Pastor, counselor & parable teacher

Pastor Derrick Benn has been ministering at Greater Bethel Baptist Church for 12 of his 20 years in the ministry. Originally, Benn hadn’t planned on a career in the church – his studies were rooted in finance and management –  but he found his calling to minister through his lifelong work around churches. Daily Record photo by Denise Cathey

Pastor Derrick Benn

II Timothy: 1-7

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.”

And that is what the Reverend Derrick Benn spent about one hour emphasizing to the overflowing audience at Bethel Baptist Church, 726 Centre Street, right here in San Marcos. I must add, as inspirational as Pastor Benn was, he was the second act. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. 

As I met two ladies in the parking lot, who seemed to be going to church, I inquired whether this was Greater Bethel Baptist. They not only assured me I was in the right place, they shepherded me into the hospitality room, where I was offered breakfast, coffee or other sustenance. Birdie Jefferson came over, introduced herself and inquired about the reason for my presence, graciously welcomed me and excused herself as she was “in the choir.”

Jefferson is not “in the choir,” she is the choir director. At this point, I will simply inform the reader that Jefferson performed and elicited an Olympian effort from her 18-20 choir members that energized the rapidly-filling pews. 

I was duly impressed with what I took to be an introductory hymn to set the tone for Pastor Benn. Pastor Benn did not take the podium for another 45 minutes. The choir and the accompanying musicians held the increasing crowd in their spell for some 50 minutes.

And so, Pastor Benn then ambled calmly to his place behind the podium. He began his sermon in a low-key almost breathy manner. But like a heavily-loaded locomotive engine, he began to warm to his message. To encapsulate his sermon, “Do not be afraid. God is near.”  

I finally got to the interview a couple of days later and I assure the reader, space limitations will not allow me to fully exploit the time spent with the reverend.

I commented that he delivered his sermon without notes, and without a Bible from the top of his head and the bottom of his heart. But, he confessed, he had an I-Pad that helped him along. Nevertheless, he explained his style.

“Some preachers go for the ‘Amen,’ I go for the ‘Aha.’ I want a light bulb to go off. I want my audience to understand the text. I want my congregation to understand that the scripture makes sense and that’s the gift, that’s the call for me. How do I apply the scripture to my life? How do I live it?”

I pointed out that he used a small bottle of water as a ridiculous illustration – parable, if you will – of how we allow fear to control us in unfearful situations. 

“I try to connect the story to the text to help people to get it. Jesus was a teacher. He taught with parables. That’s my whole thing — to encourage, to teach.”

“Okay, tell me about you,” I implored.

“I grew up in the Houston, the Third Ward, a rough side of Houston. As a kid, I felt a little different. I enjoyed church — never got in the choir — but there was something pulling. I came here to Southwest Texas State (Texas State University), planning to be a teacher. My undergraduate degree is in finance.

“After graduation, my first job was as an underwriter for State Farm Insurance. I was making a dollar, but I wasn’t making a ‘living.’ Taught Sunday School, taught Bible study, but enlisted in seminary, just to lend credibility to my teaching.

“I was so comfortable in the church, doing church work and about 1996, I felt the call. However, I was still with State Farm — doing both at that point. I was ministering a nondenominational church in Austin. 

“A knock came on the door one night and it was an old friend from San Marcos, Jessie DeShay. He was like a grandfather to me and a special friend. He informed me that this church needed a pastor, but he asked me to teach the Bible school. 

“I had done that as a student and was elated at the idea of coming back to this church. A new pastor arrived and came to my Bible study and commented that he was impressed with the responses I got from my classes, would I continue until he was transitioned more fully into the church and its programs.

“The pastor was here for about two years when he underwent two brain surgeries. And one Sunday, before church, he called me aside and told me that this would be his last Sunday. My reaction was to question rather aggressively – Why are you doing this now? Why haven’t we been informed?

“After the service and just before the Benediction, he announced to the congregation, ‘Yes, I’m leaving, but the pastor you need is already here.’

“I’m thinking, ‘Who’s he talking about?’ He then told me, I would have to go through the process, but you can do it. So, I went through the process, and I have been here 12 years.”

