Allen Hunt’s remarkable journey from megachurch pastor to Catholic dynamo . . . .
As the pastor of a successful megachurch and the grandson, great-grandson and nephew of Methodist pastors, Allen Hunt never had reason to consider becoming Catholic.
But the seeds planted by a Dominican priest and fellow graduate student at Yale University sprouted 15 years later to lead Hunt into the Catholic Church, where he now labors in the fields of evangelization and catechesis.
Hunt works as vice president of strategy at the Dynamic Catholic Institute, where he helps develop content and set long-term direction. Lately, he’s been working on a program designed to give young people who receive Confirmation more than a “check-the-box” experience, but one which infuses them with the beauty and genius of the sacrament.
In addition, Hunt designed and presented the series “Passion and Purpose for Marriage” and has played a key role in the institute’s fundraising efforts.
“His life and experiences have all led him to this place and this time — and prepared him for this work,” said Matthew Kelly, the institute’s president and CEO.
Hunt and Kelly met through business management author Patrick Lencioni in 2008, and the men soon realized they shared a passion for the New Evangelization.
“I was immediately struck by the gifts God has given him to guide and inspire people into a relationship with God,” Kelly said, adding that as he got to know Hunt better, he became convinced the former pastor belonged at Dynamic Catholic.
“When I explain to people what we’re doing at Dynamic Catholic, most people get it, but some people get it right at the core of their being because Dynamic Catholic articulates something that they have long known. Allen is one of those people.”
Hunt concurs. “It’s my whole life,” he said of his work to help Catholics and non-Catholics alike discover what the Church offers. “It’s a wonderful thing to be Catholic.”
Conversion of heart
Hunt’s conversion story began while he was working on a doctorate in New Testament and ancient Christian origins at Yale and became friends with Dominican Fr. Steven Boguslawski. The friendship opened a window into Catholicism for the Protestant pastor, especially when the priest suggested that he and Hunt give a Lenten retreat to a community of cloistered Dominican nuns.
When Hunt met the sisters, he said he was instantly struck by their radiance. “It took me a minute to realize I was in the presence of the physical manifestation of holiness.”
On the last day of the retreat during a question-and-answer session, one of the sisters queried Hunt: “You sound really Catholic, so I have to ask: Why aren’t you part of the Church?” When Hunt explained he didn’t share the Catholic belief about the Eucharist, she challenged him to recall a verse in 1 Corinthians in which Jesus is quoted as saying “this is my body” as he breaks bread and gives it to the apostles at the last supper. The nun then asked Hunt, “Allen, what don’t you understand?”
“That was the initial seed of faith that God planted in the back of my soul,” Hunt recalled. “Fifteen years of water and sun and fertilizer eventually carried the day.” However, it was not until he entered the Church and was invited back to the cloister for a series of lectures that he discovered the sisters had been praying for him all along.
“I didn’t have a chance,” he quipped.
After his studies at Yale, Hunt went on to become senior pastor of Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Alpharetta, Ga. — the third-largest United Methodist congregation in the country. Over time, however, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with Protestant worship’s dependence on the pastor, the sermon and the music. In addition, through reading and reflection, he became convinced of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and started going to Mass when he was on vacation. He also sought out Catholic resources for prayer and preaching preparation.
Ultimately, Hunt said, he was drawn to Catholicism by the real presence, the hierarchy, and the unity of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. This, he said, contrasted with the fragmented nature of Protestantism and his experience of being in a denomination where everything seemed to be up for a vote every four years.
“In the Roman Catholic Church,” he said, “while there is an uncomfortable tension, there is still a sense that all are part of the Church, though we may disagree. And there is one hierarchy and Mass and Eucharist that bind us together like mortar.”
Even before Hunt became Catholic, Blessed John Paul II had caught his attention. He was struck by the man’s holiness and witness. As for Pope Francis, Hunt said, “I love him. The media are trying to frame him the way they want him to be, but he has the ability to cut through all that for his own bold, unique witness. In this media age, that is unusual. I think he also has reminded us to lead with love.”
A dynamic Catholic
Hunt entered the Church at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta on Jan. 6, 2008. His wife Anita did not join him in converting, but Hunt said because she understood how he had reached his decision, she has remained supportive. Anita organizes all her husband’s events in Catholic settings and she accompanies him. They attend Mass and Legatus events together. The couple’s two daughters since have followed their father into the Church.
Tom Peterson, founder of Catholics Come Home, invited the Hunts to join Legatus’ Atlanta Chapter. Peterson says it took extreme humility and a sacrificial heart for Hunt to give up the lead pastorate of a thriving church that drew 5,000 worshipers every Sunday.
Hunt’s conversion, Peterson said, has been a gift to the New Evangelization. “Allen is blessed with a skill set, a talent and a charism to convey Christ’s word in a way that everybody can understand. He’s got the gift of preaching and the charism of teaching, but also has a zeal and passion for the faith that is contagious.”
Added Deacon Mike Bickerstaff, director of adult education at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, Ga.: “His energy is a huge plus, but he’s also a great storyteller. We need more people who can weave a good story while engaging in evangelization. Allen can grab your attention and keep it.”
Matthew Kelly said he has been inspired by Hunt’s gift for what he calls “relational ministry.” “He just likes people. I know it sounds strange, but it is amazing to me how many people in ministry don’t really like getting to know people and don’t enjoy just being with people. Allen lives for this. He thrives on it and sees it as the core of the way Jesus approached people.”
JUDY ROBERTS is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.