherds like that, I think makes for a healthy church.

Rich – Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of church leaders that are maybe tempted or are maybe under the wrong notion, really it’s about a person or a personality and they really push away from, kind of team leadership. How are you, as the senior leader in your church, kind of stewarding that? You obviously have a unique voice within your team, but you’re also trying to bring people around you. What does that tension look like for you and how are you kind of managing that with your people? Does that make sense?

Clay – Yeah. So I think the way that we operate here, the best way that I can define that is, there are some strong leaders out there man. They’re just kind of loan rangers and they’re gifted, they’re really good. That’s not my strong suit. I’m a team guy. So I lead relationally, that’s got its flaws and it’s got its weaknesses.

Rich – Right.

Clay – But I’m highly, highly relational. So I function better, I do a lot of leadership development and did before I came here and that’s really what I love. I want to develop a team that works together and loves on each other and I thought the multiplication process is greater that way, for me anyway, the way I’m bent, and so I just lead relationally. So my time here has largely been spent in trying to develop unity, as the Bible speaks of, this unity, but not in terms of being in one mind that we all agree on every decision, but being in one mind that we agree on the most important decision and that we’re just following Christ.

So impulsive follow me as I follow Christ. That’s exactly what I’m trying to model, not just for my church but for my staff to say, “Hey listen, I’m not telling you to follow me as a person, I’m saying follow me as I lead us to follow Jesus, and if at any point you feel like I’m off and I’m not following Jesus, you don’t just have the right, you have the responsibility to say, ‘Hey Pastor Clay, I think that we’re off a little bit here,’ and I’m completely open to that.”

1 Comment

  1. Right on to this dialogue above …With a heart and vision that Clay has I really see the actions of the leadership in dismissing him from his pastoral position in 8/2/2016 as very petty. It has broken many families hearts to see him go. If he had committed unspeakable sin that may have been a different story, but firing him over political differences is out of the board of elders rights and definition of duties by the Holy Spirit. Clay is a Spirit lead man of God and it will be a critical injury to the Body of Christ now that he is gone.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.