Church's first woman elder talks about her calling


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Josephine Benton, now an 87-year-old great-grandmother in Maryland, was the first woman to be ordained as an elder in the Seventh-day Adventist church, and worked in ministry even after her retirement. She still serves as an elder in her local church. Benton has now been given emeritus ordination credentials and recognition for her years of service.

Question: You have been awarded emeritus ordination credentials from the Columbia Union, as it has now voted - in a historic decision - to ordain women. How does that make you feel? Did you ever think you would be ordained as minister in your lifetime?

Answer: During the recent ordination service of Debbie Eisele, the first woman pastor of the Columbia Union to be ordained after the vote to ordain without regard to gender, I was sitting on the front row in Sligo Church, as Debbie had requested me to do. At the point in the service when the ministers and elders were on the platform shaking hands with Debbie, a young man came and asked me whether I wanted to join them. I replied that I wasn't qualified – I wasn't ordained, or commissioned, or an elder of that church (I am an elder in my home church.) During this moving around on the platform, I noticed Elder Dave Weigley, president of the Columbia Union Conference, looking at me. He came off the platform and we shook hands. He then told me that the Columbia Union Conference Committee had voted to have an honorary ordination for me. I was so surprised, and, yes, delighted. I had been thinking that since I am no longer pastoring, I had just missed out on the timing to be ordained. But not so. The credentials haven't been awarded yet, but I think after the bustle of the holidays that will occur.

Did I ever think I would be ordained as a minister in my lifetime? Back in 1973, when Kit Watts and I as new associate pastors at Sligo Church were privileged to be part of the denominational "Council on the Role of Women" held at Ohio’s Camp Mohaven, I experienced some thrilling moments. While not all the participating theologians and laymen thought women belonged in the ministry, the overall attitude toward using the gifts of women for giving the gospel and for leadership in the church was very favorable. [Note: The group’s recommendations included that women be ordained as local church elders, that those with theological training be employed as associates in pastoral care, and that women should be ordained in the next two years.]

My Biblical model was the experience of the Apostle Peter when he was sent by divine direction to share the good news about Jesus' teachings and good works with the Gentilecenturion, Cornelius. (Story in Acts 10 and 11). Peter had even considered that doing this would be unlawful.

However, when the apostle was astonished to see the Holy Spirit falling upon his listeners who were eagerly accepting his words, he realized that God was visibly accepting these converts. Peter had wisely asked companions from the church leadership in Jerusalem to accompany him on this unorthodox mission. They consulted together briefly. They could hear these Gentile converts speaking in tongues and magnifying the true God. "Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people," Peter asked, "who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" [Acts 10:47 RSV] Thereupon he took responsibility for the baptism of the Gentile converts in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. A time-established barrier had been broken. And the leadership in Jerusalem, when they heard the full report, were in accord.

So I thought, if God is pleased to call women into the ministry and to bless them with a portion of His Holy Spirit, then this action on God's part will soon become evident. At that point surely the church will cease considering ordination of women to the ministry to be inappropriate, just as the early church ceased to consider the acceptance of Gentiles into the faith to be unlawful.

However, as Annual Councils and General Conference Sessions followed one another for years with the results of repeated "further study" never resulting in full acceptance, other women ministers and I were puzzled. At first I thought my hope deriving from that Biblical model was not going to materialize.

Later, however, I saw that the analogy did hold, but in a different way from what I had expected. The denomination had become much larger than the early church of Peter's day. But I did see that in places where there has been opportunity for women to use their gifts from God in ministry, there have been requests to ordain those women. And now, finally, it has become widespread enough that there is general interest in ordaining them.

Question: What do you feel are the opportunities for women going into ministry today, as opposed to when you were a young graduate?

Answer: Today a young woman feeling herself called to the ministry can go to the seminary, under God's direction study the fields to which she feels led, and proceed. It is not necessarily easy. But in my younger years that was hardly available to women, or if allowed, a very rigorous, sometimes painful, experience.

Question: Do you feel any bitterness that you served and ministered, doing much of the work that pastors do, your whole career, without receiving the same recognition that your male colleagues did?

Answer: No, I don't feel bitterness that I served and ministered without receiving the same recognition as my male counterparts. When I became an associate pastor at Sligo in 1973, I soon found that, although a few members might be disapproving, there was more that I was accepted to do than I possibly could. God opened that door for me.

I will say that there was disappointment at times, as when I had conducted the baptismal classes at Sligo Adventist School, and a mother might come asking me to baptize her daughter, and I would have to tell her, "I'm sorry, I can't do that. You will need to ask another pastor." That has changed, and the women pastors have been allowed to baptize.

