Our New Day Begun: Terrence Benn



Today in “Our New Day Begun,” I want to introduce you to my friend, Terrence Benn. Terrence is a 34-year-old Inquirer in the Baltimore Presbytery and a student at Howard University School of Divinity. He and I connected about a year and a half ago when he found an old blog post I wrote about passing my ordination exams and being certified call-ready. Since we’re both Black, Presbyterian, and products of HUSD, we needed to be in touch! His experiences and perspective are similar to mine and to those of many young Black Presbyterians I come across. Let’s hear from him and wish him well in the ordination process!


Tell us about your religious background.
I received Christ and was baptized missionary Baptist at First Baptist Church West Munden at the age of 10.  I was an active member of the church until I graduated high school, and joined the military.  It was not until I got out of the military and moved to Atlanta, Ga that I began to search for more.  The big question that I had was, how was I missionary Baptist, and no one was engaged in any mission work home or abroad.  I just did not understand. While in Atlanta, I attended all types if worship services and enjoy them all.  I moved to Baltimore and returned to a local Baptist church and continued worship in the space that was familiar to me.  It was familiar until I decided to acknowledge and pursue, what I believe God was calling me to do.

When did you come to the Presbyterian Church (USA) and who/what influenced that decision?
Me finding the Presbyterian Church (USA) was not intentional at all.  I wasn’t raised Presbyterian nor did I know a lot about it’s traditions.  What I did know was that I was in need of a mentor who had time to invest in me.  I was not looking to be a groupie nor was I looking to be subservient to anyone.  So, I did one of those Facebook surveys that asked a series of questions, and then offer a list of denominations that fit the answers that I gave.   I think Presbyterian (USA) was second.

I Googled “black PC (USA) congregations in Baltimore” and saw a list of churches.  I emailed Rev. Dr. J Thomas, who was the Pastor of Madison Ave, and told him that I was interested in learning more about the denomination. He invited me to attend a worship service, which I enjoyed.  Rev Thomas took the time to impart his experiences as a Baptist who joined the PC (USA) church.  He also met with me monthly to monitor my progress with school, and discerning my call.  I felt as if both the church and the pastor had time to invest in me. I also felt that God led me there!  After spending time learning the culture of the church, I joined, six months later; I was under care of the session – working to discern my call!


I’ll ask you a question I have often gotten: Why did you choose Howard University School of Divinity?
Choosing Howard University School of Divinity was easy!  Many people don’t know that Howard University was created to educate teachers and preacher!  So the question I would ask is, why not Howard University School of Divinity? As an African American, I think that it is important to understand how hegemony impacts how we are taught.  If I am going to preach the gospel, I wanted to understand how this gospel that my grandmother loved so, was used to harm her mother’s mother! At HUSD, History of the Black Church and Introduction to Christianity are required courses, unlike other institutions, which only require that students take Introduction to Christianity. It shouldn’t be a choice to study how slavery affected people that you want to preach and teach.


If I wanted to be an Afrocentric socially conscious preacher, I knew that I had to spend some time on the East Campus!  And I will tell you that I am damn glad that I did.  For HUSD has shown me that Jesus was always on the margins, and if I want my ministry to be successful, I too have to be there!


What do you hope to do in ministry once you’ve completed the ordination process?When I first started the process, I wanted to be a military chaplain.  I thought that since I served in the Marine Corps and am currently in law enforcement, I would be more effective.  That may not be the case anymore.  I was exposed to parish ministry while completing my field education requirements and I love it. I think being there for your parishioners while they are experiencing their ups and downs is how we can truly see the gospel come to life.


I believe that there is a need for Pastors who have time and a heart for their members.  I think parish ministry is about meeting people where they are and showing your parishioners that they are only as strong as the community that comprise their church.


