'God has been providing miraculously': Pastor-model mentored by Tim Keller shares his path to ministry
After strutting down the runway in a top designer’s fashion show, seasoned model Michael Smith washed his face and put on his street clothes, ready to make his way home. On his way out, he turned to a fellow model. “Hey man, good job today!” The young model responded enthusiastically, “Yes! It was a good day for more reasons than one—I’m six days sober today!”
“Hey great job, man,” Michael responded. “I’ll be praying for you!” Then he fished a card from his wallet and said, “Let me know if you ever want to go out for coffee to tell me more about it.” The young man’s eyes got wide when he read Michael’s card. “You’re a pastor too?”
Michael chuckled. He was used to that reaction after decades of working as both a model and a pastor. Although others might find the combination surprising, Michael thinks modeling and working as a personal trainer while also serving as an ordained pastor is a totally natural fit that gives him many opportunities to live out his calling.
“The Lord looks at the heart, and fashion looks at appearance. It’s the opposite of what God wants,” Michael says. “But being a model and a personal trainer are platforms that help me personally live out the Great Commission. You don’t want to just be a pastor who only learns things from books, or who spends almost 95% of your time in the walls of a church, you need to be out and about among people!”
“But if you’re not around non-Christians and people who think differently than you, this can affect how missional you are and how you train your congregants to be missional. I’m determined to have as many platforms to make friends with people in the world and not getting into a Christian bubble. My life as a model, personal trainer and adjunct professor informs my work as a pastor. It makes me stay sharp because I get inspiration from being around non-Christians and I know what non-Christians are thinking.”
Michael has never lived life in a traditional “Christian bubble.” Michael's father had retired from the U.S. military and was working in Germany when he met a woman who had fled Thailand under bad marital circumstances and was working as a seamstress. They married, and Michael was born there in 1972. His parents later moved Michael and his sister to Iran for another work contract. When Iran experienced political upheaval, the family moved to Florida in 1979.
Although Michael’s mom was a Buddhist, the family practiced a casual Christianity that left little mark on young Michael. But in college at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Michael came across a Christian organization called Navigators. He was surprised to see “cool college guys there, really trying to live out a Christian life. Something clicked,” he remembers. “In college, through the teaching and discipleship of Navigators, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and I became a committed, born-again Christian.”
As Michael took leadership roles in that organization, an older Christian mentor told him one day, “You seem to really come alive when you lead Bible studies.”
While discovering God in college, Michael was also being discovered — by a modeling scout who recognized that young Michael’s brooding, intense look might fit the modeling standards of the time. Michael signed on with a modeling agency in Orlando and slowly began building his portfolio — although he never intended to be a full-time model. Instead, he was intent on becoming a doctor. But when he did not get accepted into medical school, Michael sent his modeling pictures to European modeling agencies in a bid to start a career there. That didn’t pan out either due to the look leaning more toward a “skinny, pale Beatles vibe.”
Frustrated and confused, he went back to live with his parents in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and took a job as a science teacher in a local high school. But eventually, Michael understood why God had closed other doors and sent him back home.
Although a devout Buddhist for 60 years, Michael’s mother became interested in Christianity and began reading the Bible with him when she noticed how much her son’s life had changed since he had become a Christian. At the same time, Michael began attending local Promise Keepers conferences with his dad. “For the first time in my life, I saw my dad cry at one of the Promise Keeper sessions.
“Then, my mom said to me one day, ‘In Buddhism, I tried to do good things to know God. In Christianity, one does good things because they already know God through Jesus, so the difference seems to mainly be Jesus.’ It was so profound. She got it! During my time at home, they both accepted Christ,” Michael recalls. “And then I knew that’s why I was sent back to my hometown after all those rejections. I felt like God really put me there to minister to my parents.”
About a year later, a modeling agency in Milan offered to represent the 22-year-old high school science teacher. For the next five years, Michael jet-setted between Milan, Vienna, Paris and London, modeling for designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Donna Karan, and being featured in commercials for Mercedes, Adidas and other big companies. A modeling assignment to New York City in 1996 left a big impression on Michael. “I literally fell in love with the city during that one visit.”
Michael was modeling in London when he fell in love with Kristyn, the daughter of American missionaries who had planted a local church in the heart of the city. The two married within six months and before long the whole family moved back to California, where Michael continued his modeling career. “I modeled to make money, but I was really passionate about Christ. ... I was ready to dedicate myself to a regular ministry and minister to others.” He became a youth pastor at Calvary Chapel, Kristyn’s home church, and soon was sent by the church to plant a church in Northern California.
Michael eventually felt called to attend seminary. “I became exposed to Reformed Theology through pastor friends ... and began listening to recorded sermons from pastors such as Timothy Keller and John Piper. Everything they said resonated with me and made me really desire to get fully trained in Reformed Theology.”
Michael was one of the first to apply when Redeemer Presbyterian — founded by the late Tim Keller — began hosting a campus of Reformed Theological Seminary in New York City. When he was accepted, Michael and Kristyn and their two young sons quickly moved to NYC. But the realities of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities in the world ushered the couple into a financially-stretched, busy, stressful phase. Kristyn worked as an esthetician, while Michael interned with Redeemer Presbyterian, worked as a model, and taught high school science — all while attending seminary. He finished his seminary degree in 2017 and became ordained in the Presbyterian Church of America.
From there, Michael moved into several lead pastoral positions within Redeemer and with other churches, eventually switching to the EPC and launching his own church plant in the midst of the pandemic in September 2021. Common Grace Presbyterian Church meets every Sunday on the Lower East Side in a space leased by a Christian owner who was thrilled to help a new church launch in New York City’s diverse, work-culture environment.
“It’s a small group, but everyone is missional, everyone loves Jesus,” Michael says. “We meet on Sundays, have a mid-week Bible study on Wednesdays and encourage everyone to stay connected with each other throughout the week. We are passionate about connecting Sunday to the other six days of the week, and really encourage our church to be missional. We operate on a shoestring, but God has been providing miraculously. Watching God come through always makes my faith so much stronger. I really believe when God calls you somewhere to something come Hell or high water — He will make it happen.”
Kristyn has her own skincare boutique, and the couple’s sons Cade, 21, and Rider, 16, are thriving. Michael and Kristyn are certified to care for foster children and have just begun the process to adopt a 10-year girl from Thailand. Michael continues to work as a model and a personal trainer in addition to his pastoral duties.
When asked if there’s any conflict in his roles, Michael responds that he takes a “body, soul, and spirit” approach to life and works to make sure all three areas are firing on all cylinders. “I think all three are necessary to fully flourish.”
He also thinks the variety in his life and work give him more chances to introduce God to the people he meets. “We are supposed to love others, and I do. I love models, I love fellow trainers, and I love my congregants. I love just being around people — church people and non-church people alike.”
Michael admits that juggling all his jobs and roles can be difficult. “There’s always much to be thankful for, and always things to complain about. It’s been a wild ride.”
But the difficulties and uncertainties do not deter him. “I think the idea of God’s sovereignty is comforting. There are seasons of blessings and seasons of challenges. We see in part now what He sees in full. God mitigates pride through hardship, and He always gives us just enough. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”