How Josephine Benton Blazed the Trail for Women in Ministry
Story by Taashi Rowe/Visitor
Pictured below: 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.
Looking back, Josephine Benton, now 87, knows exactly where her desire to minister came from. Her father was a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist who frequently moved their family around the country. “I would sit and listen to my dad’s sermons, and I always knew that if I had been born a boy, I would have been a preacher,” she said. “But that path didn’t seem open to me.”
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.