After two decades of Our Faith columns, well over one thousand and counting, you might not expect to find something completely different in this space this week.
But the famed Guinness Book of World Records confirms that our own Rev. D.N. Benford Sr., leader of Texas City’s Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, has been officially recognized as “the longest-serving pastor of a single church.” That would be some 72 years — and still working every Sunday.
In the beginning
In a previous column, we looked back at the way this all started:
“Benford received his call to preach as a 12-year-old, traveling across Texas in a bus crammed with kids. While his friends hung out the windows of that un-air-conditioned Continental Trailways, he argued with God about his future in the back of the bus. God won.”
“And so, a few years later, did Rising Star.”
Sunday, that church will recognize Benford on his 93rd birthday with the coveted Guinness plaque recognizing his unique longevity at their 11 a.m. service at 302 N. Oak St. The public is invited.
Lifelong church member Sharon Williams describes him this way.
“As long as Pastor has breath, he will share God’s word,” she said. “He lives to share the gospel and lead others to Christ. He’s been preaching since the age of 14 and has never looked back. Now, after numerous Sunday services, revivals, vacation Bible schools, etc., why would he stop? He takes ministry very seriously, and he is always trying to help others.”
It would be understandable that most clergies choose to retire, especially when infirmities of great age crept in, but Williams said that in her experience, Benford is having none of that. He doesn’t feel that God wants him to hang up his Sunday best. Ever.
“I’ve known Pastor since I was a baby,” she said. “He has been with my family through marriages, births, deaths and everything in between. Even without me calling for him, he showed up at the hospital last year to pray for my mom, who was in hospice. Barely able to stand on his own, he steadied himself from his wheelchair, prayed over her, giving her ‘final rights’ before telling me, ‘I believe I better sit down now, baby.’”
Most clergies get to know the funeral directors in their area. So John Humphrey, who shares that profession, knows Benford well and offered us this memory.
That looks like my coat!
“One event I will never forget; Rev. Benford came to the funeral home to conduct a service, and when it was over, the procession was coming out the door, and I looked at him and said, ‘Now you know Rev. knows that that coat is too big for him. He looks like he’s wearing my coat.’ The staff’s response was, ‘That is your coat; it was the only one we could find for him. He wanted it for the service.’ We all laughed about it later.”
Humphrey added that Benford is a remarkable compendium of songs and sermons he’s collected over his incredible tenure.
“Pastor is a walking Bible scholar,” he said. “Anything you want to know about the Bible, he can surely give you an answer. His wisdom of preaching over 70 years is phenomenal. He still believes in preaching the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and singing the old hymns. He will sometimes sing songs we haven’t heard in years. His dedication to his church and the community is like none other. He has been in the hospital on a Saturday evening, not feeling good and moving slow but he will always find his way to the pulpit of Rising Star. He has stated many times that he was going to preach as long as God gives him the strength to do so. In his later years, he needs some assistance, but he will definitely deliver a message on Sunday morning even if he has to sit down and do it.”
Jerry Wyatt remembers a much younger Benford, one who began the hard work of keeping kids interested in church.
“Benford took us everywhere as children,” he said. “We went to sing and to visit other churches to sing. He took us on a hayride and wiener roast at the beach. He took us boys fishing. He even took us to Bay City when he was courting Mrs. Benford. Rising Star was my hang out, and Reverend made sure there were activities for us. We played games and listened to KYOK and KCOH. These were the R&B radio stations.”
And, a backwards Buick
Even the greatest among us also has a few limitations. In this case, Wyatt might caution using Rising Star’s own “Star” for transmission work.
“Reverend Benford had a Buick that he had worked on,” Wyatt said. “When he finished, the Buick had to be put in reverse to go forward. To back up, he would have to put it in the drive.”
One statistic stands out from recent surveys: The average tenure of a senior Protestant pastor at a single church is just six to eight years. It varies by denomination, with Baptists staying a bit longer than Mainline clergy. Surveys also show that frequent pastoral exits generate smaller and smaller congregations.
The last word
We’ll yield the last word this week to one of Benford’s favorite fans, Ursula Burns.
“It’s a huge honor to hold the title from the Guinness World Record,” she said. “And, just to be a member under his leadership is a blessing. To have him serve this community, and this church for over 72 years is remarkable. His steps are now shorter, but the word of God is still being preached at Rising Star by this ‘living legend.’”
Next week in Our Faith: How to merge two churches, part two.
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