As the Rev. Hezekiah Benton sat in his now partially empty office, he leaned back far into his reclining chair behind his desk and looked up longingly at the ceiling.
That’s when the names, stories and associated memories connected to 42 years of ministry and 38 years serving Covington’s Bethlehem Baptist Church as senior pastor began to fall effortlessly from his lips.
Stories about Martin Luther King Jr.’s, family who had worshipped – and some who even preached – in and around the church during Benton’s ministry.
Fond memories of folks he met while interim dean at Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center. Names that stick out more sharply in his mind than others, such as the late Tom Horton.
“Man, I tell you the truth,” Benton said. He shifted in his chair suddenly as he revved up his memory to speak about Horton. “Hort was my New Testament teacher when I was at ITC. Oh my, he was a great spirit.
“I tell you it’s amazing when you look back over those years and see how far we have come,” he continued. “Then at the same time, you look and see how far we have to go.”
Benton let out a hearty chuckle at that last statement. But it’s really the embodiment of why, after 38 years pastoring Bethlehem, he has decided to retire. His last Sunday preaching as the church’s senior pastor was Christmas Day.
“I think it’s just time for a new era of thought,” said the 71-year old minister. “I think it’s time for new ideas and fresh perspectives on how to reach this current age. I love this church and serving this community, but I also know it’s time for me to move on.”
Bethlehem is the only church Benton ever pastored – a rarity for modern day clergy. But it explains why, almost at every turn, Benton could recall a memory, a story or even a challenge or difficulty that shaped his pastorate through almost four decades.
“I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “I’ve seen how this Covington community has changed so much. We’ve been around here to witness a lot, and hopefully we’ve been able to help some people along the way.”
Benton said he wrestled with retirement for “a couple of years,” before deciding the end of 2016 would signal the end of this chapter of ministry.
“I had to make sure I got a release from God,” he said.
That doesn’t mean it was an easy choice for him to make. But he reiterated the fact that he did it because he felt a new wave of younger, fresh pastoral leadership was needed to reach the millennial generation.
“That’s my argument now for retiring,” he said. “I’ve gotta let these younger guys grab this thing in terms of language, in terms of technology and how to get the ear of this emerging generation with the message and love of Christ.”
Benton has done quite well, himself, however in the multigenerational ministry category. He claims as one of his greatest accomplishments and ministry hallmarks, his ability to look out among his congregation – whether during the 8 a.m. or 11 a.m. services – and see a healthy mix of people from all ages, across several generations.
“When you’re able to see into your congregation the young and the old from families, that’s special,” he said. “When you start seeing the ones who you remember as babies, and they start having babies, and you see these families grow. That’s special for a pastor.”
Benton’s ministry hasn’t just been isolated to the four walls of the building where the predominantly African American congregation worships each week.
The Bainbridge, GA native has served both the Covington and Greater Atlanta communities in capacities ranging from President of the Newton County Minister’s Union and of the New Era State Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia, to serving as Interim Administrative Dean of the Morehouse School of Religion at ITC.
Those opportunities have endeared him to many pastors locally and beyond, and have given him the opportunity to tutor more than 30 “sons and daughters” in the ministry, many of whom are now leading their own congregations.
He is beloved by many pastors throughout Newton and Rockdale Counties, including the Rev. Eric W. Lee, Sr., pastor of the 5,000-member Springfield Baptist Church of Conyers. Rev. Lee led his congregation in a special, video-recorded congratulatory message to Benton that was broadcast through the church’s Facebook page during Benton’s last Sunday.
That, in addition to several celebrations and special recognitions from his church and others in the Covington/Newton County community, has reminded Benton that his work was not in vain.
“It means a lot when you see you’ve touched people enough to where they want to tell you thank you and show their appreciation to you,” he said.
Before coming into the pastorate, Benton graduated from Fort Valley State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agronomy. From there, he began his professional career as a Soil Scientist with the Soil Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture in South Bend, Ind.
But when he began to hear what he said was “the call from God,” he was willing to sacrifice whatever was needed in order to be obedient to God’s voice.
“When I knew it was him calling me to this ministry, I left it all,” he said. “I knew I needed to go and prepare to do what God was calling me to do.”
That’s what led him to study at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, where he received a Master of Divinity Degree.
Under Benton’s leadership, the county’s oldest African American church has thrived as a compassionate ministry that Benton says has always tried to reach beyond just those within the church’s building.
That’s why one of the ministry initiatives he’s most proud of is the Youth Summer Feeding and Enrichment Program. Which has fed and spiritually educated many Covington and Newton County youth over the years.
“The best thing for me is when I’d start seeing those young people who come to the feeding program start worshiping with us on Sundays and giving their lives to Christ,” Benton said. “I’ve always wanted to be a pastor who pushed the youth and young people forward.”
Now, as pastor emeritus, Benton said he won’t mind doing whatever he can to push his former congregation forward in the direction of finding a new leader.
“I hope it won’t be a very long process,” he said. “But I want them to take the necessary steps to truly hear from God on who the next pastor here should be.”
Meanwhile, Benton said he plans to spend a lot more time on the golf course, as well as preaching, speaking and imparting wisdom into any church or young pastor that will listen.
“What I’ve learned from it all, and what I hope I can still teach others, is don’t be more committed to the people you serve than the call to serve,” he said. “There will be lots of challenges that serving people will bring. Definitely love the people. But never let the people or the challenges outweigh the beauty of the call when you keep Christ as your focus.”