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Wrestling with big questions: Joel Allen’s called story

By: Doreen Gosmire, director of communications, Dakotas Conference UMC

"I was out in the hill country of Texas, and I went on a walk. I never will forget this. I sat down on a rock and said, OK, God, maybe you are still there? I know I am really here. So if you are, that probably means that you created me and I am supposed to follow you. I kind of just opened up my life to the Spirit. I just changed. God just walked in.” This was the moment that Rev. Joel Allen, who serves as a professor of Religion, and is an ordained elder of The United Methodist Church, committed his life to Jesus.

Allen grew up in a very spiritual home. His mother and father were very devout about going to church and working in the mission field. “I grew up with Christianity in the air that I breathed. I teethed on the back of a church pew,” says Allen, who serves as a professor at Dakota Wesleyan University (DWU). “My dad was a missionary in Mexico.”


Dr. Joel Allen discusses topics with his World Religion students in a small study room at the McGovern Library on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University. Photos by Dave Stucke, Dakotas Conference UMC.

During his high school years, Allen found himself rejecting the notion of Christianity. “I very much rejected Christianity,” he said. “I didn’t find it intellectually sound. By the time I entered high school, I was interested in various philosophical perspectives that I was reading. I felt like it was nonsense to believe that this Christian God was the world’s true God. I couldn’t stand by that. I found the whole idea of sacrificial atonement didn’t make sense to me.”

Even though he had a different perspective as a teenager, Rev. Allen expresses appreciation for his parents, who modeled faith and respect for diversity. “It was not that I didn’t like my parents. It was just that they irritated me. I loved them—they were good and kind people. We lived in an area where there were a lot of Mexican American people. My dad was good friends with many of our Mexican American neighbors. It was unusual for the time. He spoke Spanish and went to Mexican American worship services.”

During his senior year in high school, Allen went on a spiritual retreat and watched a film. The film made an intellectual argument for why the resurrection probably happened. “I was impressed. I thought, ‘wow, if the resurrection of Jesus is a viable historical event, then maybe the Christian God is the real God. Maybe there is something to my parents’ faith,’” he says. Watching the film, he became convinced that the resurrection of Jesus was more viable than he had thought. Allen realized he might have to be more open to this idea of Christianity. That is when he took the walk that he will never forget.


After high school, Allen joined a group called Youth with a Mission (YWAM), traveled to Canada, Mexico, England, and Ireland, and did a lot of different evangelistic and discipleship work. He thought he would continue missionary work after his YWAM experience, but instead moved back home to Texas. He found his parents’ church without a pastor and filled in. “I really enjoyed preaching. The people attending were very encouraging. I felt a call to the ministry,” Allen says.

After serving his parents’ church for about six months, he went on to Bethany School of World Missions in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He continued on to complete his undergraduate education at Crown College, where he met his wife, Kitty. After graduation, he headed to Asbury seminary. “That is where my Dad went—I wanted to go where he went. It was a good fit and it felt right,” Allen says.

At Asbury, Allen realized he was more aligned with Methodism. “I was attracted to Methodism because of their struggle with issues at the center of our culture. Issues like human sexuality,” says Allen. “The Christian Missionary Alliance was not asking these questions; the Methodists were. I wanted to be where people were struggling and wrestling with the major issues of life. Debating major issues is part of our faith.”

During his seminary years, he found he loved the study of scripture and theology. That led him to pursue a doctorate in Religion at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“I loved my time there and was deeply impacted. I came to know a lot of people of the Jewish faith and developed a lot of friends,” he shares. “Everyone was very welcoming and inviting at Hebrew Union College. I was able to wrestle with ideas about faith and Religion from a unique perspective. I left more committed to my Christian faith and deeply appreciative of the Jewish perspective.”

After completing his doctoral degree, he began a part-time teaching position at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky. Rev. Allen also served as the senior pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Barbourville. Allen describes, “It was great little church and right next to the college. It was a great experience. We loved the congregation. We found out that Kitty had breast cancer while we were there. They were so supportive. It was so meaningful.”


World Religion students at Dakota Wesleyan University meet with Dr. Joel Allen on a recent fall morning.

Allen explains his journey to DWU happened through an invitation from a colleague in the Dakotas Conference. He had met Brandon and Vicky Vetter at Somerset, Kentucky, where he served as the pastor for several years at the United Methodist Church. Brandon and Vicky were on staff in Somerset UMC while Brandon attended seminary at Asbury.”

Pastor Joel has been at DWU for nine years, where he lives out his call by advising students in Religion who may be considering a call into ordained ministry, teaching, and serving in leadership roles at Fusion Church.

Through Allen’s leadership, DWU has developed a set of spiritual formation requirements. “Students who are considering a call of ministry journey through the requirements. I can guide that. Students meet in small groups to examine and reflect on where God is calling them. It is very meaningful to help students discern their call,” he says.

He spends time talking to students about seminary, and introducing students to all of the options. Allen helps students discern and think through what it means to be a spiritual leader in a Christian community. He says it is all about inviting students to be the leaders that will impact people profoundly in their lives, including baptisms, marriage, and death.

Guided by his own experience in the pastoral role, Rev. Allen can guide students. Allen says, “I loved being a pastor, and it was hard for me to leave. I will always remember my last funeral. The church choir director—a beloved woman of the church—passed away. Her husband shook my hand, pulled me in, and said, ‘Joel, thank you.’ That is what being a pastor is about. You are with them. I helped his wife die. You teach them how to live and die. That is high calling.”

Another way Allen lives out his call is by teaching classes. He is currently teaching a course for first-year students about religion, philosophy, and ethics. “We take a hard look at complex questions like: How do you describe your belief in God? What are the intellectual arguments out there for the existence of God? We look at all the religions of the world and look at things with deep meaning through the lens of the Christian faith,” says Allen.


Dr. Joel Allen, host of the podcast, "Biblical Conversations", in the podcast studio at Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, SD. To listen to the podcast series as new episodes are published, subscribe using the links below.

Part of his teaching role includes a weekly podcast, Biblical Conversations. The podcast is about competing voices throughout the Bible—people having a two-way conversation, a debate, about pages in scripture that appear to be contradicting. “It is the human side of the Bible that is irritating and wonderful at the same time, just like humans,” shares Allen. “It stimulates us to think about scripture, the nexus of human complexities, and the beautiful vision of the Kingdom.”

Fusion Church, a United Methodist congregation that meets on the campus of DWU in Mitchell, South Dakota, is another way Allen lives out his call. He has been involved in various leadership roles in the congregation. This fall, he has been part of the team planning the sermon series, A Journey Through the Bible. He leads a small group related to the series. Rev. Allen also helps with some of the preaching, and teaches fourth and fifth grade Sunday School.

His faith has changed throughout his call but has remained strong because he is deeply committed to living out and being part of God’s redemptive story. Allen says, “A student, who was atheist, came to me and said, ‘What do you get out of this Christian story that makes you do it? I replied, ‘Your story stinks. Cosmic death is the future for you. Our story is great. God created this beautiful world. God is going to redeem this world. We get to be a part of that. What is not to love about that story?’ That feeds my soul. That is the core of who I am.”

Here is the latest episode of Allen's podcast Biblical Conversations: 


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