In this episode of Mind + Heart, Phillip Holmes interviews Dr. Michael Allen. Dr. Allen is the academic dean and John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS Orlando, where he has served since 2015. He is also a teaching elder and theologian-in-residence at New City Orlando PCA. He and his wife, Emily, have two sons, Jackson and Will.
Holmes begins by asking Dr. Allen for the story of his growing up and conversion to Christianity. Dr. Allen talks about growing up in a Christian home and his father’s influence on his life. Holmes and Dr. Allen spend a few minutes discussing a shared love for basketball.
Holmes replays Dr. Allen’s previous Wisdom Wednesday episode in which Dr. Allen answers the question, “How do I know if I’m called to the ministry?” Afterward, he asks Dr. Allen whether he believes the church over- or under-emphasizes the call to ministry. Dr. Allen explains that often, the answer can be both, depending on setting and degrees of self-awareness.
Holmes asks Dr. Allen how he would respond to those who choose to only look at external factors related to calling, as opposed to internal ones. Dr. Allen talks about his personal experiences as a pastor’s child and the focus on external factors that were a part of his story. He explains the necessity of growing in self-awareness and wisdom, and the critical role community plays as a means of avoiding an over-emphasis on the external factors of a call to ministry.
Holmes affirms the importance of community in the process of determining a call to ministry and asks Dr. Allen how he might encourage someone who is looking for confirmation of a ministerial call outside of the validation of their Christian community. Dr. Allen talks about the importance of seeking out opportunities to learn the daily ins and outs of ministry so that self-examination can be done in light of the realities of ministry, instead of making a decision based on a lack of information about what ministry entails.
Holmes asks Dr. Allen about the role of personal holiness in ministry. Dr. Allen discusses the reality that ministry does not convey holiness, it instead reflects the level of personal holiness an individual has already achieved. He also talks about the importance of personal holiness as a foundation for the daily tasks of pastoral ministry.
Holmes asks Dr. Allen for any final thoughts. Dr. Allen reaffirms the importance of calling as a binding agent to the Christian community, and as a reminder of the grace of God.
Mind + Heart Season 2 Episode 7: Called
Keith Pinckney: Hi, this is Keith Pinckney. As a current student at Reformed Theological Seminary, I’ve been incredibly thankful for how RTS supports my fellow students and me as we prepare for a life of ministry. One of the ways that I’ve felt supported is by the seminary’s commitment to helping students graduate from seminary without additional student debt. As part of that commitment, RTS will participate in Giving Tuesday on November 30th, seeking 100 donations for need-based student aid. To partner with us, visit rts.edu/giving-tuesday. And if you’re listening to this episode after Giving Tuesday, it’s not too late to join us. Visit rts.edu/give to learn more.
Phillip Holmes: Welcome to the Mind + Heart Podcast, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Phillip Holmes, and this week, I’m joined by my guest, Dr. Mike Allen. Dr. Mike Allen joined the faculty of RTS Orlando in 2015 and serves as the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and academic dean of the Orlando campus. He teaches core courses related to systematic theology and historical theology, is a teaching elder, and serves as theologian-in-residence at New City Orlando PCA. Dr. Allen and his wife, Emily, have two sons, Jackson and Will. He enjoys playing and watching basketball, running, reading, and traveling. Mike, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.
Dr. Mike Allen: Great to be with you, Phillip.
Holmes: So before we dive into this week’s episode, as usual, I like to ask our guests to give us their origin story. Where did you grow up? How did you come to know the Lord?
Dr. Allen: Yeah. So I was born just outside Jackson, Mississippi, near where you are, and born into a Christian family, and grew up in the church with folks in our house for Bible studies, with our family at church repeatedly throughout the week. In fact, actually with a whole host of RTS personnel very close to us, including one late professor, Dr. Knox Chamblin, who played a key role throughout my upbringing as a dear friend and mentor.
