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In The Room: Dave Clayton

Welcome to FoxFuel's video series.

It's good to see you. While we have you here, you can watch this episode (and others) on our YouTube channel. Or, watch it here. You can't lose.

In the Room: Dave Clayton

Mr. Mulligan chats with his close friend and leader of Ethos Church, Dave Clayton.

Dave Clayton
I love to take ordinary moments and turn them into huge memories.”
Dave Clayton


Man, I thought you said you were going to wear a collar.

Did you?

Do you want coffee, tea, water?


Did you see we have a charcuterie plate? When's the last time you saw a charcuterie plate at a video shoot?

I love learning from creatives and entrepreneurs and leaders from any definition of community. Dave does that. He builds community and he's one of the best storytellers I know. He has built a phenomenal culture in his organization and he happens to lead Ethos Church, a church that started out by meeting at bars around Nashville. Also, he was the person I talked to at the most self-destructive time in my life. And we had a 90-minute conversation that was the definitive pivot and turning point in my life. It was six weeks before we started FoxFuel and he has been a dear friend ever since. Here is a recent conversation I had with Dave.

I'd love to hear how do you go from growing a church from 30 people to 3000 people in five or six years during a time where organizations just aren't growing like that? What is special about what you and Ethos were doing?

I think one of the things that is just core to my heart with anything that I'm at is I don't want to focus on how do we grow this thing? It's how do we do something that adds value to people's lives? And so I think sometimes you get focused on how do we gain more influence or how do we make a bigger impact? And I don't think any of those questions are wrong, but I think when our primary focus and question is how do we make somebody's life better, whether there's 30 people that we're trying to make their life better or more than that, I think that's just the driving motivation of my heart because what I believe is if you focus on keeping things healthy, healthy things grow, but in reverse, big things are not always healthy.

And so sometimes there's this like, "How do we get grow something big?" And I go, "Growing something big doesn't mean it's going to be healthy, doesn't mean it'll add value." It may make you feel better about yourself for a season. And so that's really been our focus is "Hey, how do we just keep adding value?" How do we keep blessing? How do we keep pouring into others even if it doesn't come back to us in any substantial way?

You had no money when you were a college kid or 22.

So broke.

So broke.

So broke.

Yet you managed to propose to your wife on the 50 yard line of an empty Nissan stadium. Talk to me about what it is about you that, how did that happen? And I've seen that show up the ridiculousness, you somehow doing something ridiculous time and time again, and now you're expanding that to other people. What does it take to make stuff like that happen?

One of my just driving values in life is I love to take ordinary moments and do things that turn them into huge memories. So when I take my boys out to eat ice cream... The other night we were like, just climb up on top of the van and just eat on top of the van. They're like, "Why?" I'm like, "Because you'll remember this forever. Remember that time?" And so, one day we were at a Titans game and some of our well off friends had given us their seats, their tickets, 50 yard line, four rows up, just amazing seats. And we're sitting there at the game. I said, "Hey, when are you going to marry me?" And she said, "I'm sick of you asking you that question." She said, "When you can get me better seats than this, I'll say yes." And I was like, "Ching-ching." So that moment I'm like, okay, it became this thing. I'm like, "I want to do something memorable."

And so long story short, I thought, how can I get this stadium all to ourselves? I want to have a table set up on 50 yard line, all these things, want to use the jumbotron. It's like, how can I do this and propose to her? And I started looking into that and it's really expensive. As you might imagine, not very easy to do, but I just thought there was this desire in me. I thought, man, this is how I'm supposed to do it. And so I was just really determined and resourceful and I ended up getting the stadium for a $75 gift card. That's my favorite part of that story. I worked my way up from the bottom, found the right guy and got his wife a $75 gift card and she talked him into it. And I think one of the keys is just going, how do we see things through the lens of opportunity as opposed to seeing things through the lens of impossibility?

You are one of the better storytellers that I know, and I would love to say I'm a better storyteller, but you have a slight edge and it's only because you're older. It has nothing to do with skill. But in that space, I want to ask you two questions. Why are stories so important? And then two, what makes a great story?

I think stories have this way of unlocking our imaginations, of inspiring, of pulling us into things, that a principle or a bullet point or a list can never do. There's something about story. It's one, we're living in stories, period. We're all living in stories, we're shaped by stories, we're drawn to stories. And so there's something about the way that we work as human beings that is only unlocked in the context of story.

What I love about story is story has this way of transferring between context. It traverses time, it sticks with you. I mean, I'll find myself now at this point in my life as a dad, as a leader, doing all sorts of things, and I'll be driving down the road and I'll remember a story my dad told me when I was nine. It would come out of the blue and I go, man, it's the way the story works. And so I think good storytelling has this ability to evoke the senses, that you don't just get to the end of the story, but you can feel the wood and the leather and smell the smells. I think it evokes the senses, but more than anything, I think it touches the heart. And I think stories are the melody that the heart lines up with, locks into, feels, moves with that I think opens us up.

We are not HR consultants and we're not a recruiting firm, but because we fit the demographic, I sit in a lot of rooms where we're supposed to be talking about marketing or branding or the website and it will come up and folks will just ask us, "How do you recruit and retain these damn millennials?"

And they say it just like that.

Yeah, it's exactly what it is. And the more southern the drawl, the more I know it's a problem for them. I don't know. So what is it that you've done? Because not just leading a group of people, that is very impressive what's happened, but then also you maintain a team that's core and salaried and all that stuff that has relatively low turnover and people want to be a part of it. What am I supposed to be telling those folks?

I think there's all sorts of layers you can jump into. For us, you have to be able to clarify what is the cause that we're tackling together. And the cause has to be big enough. It has to be clear enough. It has to be central enough to what we're doing. There's a lot of things that motivate people, money, flexibility, but they are not central enough to keep somebody motivated for a really long time. And so for us it's how do we articulate our cause, and then how do we clarify what it means for you with your gift set in your phase of life to be committed to that cause in a way that allows you to flourish. And so I always tell people the role that you come into, this probably won't be the role that you end in.

Our goal is not to get you in this one spot and keep you in it forever. We know that you are a dynamic. You're changing, you're growing, you're being shaped. And I found what you win people with, you have to keep them with, which is so key. And so I think a lot of companies are winning people to their company with the wrong thing. "Hey, come over, we're growing like crazy. We'll give you a ton of money, give you a ton of flexibility, we'll give you a voice." All those things are fine, but what you win them with, you have to keep them with.

So for us, the thing that we want to win you with is the cause. Because there's going to be some times maybe where the economy dips and the financial thing isn't as good. There's going to be some times where the workload is going to be heavier and the flexibility isn't what it used to be. Everything else, giving you voice, giving you flexibility, trying to compensate you well, trying to help you care for yourself, all those matter, but those things become more like the scaffolding that the more beautiful thing is being built up with it.

Just by way of wrapping up, you've got two options. You can actually have three options. You can have an orange Pez from Donkey Kong or you can have a red Pez from Mario, or you can have a loose Gobstopper.

Can I take the green Gobstopper and Donkey Kong?

Thanks Dave. That's it.

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