Gary Benfield
Navarro County, Texas


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Corsicana native nurtures flock of churches in hard ground

By Mark Wingfield
Managing Editor
Baptist Standard
www.baptiststandard.com


KENNEWICK, Wash.--Gary Benfield looks and sounds like he just stepped off a tractor on a Texas farm.
But he's right at home in Kennewick, Wash., which isn't Texas by a long shot but has lots of farmland. It's not wheat and cotton growing here, but apples and plums and nectarines and grapes.
The Corsicana native is nurturing a different crop, though. He's working to grow strong churches.
Today, he's wearing a plaid cotton shirt and a gimme cap, boots and jeans. And from behind his easy smile comes a slow-talking drawl not likely to be confused as a West Coast accent. He's sipping a big cup of coffee at Starbuck's.


What might seem to some an incongruous scene actually isn't, if you understand the town-and-country atmosphere of Benfield's territory. Columbia Basin Baptist Association, where he is director of missions, encompasses the Tri-Cities area of southwestern Washington, home to plenty of farmland and plenty of PhDs working at a nearby nuclear facility.
Benfield crosses these cultures easily, just as he has crossed the diverse cultures of the Northwest in recent years.


Since leaving Texas more than 20 years ago, Benfield has lived in California, then Portland, Ore., then Auburn, Wash., and now Kennewick. And he's quick to explain that the eastern side of Washington and Oregon is far different than the western side.


The coastal side of the Northwest--typified by Portland and Seattle--is known for its social liberalism. But the eastern side of the Northwest is far more conservative and less urban.
But that doesn't mean his area is strongly Christian. In the Southern United States, such socially conservative areas usually are strongly Christian in culture as well, he explained. But in the Northwest, that's not the case.
The "family values" mentality of the rural Northwest is more often linked to fishing, skiing, hunting or similar activities--not to church, Benfield said.


When he inquires about people's religious faith, he finds that "a lot of people are nothing," he said. "I don't think I'd ever really met anybody who didn't know what the Bible was until I came to the Northwest."
The Texan has discovered a new brand of independence among residents of the Northwest. In religion, this translates into a "don't call us, we'll call you when we need you" attitude.
For example, a couple he did not know recently called him on a Friday, asking if he would officiate at their wedding--on horseback--the next day. Because he has signed the Marriage Savers covenant, he would not perform the hasty wedding without time for premarital counseling.
"Life in the Northwest is very different from the Bible Belt and Texas in that a majority of the people we deal with are apathetic to the church," he said.


Most of the 29 churches in Benfield's nine-county association are small. The largest, Richland Baptist Church, runs about 400 in worship attendance. It is one of the largest Baptist churches in all the Northwest, and it is by far the exception rather than the norm.


Benfield is a forward-looking director of missions, who is leading his churches in a variety of strategic ministries. But his No. 1 passion is to encourage and support the small churches.
He urges Texas Baptists to pray for the strengthening, growth and even the survival of these small churches in the Northwest.


"If several of my small-church pastors knew that on a regular basis there were prayer warriors lifting their churches to the Lord, it would make a huge difference," he said. "It would give them an opportunity to feel like somebody cares."


Benfield also would love to interest some Texans in helping these small churches in person. Like other leaders in the Northwest Baptist Convention, he has appealed for Texas Baptist volunteers to come live in the Northwest for periods of six months or longer and invest themselves as lay leaders in the smaller churches that desperately need the help.


That's work Texans ought to understand, he believes, because it's working the vineyards of the Lord.

 


Navarro County TXGenWeb
Copyright March, 2009
Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox