Meeting That Friend You’ve Heard A lot About
Covenant has a new “theologian in residence,” and many of us have already met him. Allen Hilton joined the staff on February 1. Allen spent time on our campus last fall for a series of “Courageous Conversations,” where many Covenant members learned how to engage and collaborate across political differences.
Finding a title for Allen’s new position was a challenge. While he will continue to bring people with different ideological views together for the common good, his role will be expanded. He will lead some Bible classes and preach occasionally, among other things.
Regardless of what we call him, Allen is excited to be a part of the Covenant staff and the entire Covenant family. He described his first meeting with the congregation: “It was like hearing a lot about a friend you haven’t met yet.”
He explained, “Thomas likes you all … a lot, so I had heard plenty. I knew to expect that you were a lively lot and a growing group, with dappled red/blue constituency. I knew there was, in place, a culture of tolerance and love for one another. As I met you and as I got to host these conversations, the experience confirmed what I’ve been told.”
Allen’s interest in Covenant grew. “As I got to meet more and more people, I was introduced to the devotion a lot of the people in the church have to scripture. Reading it together with different lenses is a great way to grow as a Christian.”
According to Senior Pastor Thomas Daniel, reading the Bible with Allen is an opportunity Covenant members and friends will have. “Allen will be leading us in addressing the polarization in our society, but he will also be leading in other areas,” Thomas said. “He is a renowned New Testament scholar, and there is a lot in the New Testament that is not about polarization!”
Thomas continued, “Allen will become a part of our preaching team. He will teach Sunday School classes and work with leaders in our small groups and Bible studies. Finally, Allen will get to know our staff and work to help them develop their departments.”
Thomas offered an example. “As a parent of teenagers, I am excited for Allen to work with our youth staff to help our students consider ways to live out their faith in a culture that ‘cancels’ people with different views. Our students live under the anxiety of a “cancel culture,” and I believe Allen can help them, and all of us, navigate this culture with love, courage and grace.”
Though Allen’s role will be varied, we will lean into his expertise. “We hired Allen because we continue to see the political polarization that is tearing our society apart,” Thomas said.
That excites Allen, who already has learned that Covenant members are willing to address difficult topics. “A lot of places – churches and other groups – have mixed populations, but a lot of them survive because they either downplay or don’t allow people to talk about their differences. To sweep them under the rug is to miss an asset,” he said. “I think the differences at Covenant are of huge value; they are an asset to the way we understand Jesus, to the way we think about the mission of the church in the world. We get a whole lot of different inputs into the shape of Jesus.”
“In the past few months, Allen’s preaching and teaching have begun guiding Covenant toward a different way of being community that seeks to learn from one another and our differences, rather than tearing one another down,” Thomas said. “We want to lean further in building this kind of community and we think Allen will be instrumental in that happening.”
Allen has been a professor at Yale Divinity School, a pastor, an author and a consultant. He’s enthusiastic about all his experiences. “I loved teaching at Yale for half a decade,” he said, his voice full of joy. “Then I loved being a pastor for 15 years. What I do now, though, it’s the most fun a person should be allowed to have!”
Allen said his current job started with a realization around 2015. “Both in the academic world and working in churches, the nation was coming apart at the seams and nobody seemed to be noticing that. But the 2016 election sort of blew it up. I realized that I could help.”
He gave a long notice to his church and prepared for his next call: to help groups to embrace and learn from their differences. His enthusiasm for the job surprises people, who often ask, ‘You’re getting red and blue people in the same room and you like it?’
The Path to Covenant
When Allen met Thomas at a wedding in 2019, and subsequently for lunch and discussions, they found they shared a similar philosophy. “We had a lot of the same thoughts about what the church is meant to look like in a polarized America and how the church can help the nation heal,” Allen said.
The two started talking about bringing Allen to Covenant before the pandemic; a plan that finally came to fruition last November. After Allen’s “Courageous Conversations,” both he and Thomas recognized more opportunities and began to determine how Allen could play a bigger part at Covenant. Session approved a two-year position, a timeframe that encompasses the next presidential election. “We have two years to form a new set of habits or increase habits that already exist for engaging across differences,” Allen said.
Allen explained that the ability to bring groups with different opinions together is something Thomas hopes becomes a part of the missional identity of Covenant – that Covenant is recognized as a place where conversations happen well and communities come together across differences.
“We are called to be a ‘Love Letter’ from God to Austin,” Thomas said. “We saw in the Courageous Conversations last fall that several people attending were not Covenant members. Dealing with political polarization is not just an issue Christians need to address. We believe that as we work on being an alternative witness at Covenant, others will want to come and learn with us.”
Allen has lived in the Northeast, the Northwest and the Midwest, but Austin is home to his wife, Liz. When Allen started working as a consultant, the couple and their two sons were no longer tied to a place for Allen’s job. When Liz, a graduate of the University of Texas Law School, was offered a job in the Law School’s Development Office in 2017, they jumped at the chance to be closer to Liz’s family. Sam, 19, is a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Isaac, 17, is a senior at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School.
Being in Austin benefits Allen’s time at Covenant. “I’m looking forward to the chance to be in pretty steady relationships with the congregation and the staff over the course of these couple years. I get to be a part of the rhythm of the church,” Allen said.
“Allen is a brilliant theologian and a wonderful human being,” Thomas said. “He will be a dynamic presence in our congregation!”
“I am so excited to work with the people of Covenant,” Allen said. “Everything I’ve experienced so far makes me lean forward with anticipation of really good things that God can do in the mix that I bring and you all bring. I’m just very glad to be doing this work.”