But I can honestly say, having been baptized as a little guy, being raised in that context that I don’t remember a day where I didn’t know and love Jesus as my Lord and Savior, didn’t understand the idea that our lives were to be given in service, in response, gratefully, to God’s love and mercy, and that the church really was a family and a community that was going to mark our family’s life in so many ways.
We wound up moving on. My father became a pastor, and we moved to other cities and settings very different from Jackson. But all those things continued to be true and to set the course that I think and hope and pray still marks my life today.
Holmes: You’re married, of course, to Emily, and you have two sons, Jackson and Will. Also, you enjoy playing basketball, playing and watching basketball. I didn’t know this about you.
Dr. Allen: Yeah, I grew up playing and watching, and have got to play and watch and even coach sons now, so that adds a whole new element of enjoying the game with them and passing it on. But that’s a big part of our family life, and right now that involves rooting for the Orlando Magic. So we’re living deep in the book of Lamentations.
Holmes: Yeah, it was just about to ask — how are they doing this year? I haven’t heard much about them.
Dr. Allen: It’s rough. Most of their players are young. They’re the youngest team in the league, and most of their guys, their curfew’s up before the second half’s over. So they don’t close games well.
Holmes: Oh, gotcha. Yep, know what you mean. Yeah, so I played basketball at Belhaven, so I’m surprised we haven’t had that conversation up to this point.
Dr. Allen: Yeah, we’ll have to talk more later.
Holmes: So your boys are playing as well?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, we’ve got an 11-year-old who’s very into it, and an eight-year-old who’s catching the bug, so it’s fun to watch.
Holmes: That’s very good. I’m curious — and this is my last question related to basketball — how old were your sons when they started appreciating the game or even those in the game? I have three boys.
Dr. Allen: We’ve got video of my oldest when he is less than two. We’re teaching him plays in the family room about how to cut to the hoop, and receive a pass, and finish strong. He was already very into it then. So, you know, at least at a very informal level from really early on in life.
Holmes: Very good. That’s awesome. All right, so recently, Dr. Allen answered the question for us, on our weekly video series, Wisdom Wednesday, “How do I know if I’m called to the ministry?” So before we go any further, let’s take a moment and listen to Dr. Allen’s response to the question, “How do I know if I’m called to the ministry?”
Dr. Allen: Many of us have at different times struggled with the question, “Am I called to the ministry? Would God be asking me to pursue formation and preparation that I might serve in some particular vocational capacity, perhaps in a full-time and employed manner?” It can be a challenging question. It can be a daunting question. We can sometimes struggle with feeling we’re not up to it. We can’t possibly be holy enough, or wise enough, or charismatic enough to be of use. It can be a question that can be scary. Do I really want to dispose myself to open up myself to the kinds of challenges and frustrations, or to the kind of sacrifices that might be involved? You won’t typically get rich, but you just might get hurt if you’re in pastoral ministry. And so, it is daunting both in terms of having the kind of confidence to step forward, as well as the sort of willingness to enter into the fray.
I would encourage folks thinking about it to make sure not to think alone. To explore it with church leaders, pastors, elders, trusted laypersons who they respect, who know them. I would encourage them to think it over with family and friends, with academic and churchly leaders who would be able to speak into their experience, their aptitude, their gifting.
People need to be emboldened and freed to step out in faith.I would also encourage folks to think about it, mindful that there are certain things central to ministry and there are other things that are accidental and can vary: devotion to prayer, concern about integrity and character, ability to study God’s Word and communicate God’s Word. These are central to ministry. You don’t minister apart from, in some way, being a person of prayer and Scriptural commitment. You don’t study apart from being a person committed to growing in integrity and developing deep and rich character as a Christian. Other elements — charisma, certain skills, certain giftings, and ability to reach people of a particular sort — these vary, and folks ought not somehow believe that they have to match a given celebrity or a particular pastor’s unique gift set.
