Then COVID-19 hit.
The past 19 months have served up some choppy waters. But Clay — who began his second four-year term last week 60 days after his reelection — is confident that the Fellowship’s future is bright.
“I never received a playbook on how to lead a Church through a pandemic, or how to react to some of the cultural issues involving race and politics,” says the affable Clay. “But I’m proud of how our churches responded in accepting things out of their control and remained missionally fruitful.”
Clay says because of some of the government-imposed restrictions associated with the novel coronavirus, congregations had to switch from an attractional model to a deployment model, one that often involved conducting services and other ministry online.
“While I’m deeply grateful for how churches responded, at the same time COVID has taken a physical, emotional, and mental toll on the well-being of our pastors,” Clay says. “This has been exhausting, and we’re not out of it.”
Some denominations have responded to the crisis by curtailing ministry goals. But Clay believes it’s the opportune time for the Assemblies of God to flourish.
“While a lot of people are talking about the demise of the Church, I don’t believe it,” says Clay, 58. “Historically, we’ve seen the Spirit move and strategic growth occur in some of the darkest times.”
Earlier this year, Clay announced goals for the Fellowship to increase to 15,000 congregations and 40,000 credentialed ministers. Currently there are 12,938 AG churches and 37,713 ministers.
Clay is encouraged that the number of women ministers is at a record high.
“We’re a stronger Fellowship because the Assemblies of God has made room for women in ministry and women in leadership,” Clay says.
The AG is more ethnically diverse than ever, at 44% of all adherents. Clay says he is looking forward to the day when no ethnic group will comprise a majority in the denomination.
There remains a paucity of nonwhite pastors and district officials in some geographic areas, and Clay acknowledges that will take some deliberate efforts to promote grassroots leaders, and make leadership more reflective of laity numbers.
In addition, the general superintendent wants to ensure that young people who sense a ministerial calling — or adults in another career who feel called to ministry — are nurtured at the district/ministry network level. The median age of active ordained AG ministers is 55 years old.
“We are seeking to be very intentional to identify, equip, release, and deploy called leaders into our ministerial family,” Clay says.
The 21-member Executive Presbytery, which serves as the denomination’s board of directors, for the first time this month in the AG’s 107-year history has a majority of women and ethnic minorities.
A priority for the AG is church planting.
“We’re in the need of fresh blessing, one that centers on our mission of evangelism, worship, discipleship, and compassion,” Clay says. “My prayer is that in the next four years we will see evidence of multiplying churches that are Spirit-empowered, Bible-engaged, and missions-participating. The acceleration of multiplying new churches is the most effective strategy for the growth of the body of Christ.”
Bible engagement has been another Clay focus, especially when an increasing number of people in the nation seem to place more stock in cultural or political cues than scriptural dictates. Clay offers an anecdote that a great number of pastors these days feel like Noah once he set sail in the ark: the greatest threat didn’t come from the storm raging outside, but rather the woodpeckers inside.
“Some of the tensions pastors feel is because of a lack of biblical literacy among people in the church,” Clay says. “It’s important for pastors to lead through cultural stresses, especially when people in the pews are on polar opposite sides.”
In January, in the midst of the pandemic-related shutdowns, Clay suffered a minor stroke, from which he quickly fully recovered. Even more than before, he says the six weeks of forced rest from work reinforced his appreciation for the five other elected members of the Executive Leadership Team who are based at the AG national office in Springfield, Missouri.
“This is a group of spiritually mature leaders who have embraced the vision of a healthy church in every community,” Clay says. “They completely embrace this desire for the Assemblies of God to grow and thrive.”
RECOVERING FROM COVID
Like most organizations, COVID-19 has taken a toll on the U.S. Assemblies of God, with dozens of district officials, ministers, and missionaries dying from the disease. Clay says his heart is grieved over these losses.
“But these types of tragedies don’t take the Lord by surprise,” Clay says. “I have a hope in my spirit that we’re going to get through this.”
The AG has weathered a lengthy, severe pandemic before. Only four years after the Fellowship formed, a flu pandemic struck that would ultimately claim 50 million lives worldwide.
“Our times are not unprecedented,” Clay says. “Just as God was able to bring them through, He will be faithful to do the same for us today.”
Changing demands, spurred in part by societal reactions to the pandemic, have led to budget cuts and some staff reduction at the AG national office.
“We must evaluate what programs and strategies have run their course, and what needs to be rebirthed and retweaked,” Clay says.
During the pandemic, the AG national office shut down for a time, forcing employees to work remotely. Clay says he is appreciative of those who continued their jobs in less-than-ideal conditions.
“We’re blessed by some of the greatest servants of the Lord who see their role at the national office as ministry, even if they are not credentialed,” Clay says. “Our workforce is diverse, but we are unified in our mission to serve ministers, churches, and districts.”