Pitmaster Pastor: Trinity Baptist’s Clay Robinson Combines Childrens’ and Sports Ministries with Passion for Barbecue
KEYSTONE HEIGHTS–If you’re looking for the best barbecue in the Keystone Heights area, you might want to follow your nose to the Trinity Baptist Church ball fields on Friday nights during its fall and winter sports seasons.
While most of the 800 to 1,000 people who attend each week are there to cheer on their children as they play soccer in the fall and flag football in the winter, you may find some who are just there for the pulled pork barbecue.
And who could blame them or the parents who see the barbecue as a major bonus? The pork is slow-roasted in a wood-burning smoker the better part of each Friday, before it gets tightly wrapped up to “sit in its goodness” for a while before being chopped up for sandwiches and pork nachos for the evening’s games.
For just $5 you can get a pulled pork sandwich, chips and a drink. So affordable, right? Pay attention to the bottle of sauce there on the concession stand counter. You’ll want to pour some of that tasty sauce on your sandwich like all the locals do. Some call it Game Day Sauce and some call it Trinity Sauce, but everyone agrees it’s delicious.
“Bottom line is it’s God. I can’t explain it. I couldn’t plan any of this the way it happened. I don’t think barbecue is something that every church needs to tackle, but it works here in Keystone.”
Behind the sports league, the barbecue and the sauce is Clay Robinson, the church’s pastor to children and families, who’s also known as – what else – the pastor of barbecue. The barbecue sandwiches – along with the ribs and roasted pork butts he sells to University of Florida Gator football fans prior to home games – not only helps support the sports and children’s ministries, but other things too like camp for his referees and prizes like fishing trips for the church’s ministry to children. For the recent Florida-Georgia matchup, he and his barbecue crew sold a record 92 slabs of ribs!
While Robinson has become well known around town for his barbecue skills, he gives all the credit to God.
“Bottom line is it’s God,” he said “I can’t explain it. I couldn’t plan any of this the way it happened. I don’t think barbecue is something that every church needs to tackle, but it works here in Keystone.”
In addition to ball games, funerals and other church events at Trinity, Robinson also often prepares barbecue for the high school football teams, back-to-school events for teachers and the like. He said barbecue opens doors that normally wouldn’t be open to a pastor.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Originally from South Carolina, Robinson kind of just stumbled into the barbecue arena after he became Trinity’s children’s pastor about 10 years ago. After moving to Florida, he was missing the good barbecue from South Carolina he had grown up with, so he started making his own.
“I never cooked barbecue until I moved here. I had to learn how to do it. YouTube and stubbornness will get you a long way,” he said with a laugh. “I thought about calling it homesick barbecue, but having the word ‘sick’ in your food title is not a good PR move.”
There are no shortcuts when it comes to good barbecue. He and volunteers from his church smoke the meat each Friday. “There’s no gas. There’s no set it and forget about it. You watch it the whole time.”
And his barbecue crew is made up of men of all ages from his church. Some guys will bring him the trees to be used for the smoker, and some young guys will cut up the wood and still others will stack it. He’s got several guys in their 70s who stay up with him during the cooking process and help him throw logs on the fire while they tell stories.
Game days for Robinson and his crew typically run from 6 a.m. – when he lights the smokers and gets the meat ready – until 10 p.m. after the last games and cleanup.
“I got guys that help me with everything. This gives everyone an avenue of service they wouldn’t normally have, but it’s definitely needed,” he said. “It would be missed if it went away.”
A church member’s funeral spurred his barbecue ministry. He prepared the barbecue for a benefit for the family and sold out quickly. Another church member invited him to lunch a few days later and presented him with a check, suggesting he buy himself a grill and start a barbecue ministry that he could tie in with the sports ministry.
At first, he started doing the barbecue for the first and last games of the season. It was so good and so popular that they started doing it every weekend at the games, and it just grew to doing it at church events, funerals, school and community events and more.
He says the barbecue has helped increase attendance at the games. “They come to watch the kids play and to eat,” he said, noting there’s about 225 students playing ball each season. “There’s no excuse not to come watch the kids play.”
And then there’s the sauce. The secret is definitely in the sauce, as they say, because people can’t seem to get enough of it.
“What we’re really known for is our barbecue sauce that I make. It’s a sweet mustard sauce,” he said, like the South Carolina sauce he’s used to. “It’s a little sweeter because everybody in Florida likes it that way. We put it on our ribs, and it’s the only sauce we put out at the ball games. I give jars of sauce away as a teacher appreciation gift instead of other things that people throw away.”
These days he uses two Lang BBQ Reverse Flow Smokers – an 84-inch and a 60-inch that he bought used. These top-of-the-line smokers can be pricey, but sellers cut him a deal when they learned he was a pastor using these for his church.
Robinson said he came to Trinity knowing he would be over the children’s and sports ministries but had no idea about the barbecue.
“We all know the best ministries are the ones that God has put together. You just try to walk in them and see where they go,” he said. “Everything just came together. It’s just been a slow revealing of what works out there and what God’s done out there. It’s been very cool.”