It may be that God has designed you with certain unique experiences, certain unique interests and abilities, certain unique ethnic and cultural and linguistic abilities, that actually open up a particular outreach, a particular ministry. Don’t ask, “Can I be the next so-and-so?”, thinking of some famous person. [Ask instead,] “What would it mean to give over who I am, to love God with all that I am, heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to do so by using that to serve others with the ministry of Word and prayer?”
That doesn’t provide or foreclose the question, that doesn’t somehow guarantee a particular answer, but it does provide a space within which we can trust God and receive feedback from God’s people as we seek to be faithful to God’s calling.
Holmes: So, Dr. Allen, do you think we over- or under-emphasize being called to ministry?
Dr. Allen: You know, I think there’s probably truth that in different settings, both of those are a temptation and a challenge, and that’s not new. I mean, centuries ago, one book that I teach students through every fall, Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule — he talks about how sometimes you have people who want to rush into ministry too fast and they need to be slowed down to mature. And then other people are actually mature and gifted and probably called, but they don’t want to get mixed up in the costliness and the pain of serving others. And those are two very different challenges.
And I think in a similar way, we probably struggle with both over- and under-emphasizing calling. I think, on the one hand, sure, there’s folks who overemphasize calling. And a former colleague, Bruce Waltke — he’s written a great book on finding the will of God for your life, and how we can as modern, especially American, individualists, we can get a really existential sense that somehow, I’ve got to find out the perfect plan of God for all the idiosyncrasies and all the small accidents of my life. And if I don’t have the wet fleece before my door, I can’t actually act. And that really leads to, I think, a lot of hesitancy. People need to be emboldened and freed to step out in faith.
On the other hand, I do think there are a lot of people who take ministry as if it’s simply another vocational choice, or as if it’s something that one can opt to do on one’s own, apart from interacting with others and getting the kind of feedback from brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in the faith. That’s an under-emphasizing — especially the communal, and maybe the more institutional, aspects of calling. I’m sure there are other ways that can take different flavors and slightly different permutations, but in different settings, both the over-emphasis and the under-emphasis can be a real challenge, and we all ought to maybe be aware that we may tend toward one or the other ourselves over the long haul, but we also may be prone to fall into one or the other on any given day. It’s not as simple as an enduring personality type or something. We can be bent toward an over-emphasis and still, on occasion, inconsistently fall into an under-emphasis.
So that’s why self-awareness, and pursuing that self-awareness, and making calling sure in community and through the instruments and means God gives us — that’s so very important.
For most people, they will have obviously encountered a pastor preaching and perhaps leading a service and maybe being a public face in various, sort of, fellowship and ministry events. But they probably have precious little sense of what goes on beyond those few hours in that pretty public sphere.Holmes: That’s really helpful. It seems to me that often, sometimes, individuals look to external gifts alone, and I think you alluded to this as well. So if I enjoy talking to people, or if I feel comfortable speaking in public, those are signs that I should go into the ministry. Sometimes we look to lineage, right? Grandfather was a preacher, and my dad was a preacher, so that means I must be a preacher. What would you say to individuals who are tempted to go down that road, to just say, “Hey, I’m going to look at external things, primarily,” rather than really focusing on, of course, internal things?
Dr. Allen: Yeah. Well, I know that one personally in that I, from age six on, was a pastor’s kid, and I was the oldest son of the pastor, and I was a Christian and very involved. And so from time to time, people would comment on how I ought to be a preacher someday, and all through middle school and high school I had zero interest and took that with a complete grain of salt. I thought that was just utter platitudes. I know other people might have heard that, and if folks told them that, they might have taken that as the sign of God on their life and sort of simply a clear sign that they ought to be a pastor. And I think what I found is, the real challenge, the needle to thread, is somewhere in the middle: that that’s not beside the point — lineage can shape one in different ways, and that may be part of God’s providential design to prepare one, in my case, to enter into ministry.