As Derrick Benn states, he never imagined a pastorate. He knew there would be work around ministry, but never leading a church. He held up Pastor Dillard over at First Baptist as one of his mentors who “has been a pastor longer than I’ve been breathing.”

Pastor Benn called Dillard one day saying, “Pastor Dillard, this being a pastor scares me. His answer to me was, ‘This is the craziest conversation I ‘ve ever had. If you are scared by the title, just call it whatever you want, but keep doing the work.’ 

“I loved the work. Dillard didn’t sympathize with me at all. ‘Just keep doing the work,’ he commanded.”       

I related a short story of my experience at Pastor Dillard’s First Baptist, whose choir is no slouch and music is a huge part of the services there. 

“Music takes a lot of pressure off a preacher. It allows him to relax. It gives him momentum.”

I shared a thought that the church and the music were major distractions that allowed the slaves to survive. At that point Derrick Benn added, “And Jim Crow and all the rest that came after – The courage, the spirit, the knowledge that God was on our side, the belief that he would prevail, all that came through the music.”

Using another of his parables, Benn illustrated that Sunday is the “filling station” day where we come to fill up so that we can get through the week.

“What’s a tough week for you?”

“During the week, you have to meet the needs of the congregation. And there’s family. Dividing time and attention between those entities can be difficult to do. And finding time to study — those three blocks make life complicated.”

“How about funerals?”

“Unfortunately, we are good at funerals. Those are the crisis times when there’s a coming together. This church has a bonding, that is family. At the most chaotic, difficult time we experience, we are required to make the most important decisions we’ve ever made. Having that support of a trusted friend walk with you through that process – it’s better than money.”   

As Benn continued about his attraction to the church, he used “comfort,” “comfort level” and other similar terms.

“Explain, please,” I asked.

“I come from a family of teachers, my mom, her sister, her mom and so. There has always been community concern in my family. My father was a hardworking laborer. But I learned the importance of community and the church was where I saw it. Teaching is teaching and I love teaching and I love doing it in the church and the response it got. Over time, you realize these skill sets I have been given are best used in helping people.

“I was never pushed toward ministry. It just happened as I was encouraged to use my talents. The finished product ended up here. Twenty years preaching, 12 years here.”

I asked about the Greater Bethel Baptist membership. 

“There are two different numbers to answer that question,” Benn responded. “Attendance will be around 100 on any given Sunday, but about 200 call Greater Bethel their home church. It’s quite a mixture. About one-half of the members are over 25 and about one-half are under 25. We have folks who have never touched an 8-track and folks who never heard of an MP3. I call it the geriatrics and pediatrics.

“For instance, we set the temp at 70 degrees. For some, too hot, for others, too cold. Music, too loud, not loud enough. So, we bounce back and forth among the generations.

“Birdie, Ms. Jefferson, does that with the music and so, if that’s happening, we have to do that with the preaching.” 

I pointed out that his sermon was to teenagers in part, then he talked directly to parents, then he took on international affairs – and it all made sense. No, it more than made sense, it inspired. All who left that church had a head full of knowledge and a heart full of inspiration. 

“Once again,” he said, “we preach in parables. We take a simple worldly example to illuminate the spiritual truth. We have to know what makes people connect. We try to make scripture make sense. No examples are off limits.”

As I was preparing to leave, a door near us opened and a young lady of 20 some odd years entered. She was in obvious distress. I prepared to leave, but was stopped by my friend Benn. He welcomed her and  inquired about her situation and listened as she related her story through sobs, tears, fear and confusion. 

As he listened, and they made eye contact, the young lady began to recognize a friend as Benn took her hand and remained silent as she continued to relate her story. They were sitting side by side. Benn left the bench, plopped on the floor in front of her to make better eye contact and to speak directly to her. 

Softly, he began to respond. Sobs subsided; tears were wiped away; tragedy was turned to difficulty – well, it may have been turned to a blessing – confusion became solution. 

As a former counselor, I was privileged to witness a master at work. While the young lady still had a problem, she had a change of attitude. She had help. She had hope. She had vision. And she had spirit.

San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666