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How Josephine Benton Blazed the Trail for Women in Ministry
Story by Taashi Rowe/Visitor
Rob Vandeman, Columbia Union executive secretary, speaks of Josephine Benton’s accomplishments during the Notable Person of Honor award ceremony while Dave Weigley, Columbia Union president, nods in appreciation.
So she did the next best thing and majored in speech so she could teach pastors how to preach. When other denominations started becoming more open to women pastors, she took several pastoral courses at the Wesley Theological Seminary, which was then based in Takoma Park, Md. Little did Benton know this step would help her blaze a trail for women to fully minister in the Adventist Church.
She then applied to pastor in the Potomac Conference and went to speak with Dale Hannah, senior pastor of the Sligo church in Takoma Park. “I said to him, ‘If you ever want a woman on staff, let me know.’ I thought he would laugh and I would laugh, but he thought about it,” she recalled.
The Mohaven Papers
The conference however, turned her down. Benton, married with two sons, didn’t give up. She went to each member of the conference executive committee and shared her vision for ministry.
That was in 1973, the year she served on the famous General Conference ad hoc committee to study the role of women in ministry at Camp Mohaven in Danville, Ohio. The group of 13 men and 14 women published 29 “Mohaven Papers” and recommended that women be ordained as local church elders and that those with theological training be employed as associates in pastoral care. The group also proposed that a pilot program be developed to lead to ordination by 1975.
That same year, Benton was ordained as an elder, and she became an associate pastor at Sligo church. While she did get some support from members, she recalled one man approaching her as she walked through the hallways of the church. “He said, ‘Josephine you know I don’t believe in what you’re doing.’ I told him, ‘I know,’” she said. She also knew that he was thinking about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he wrote that women should be silent in church (see Cor. 14:34).
Despite that verse, Benton said, “I felt called to ministry, and even before I was hired, the Lord opened doors for me in ministry. I served as a chaplain at a camp and served at Loma Linda University [in California].”
When pressed more about the Corinthian verse, Benton pointed to Acts 10:23-48 where Peter meets Cornelius the gentile and the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the Word. “That text shows me that whomever God chooses to send His Spirit to, has no choice but to accept it.”
As she served at Sligo, she said, “There was enough work for me to do that didn’t require me to be ordained.” She joyfully ministered to children and singles and helped lead a church plant in nearby Washington, D.C. She then went on to the Rockville (Md.) church where she served as senior pastor from 1979 to 1982. Afterward she served as an administrator in the Adult Evening Program at what is now known as Washington Adventist University.
Back to Ministry
When Benton retired, she moved to the Hagerstown, Md.-area and secured a chaplaincy post at the Williamsport Retirement Village. She ministered there for 19 years. During that time, she worked with Rob Vandeman, then president of the Chesapeake Conference to get her chaplaincy license. She was thrilled. “I could now do weddings, which was a big thing because up until then I was only allowed to do funerals and anybody can do those,” she joked. As an elder at Chesapeake’s Williamsport (Md.) church she still gives Bible studies and ministers to those in need.
Benton said although it’s taking a while for women pastors to gain their ordination credentials, she has seen it coming for a long time. She even watched the live stream of the Columbia Union Conference Special Constituency Meeting in July where the union became the first in the North American Division to ordain women without regard to gender.
Earlier this fall, when the Columbia Union approved 16 female pastors for ordination, it was a young female pastor at Sligo church who called to invite Benton to the first of such services in the union. A very happy Benton sat in the front row and watched the ordination of Debbie Eisele, a Sligo associate pastor. This was something that had not been possible when she served there 40 years ago.
“I’m Thankful God Opened the Door”
On that same day, Dave Weigley, Columbia Union president, told her that union leaders also approved her name to receive emeritus ordination credentials. Benton who is now a grandmother of five and great-grandmother of five joked, “I’m glad they didn’t wait until 2015 to do this because by then I would be a very old woman.”
Last week Columbia Union leaders also presented Benton with their Notable Person of Honor award at their year-end meetings. “We’ve been talking about equality in ministry in the Columbia Union for 40 years,” Vandeman said before presenting Benton with the award. “Shame on us that when Josphine Benton was an associate pastor at Sligo church, then senior pastor at the Rockville church, that we as a church family didn’t have the courage to ordain her. We don’t know how to apologize as a church for the time it has taken us to recognize the contribution that you and other women have made to the ministry.”
On that same day, Joyce Newmyer, president of Washington Adventist Hospital, shook Benton’s hand and thanked her for blazing a trail for other women to serve as leaders in the church. After the awards ceremony, William Cox, president of the Allegheny West Conference, sought Benton out. “I just wanted to come and shake your hand and tell you, ‘Thank you for your service and commitment,’” he said.
With a smile on her face, Benton softly said, “I’m really thankful God opened the door for women to become pastors, even senior pastors at some of our churches. I’m just glad to see more people use their gifts for God’s church.”
Updated January 10, 2013:
In an earlier version of this article, Benton was credited as stating that she sees women's ordination coming for the entire world church. Benton says she doesn't have wisdom to predict what will occur. "A lot of prayer, study and discussion will go into that," she says.
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