But lineage by itself is underdetermined. It’s got to be explored, it’s got to be prayerfully challenged, it’s got to be contextualized and tested in other ways. And for me, that involved going away and interacting with older Christians at college, professors who would speak about me and my particularity, not knowing my daddy and the lineage there. That allowed me to have, you might say, a multi-aspectival kind of awareness of what’s going on. [It] played a key role in feeling called, myself, to ministry. For someone who perhaps assumes that a parent being in ministry, or a grandparent, that somehow fates them or fits them in and of itself — hopefully, encounter with others who are outside that orbit becomes important.
I mean, we do need to have some sociological awareness that if you’re just in your family’s church setting, there are many blessings to that, but there are also many limitations. And one of the great gifts, for instance, of going off to college or going off to study residentially at seminary, is you encounter people who didn’t grow up with your parent as their pastor or their elder, who are meeting you and treating you on your own terms. And that can cause some important exploration, and confirm or challenge and complicate some of the assumptions we’ve got.
In my own story, that became just profoundly important as I interacted with professors, with peers, with folks who not only didn’t know my family and lineage, but also folks who often weren’t from my own religious tradition, you know, but were deeply committed Christian men and women, and who got to know me. In discussing with them, that was really beneficial to my own sense and discernment of God’s call in my life. And I think we can’t discount that: the significance of growing in wisdom about one’s self, by being impacted by those around you, for good or for ill.
Holmes: That’s good. So you’ve talked a lot about the importance of community when it comes to verifying that you’re being called into pastoral ministry. In addition to that, what are some other things you would encourage someone to do, from a personal standpoint, to really examine? Because the reality is that community and all these things are very important — extremely important. I almost can’t exaggerate them enough.
People . . . just imagine what a pastor must do, and they overlook the committee work, the email, they overlook the counseling, they overlook the visits to the hospital bedside, they overlook the funerals and the weddings, the budget discussions.But the reality is that most people don’t really live in intimate communities. We can, sort of, have a real self, which is sort of a private self, and then we have an external self, right? It looks very different. That’s why you see so many guys in ministry who are in ministry for 20, 30 years, often sometimes, and they’re living double lives. The person that people thought they knew is not really who that person is. So from an internal perspective or from a private perspective, what are some things you would encourage of someone who is looking for verification outside affirmation?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, I mean, I would say probably the most practical thing they can do is to not assume they know what they’re talking about in terms of what ministry involves. For most people, they will have obviously encountered a pastor preaching and perhaps leading a service and maybe being a public face in various, sort of, fellowship and ministry events. But they probably have precious little sense of what goes on beyond those few hours in that pretty public sphere. And so, getting a sense of what actually marks the days and weeks of a minister’s life, you know, talking to people and simply asking if you can shadow them for a day. Beyond the truly confidential stuff, you just observe. Can you ask if they’d let you — you know, black out the names, but — basically show what’s a day planner or a weekly planner look like? Ask them to debrief you on, you know, what they did that week and what physical and spiritual and emotional toll it took, and delights it offered.
I think this is one of the reasons that lineage is not a small thing, because it opens you up to greater awareness, perhaps. Which can be a great good. It can also, if it’s not cared for well, be incredibly harmful. But for other people, if there’s not that awareness, then simply asking questions and trying to shadow folks is a real challenge. I think so often, people assume, they guess, they just imagine what a pastor must do, and they overlook the committee work, the email, they overlook the counseling, they overlook the visits to the hospital bedside, they overlook the funerals and the weddings, the budget discussions. You know, those are things that are important. They’re not beside the point. They’re places where love of the flock occurs, and they’re places where real gains can be had or real detriment can be done.