How do you think your perspective can enrich the denomination?
I look at the church and I see great potential!  I see people with rich history and traditions that are comfortable in their space.  I bring years of community involvement and ideas that will get the community that comprise the church engaged.  I bring the lens of an African American that is not looking for money to be thrown at problems, but real ecclesiastical thought and involvement to address our community concerns.  I bring Hope to a community that thinks the church has given up on them!


What can we do to encourage and empower other young people of color to assume positions of leadership in the PC(USA)?
I’ve been attending HUSD for three years and I haven’t seen any PC (USA) tables setup to provide information about us.  We are not going were minorities are to ensure that we can at least hold on to the African American PC (USA) congregations that are fighting to survive.  We have to have the same type of mentors that I had when I stumbled upon PC (USA) 3 years ago.  We also have to go into the community and share what makes up different then other denominations.   We have an ordination track that provides mentorship throughout the process, and a style of government that encourages community.

Don’t Expect Me to Grow Your Church

Photo Source: The Central texas Conference of the United Methodist Church
Photo Credit: The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church

When someone is in the market for a call, he or she will invariably come across a number of church profiles that indicate a desire for a pastor to who will help their church grow. I think this is akin to a Hebrew family in Goshen painting their lintel and posts with the blood of a lamb; it’s a sure-fire way for your church to get passed over.

This is a classic red flag for anyone who’s been in ministry for longer than a minute because it suggests your church might have unrealistic expectations of what a pastor does or can do. We get it — for whatever reason your church is clearly not happy with its size. Maybe numbers have dwindled in recent years (as is the case with most churches). But instead of doing the hard work of looking inwardly and outwardly for why this may be happening and maybe even accepting this trend may be around to stay for a while, you are looking for a person in whom to put an inordinate amount of hope and to ultimately blame when their presence doesn’t miraculously usher in a new era for your congregation. Using something like a Church Management Software is now seen as a more effective method of maximising church numbers. It may be worth asking them what they think should be done. They may have plenty of ideas, but just never had a change to voice them. Maybe someone could come up with an idea like using a capable text-to-give platform to raise money for the church. It is worth a try and you never know what may come out of it.

This expectation puts the onus of church growth solely on the pastor. To be clear, it is God and God alone who gives the increase, but that increase comes at the heels of some intentional planting, watering, and tending on the part of the entire community of faith. A church can have the most gifted pastor in the world, but all those gifts cannot take the place of the congregation. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” In other words, the people must work! It’s simply unfair to expect a pastor to initiate and complete a work that could have at least already been started by the congregation. A relationship between a pastor and a congregation is one of mutual ministry. Particularly in my tradition, we are all ministers. Pastors/Teaching Elders may be called to a particular service, but the work of ministry belongs to us all. No congregation should forget that, and no congregation need put its life on hold waiting for Superman — or Wonder Woman.

Yet, I understand that sometimes what’s needed to start said work is effective leadership, and I respect a church that can recognize it has that need. Even still, it can be unrealistic of a congregation to expect growth if it’s been reluctant to adopt practices that would open the door for growth. Definitely do not expect a pastor to grow your church if:

  • You’re not already consistently, intentionally, and lovingly inviting your friends, neighbors, and family to come — even if you think they’ll say “No.”
  • You’re not willing to come to church more than once a week when necessary.
  • You’re not willing to enter into deeper relationships with one another. Just because you’ve served coffee and pastries alongside each other after church for years doesn’t necessarily mean you know each other.
  • You’re not willing to welcome the new people who come through the doors as they are, not as you want to “help” them be.
  • You insist on harping on what the church doesn’t have and can’t do instead of what God has and can do through us. No church can grow from an attitude of lack.
  • You intend to bristle at any suggested change, small or large, because, “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Your church has had contentious relationships with pastor after pastor — and somehow it’s never the congregation’s fault.

Not an exhaustive list, but you get the picture. And even if a church does all of this and more to encourage and welcome growth, it still may not see a growth in numbers. Perhaps the growth comes from within in the form of more mature and effective Christians. Greater numbers don’t indicate that a church is effective. Jesus did just fine with only twelve dudes and a handful of women!