Question: When and how did you feel called to go into the ministry?

Answer: From early years I thought that if I had been a boy, of course I would have been a minister. My father, Elder A.C. Griffin, was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and evangelist. How I enjoyed listening to his sermons and being around his ministry! Being female, I decided to do my graduate studies in the field of speech, using that to help prepare ministers to do their work. So this is what I did, and enjoyed my work.

But in the late 1960s women began to be admitted to the ministry in other denominations, and I thought, This can happen! From that time on I felt myself called to the ministry. Going over to Wesley Theological Seminary, I took courses in Greek, Hebrew, and preaching, continuing my teaching. Our own SDA seminary at that time sent teachers down to conduct courses for the ministers in our area, which they let me take.

Once I sat across from Elder Dale Hannah, senior pastor at Sligo church, at a banquet, and I think I surprised him and myself by saying, "If you ever want a woman on your pastoral staff, let me know." I thought he would laugh and I would laugh and that would be it. Instead, he replied, "Are you serious? I've been trying to arrange for a woman on my staff."

Question: You were ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist elder in 1973. Were other women receiving this status at that time?

Answer: Earlier, Elder Bill Loveless, then senior pastor at Sligo, asked me to get together an Adult Education Class to explore establishing a fully integrated Seventh-day Adventist church in our area. Churches up to that point might have a carefully chosen minority family or few members, but minority people tended not to feel fully accepted. So some of us from Columbia Union College, where I was teaching, and in the community, got together to work on this. (Adult Education classes at that point were lively community activities of Sligo.) The Lord blessed our efforts. We rented a church in Washington, DC and had good church services, fellowship dinners, and missionary activities.

When it came time for our church company to be organized to join a conference, it was necessary for us to have a nominating committee and choose church officers. I suppose because we were already this integrated group who were used to accepting people different from ourselves, plus the fact that I had been working hard to establish this congregation – following the model of my dad's pastoral leadership, I suppose, and earnestly praying to Jesus to help us become the kind of church that could glorify His name – the Brotherhood Church nominating committee selected me to be one of the elders.

Elders, of course, must be ordained. But Elder Sandefur, Columbia Union Conference president, and Elder Quigley, Potomac Conference President, apparently were not threatened. No doubt having sought counsel, they came on the day our Brotherhood Company was organized to lay hands on me, along with my father, Elder Griffin, participating, to ordain me as an elder. That was a precious experience!

That was in May of 1973. There does not seem to be any record of a woman's being ordained as a local church elder in our denomination before that time. I hope I have been faithful in the responsibility. There are many women elders now!

Question: You served as a camp chaplain in the Potomac Conference, as associate pastor at Sligo Church and as a chaplain at Williamsport Retirement Village in Maryland during your long career in ministry. How were those positions different, and where did you feel the most at home? Did you feel you were treated with the same respect that a male chaplain would have been given?

Answer: During the time I felt called to the ministry but was still teaching, I was invited to fill responsibilities of a pastoral type. This confirmed my sense of call. You indicated that I have held various responsibilities the Lord has opened up for me: associate pastor at Sligo, pastor at Rockville, and part-time chaplain at Williamsport Retirement Village, where I worked for the last 19 years of my career. They don't seem significantly different, because they are all essentially pastoral in nature. I feel I was treated with respect, and no one threatened seriously by my being a woman. I was very grateful that Elder Rob Vandeman, then president of Chesapeake Conference, worked hard to enable me to get my chaplain's license. This enabled me to baptize and to conduct weddings – functions I was not able to do without that license.

Question: What advice would you have for church leaders at the General Conference as they discuss women's ordination?

Answer: For General Conference leaders discussing women's ordination as well as lay people – all of us – I will say that in recent years I have been impressed with Jesus' stressing this kind of counsel:

"A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." – John 13:34, 35.

"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you." – John 15:12 NIV

Those of us who approve of ordination of women and those of us who do not need to be careful not to think critically about the characters of those who think differently. We can love and respect each other, asking for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as we carry on in God's service with differing thoughts on some issues.

Question: What advice would you have for young women going into ministry today?

Answer: To a young woman looking toward the ministry today I advise: stay in close contact daily with Jesus, seeking His guidance and enabling. Prepare. If for some reason you are not offered a position in ministry, look around to see what needs to be done that you can do. Volunteer. Use your gifts modestly, as a servant, but with your sense of calling. Seek counsel from leaders whom you respect as godly and understanding.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4983