If you don’t have rhythms of prayer, of Sabbath, of fasting, of hospitality, of sacrificial service, of being involved in all these basic rhythms before you’re in ministry, I think you’re going to be set up where, in most cases, you’re going to start making self-justifications.You know, I think folks need to do what they can to be alerted to that. And not just their own local person, but find two or three people to just start to see what are overlapping and common investments of time and energy and then just say, “OK, does that stoke my interest, or does that slow it down?” And if it stokes it or if it slows it down, why? What about it? What seems to draw more energy out of me, and what seems to put me at greater length? And those are areas then to prayerfully explore in conversation with oneself, with one spouse if you’re married, with family, friends, your pastor, elders, etc. Knowledge is just crucial as being a prompt for that kind of self-examination.
Holmes: That’s super helpful. Talk about the importance of personal holiness as well. Sometimes, I wonder if guys may go into ministry thinking that ministry’s going to make them holy, or ministry is going to make them even more pious, or perhaps even, “You know, I need to read my Bible more, so I should go in the ministry.” And you’d be surprised at the types of things that individuals can come up with in assuming that ministry is going to lead to X, Y, and Z. So I’m broken, and somehow, going into ministry is going to fix me.
Dr. Allen: Yeah, and that’s not unique to pastoral ministry. I mean, there are people who do counseling degrees because they want to experience further growth in that area beyond what they’ve had. So it’s not shocking, but it is a real challenge. It’s not a new one, either.
Richard Baxter, hundreds of years ago, looks around and there are a lot of people using the ministry to get ahead. It’s not the richest, but it can be a decent wage and a stable one, compared to some other fields, especially in that setting. Gregory the Great again, same thing. There are people who are using this for other purposes, who think they’ll grow in humility. And if you haven’t grown in humility before, you’re unlikely, he says, to grow when you’re given power. I can’t help but look at human history and the Bible and see that that’s a biblical statement.
Yeah, if you don’t have a rule of life, if you don’t have rhythms of prayer, of Sabbath, of fasting, of hospitality, of sacrificial service, of being involved in all these basic rhythms before you’re in ministry, I think you’re going to be set up where, in most cases, you’re going to start making self-justifications. You’re going to start, as you put it, leading the shadow life or the divided, fragmented life, where there’s a public face of piety and there’s a private, sort of, withering soul. And that would be a terrible thing. I mean, that’s terrible for anyone. It’s especially insidious for someone who’s got a public and prominently official witness to the gospel.
Don’t be a drunkard. Manage your household well. These sorts of things are just basic Christian virtue, and no minister is above that. And no ministry will, in the long run, outlive a life that isn’t marked by those things.And so, leaning into the basics is so important. It’s not for nothing that when the pastoral epistles list qualifications, almost all of them are about basic Christian character and ethics. I mean, you do need to be capable of teaching, and you do need to not be a recent convert. And not every Christian needs to be a teacher, though all of us need to be able to give an explanation for the hope in us. And obviously, not every Christian shouldn’t be a recent convert because you’ve got to have converts, but otherwise, don’t be a drunkard. Manage your household well. These sorts of things are just basic Christian virtue, and no minister is above that. And no ministry will, in the long run, outlive a life that isn’t marked by those things. I mean, you may for a while, but eventually, we see, again and again, the chickens come home to roost.
Holmes: Yeah. It’s one of my favorite phrases you just used, so that makes me happy.
Dr. Allen: Which one?
Holmes: Chickens coming home to roost! Malcolm X was the first person I heard to say it.
Dr. Allen: I’m a city boy, but that’s my nod to the rural setting. There you go.
Holmes: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s so important. One of the things that you said that stood out — in our church, I know I’ve heard our leadership talk about this oftentimes. They look for the individuals who are already doing some of the work of ministry. So when they’re looking for deacons, they’re looking for people who are already serving in the church, not somebody who they think would be able to serve, not somebody they think can serve or has the potential to serve, but somebody who is already doing it.