If a church grows at all, whether spiritually or numerically, it’s because the entire congregation has caught the vision of what it means to be community, not a tribe. Tribes are necessarily exclusive and rigidly have their boundaries and cultural norms set and agreed upon with little interest in deviating from them. Some churches, whether they know it or not, are tribes.

Simply put, your church won’t necessarily be rescued from decline simply because you called the right person. The Church already has a Savior, and I assure you he’s not currently looking for a call.

The PC(USA)’s Multicultural Conundrum

Photo Credit: http://pcusa.org
Photo Credit: http://pcusa.org
The following post was my submission to a special post-General-Assembly edition of the NCP Monthly, an editorial publication of the National Capital Presbytery. You can read the original issue here.

The 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) has now concluded. Do you know how many times the ethnicity of our new Vice-Moderator has been brought up? A few too many for my comfort.

In case you’re not aware, Elder Heath Rada and the Reverend Larissa Kwong Abazia were elected General Assembly moderator and vice-moderator respectively. Let me say that anytime a woman/person of color/woman of color is lifted to a position of influence and visibility is, even in 2014, remarkable and worthy of celebration. But the conversations surrounding her ticket’s election leave me feeling that our still very white denomination is flailing awkwardly in this sea of diversity. On one hand, I hear her rightfully lauded for her work in making the PC(USA) a denomination that is now much more amenable to multicultural ministry and cooperation. On the other hand, I hear commissioners and observers alike crediting her race, her pastoral leadership of a multicultural church, and her “charisma” with handing her ticket a victory, which, if there is any merit to that, suggests that the PC(USA) might be hungrier for the appearance of diversity than truly achieving it.

I can’t begin to know what went on in the hearts and minds of commissioners from 172 presbyteries from across the country as they sought the Holy Spirit’s will in identifying our GA leadership, and I trust that the Lord’s will was truly done. But these suggestions about the election are triggering for me, simply because those of us who find ourselves in the margins often feel that when we are spotlighted, the intention is to say, “We’re not just white – Look at how diverse our denomination is!” It also brings to mind the micro-aggressions I’ve experienced right here in National Capital Presbytery from otherwise well-meaning sisters and brothers, such as when I was mistaken for a member of Christ the King Church at the stated meeting in which their chartering was celebrated. I found it curious that, even though there are a number of churches in our Presbytery that are either completely or significantly comprised of Blacks/African Immigrants, I was assumed to be a member of the one that was particularly visible on that day (it may be of note that I came to the stated meeting in my service to a predominantly Asian congregation). Whether it’s hearing Black Presbyterians United referred to as a “subgroup” (as opposed to the important witness it is within our denomination) to witnessing the lack of understanding of just why Korean churches often need to assert their autonomy, it’s very often clear to me that we have so much work to do in order that we may truly understand one another. And yet, I’m not entirely convinced that my brothers and sisters in the majority have that understanding.

This Reformation Sunday, Presbyterian churches have been encouraged to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Knox by uplifting “our” Scottish heritage. No offense to any church or Presbyterian who intends to do so, but the mere suggestion that we celebrate “our” Scottish heritage (even if we don’t mean personal or ancestral heritage) alienates a number of congregations who do not identify with a European/Western ethos. You probably won’t see any tartans hanging in a BPU church. No bagpipes will likely be played in an Indonesian church. What seems innocuous to many of us unintentionally ignores or disenfranchises others of us.

I can’t say enough how proud I am of this Presbytery and this denomination’s efforts to foster multicultural cooperation. However, I fear that we’re stumbling over our own feet to prove to ourselves that we are indeed multicultural, and if we’re not careful we will instead promote tokenism and create terms that are favorable to the majority. We have a long way to go, and I truly believe that’s okay; we will get there. It’s just going to take a lot of humility, a lot of listening, and a lot of courage. God be with us.