So I think that’s super helpful, what you just mentioned. If the person really wants to, is really trying to figure out if they’re called the ministry, they should be looking to see, like, am I shepherding people on some level? Am I loving people, am I caring for people, am I serving people, really, on some level already? Do I have a gift for teaching? Am I teaching already? Because you can teach from anywhere, really, you don’t just have to do it from the pulpit, [there are] small group opportunities, right? Do I have an affinity towards teaching and expounding and unpacking the Word and making the complex plain? And oftentimes again, as I mentioned earlier, we assume that, well, I’ll start doing those things once I get the job. But the reality is that you should be doing those things now, before you get the job, in a sense. And so I think what you mentioned was extremely helpful. Any final thoughts, Dr. Allen, related to calling?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, I mean, I would just say, you know, it’s easy for us to psychologize it and type it, where it involves one kind of self-awareness. And maybe that doesn’t fit this person or that person, and they suddenly feel like they aren’t called or they aren’t as spiritual as others. So I think we need to be very aware that exactly what a sense of calling is, it can wax and wane, it can shift and it can vary based on one person or another.
There are seasons where I’m going to feel battered down, where I’m going to be more prone to self-doubt. And knowing that I’m called of God . . . may be what keeps me going, and grants me some grit, some strength from without, to make up for my weakness within.That said, I do think as we read the Bible, we ought to observe that the calling, in its most generic sense, is used — Gary Badcock, in a book called The Way of Life, so helpfully says [that] the Bible tends to use the word “calling” to describe what binds us together as Christians. We all share the call. But that doesn’t rule out the fact that we also can, and do see in the Bible individuals — Jeremiah, Moses, Mary, et cetera — who are called to a unique role. Sometimes to an official office, even. And as we observe those stories, that’s a gift of God. And it’s a gift of God that grants a whole range of benefits to one’s self. So, there are seasons where I’m going to feel battered down, where I’m going to be more prone to self-doubt. And knowing that I’m called of God in a more profound way or in a deeper way, may be what keeps me going, and grants me some grit, some strength from without, to make up for my weakness within.
And that becomes important at other times when I’m having to make some unpopular moves and say something that’s going to rattle some cages or make a decision that’s invariably going to disappoint certain persons. It’s helpful for people to know that I’m not just called by them in a vote, but called of God, and that there’s been a process where that’s been attested so that it can have a social benefit, providing some glue in the midst of difficulties. I think that’s just one of God’s kindnesses. God knows us inside and out, individually and communally, and he grants us these graces. The difficulty of a family or a church or a neighborhood, much less a country, holding together when social trust is lost, is just so impossible and intractable for us. And it’s so amazing that God knows precisely what we need, and provides these gifts, like a sense of calling and direction and resolve and affirmation. Not for every day, but when it’s needed, and when it carries a community, or when it sustains an individual man or woman and their sense of what they’re to be doing with their lives.
And it just strikes me as a reminder that our Redeemer is our Creator, and he knows us, and he’s made us, and his grace just works so compellingly and perfectly to really meet us where we really do struggle, personally and publicly. And that’s, I think, one of the great attestations of the grace of the gospel, that it makes possible a common life and direction and mission that otherwise just wouldn’t make sense or wouldn’t be sustainable.
Holmes: That’s good. Dr. Allen, thank you so much for joining us for the Mind + Heart podcast. This has been extremely helpful and insightful, as expected. And thank you for tuning in, and we hope you enjoyed this week’s episode featuring Dr. Mike Allen. I’d also like to thank the RTS family, church partners, students, alumni, and donors for the many ways you make the work of Reformed Theological Seminary possible. The clip we listened to earlier is from our weekly video series, Wisdom Wednesday, where relevant matters of the Christian faith are addressed by the RTS faculty and friends with truth, candor, and grace. Access our entire archive, or submit a question at rts.edu/wisdom-wednesday. Mind + Heart is powered by Reformed Theological Seminary, where we desire to raise up pastors and other church leaders with a mind for truth and a heart for God.