By Lindsay Peyton
Harvey and Doris Wilson were impressed from the start when Benny Smith first preached at Wesley UMC in Orange. Harvey serves as Lay Speaker and Doris, as Secretary, for the church.
The congregation was searching for a new pastor, after the retirement of their previous leader. The district office sent a rotation of Certified Lay Ministers and Servants in to fill the pulpit.
“When Benny Smith came and did the first sermon, I told Harvey, ‘We need to get him to be our pastor,’” Doris recalled.
“I think he’s just what this church needs,” Harvey agreed.
The Wilsons already knew Smith, who served as a school principal in the same district where Doris was a teacher.
At the front of the church, Doris said, Smith simply started to shine. “He holds your attention,” she said. “And he’s just dynamic. You remember the sermon.”
When Smith returned about a month later, Harvey again felt a tug. “I believe God was letting me know something,” he said. “But I didn’t know if the rest of the church would be interested.”
Harvey soon discovered he wasn’t alone. “I found out everyone was interested,” he said. “They liked his presentation. They liked the way he was speaking and teaching.”
Church members reached out to then District Superintendent Rev. Romonica Malone-Wardley – and let her know that they wanted Smith to be their pastor.
Smith was being considered for appointment at another church at the time. He prayed about it and discussed it with his DS to help to discern the best fit for his gifts.
That was November 2021. On Jan 2, 2022, Smith spent his first Sunday as pastor at Wesley UMC Orange.
Smith said the decision was difficult – but he felt led to Wesley. “In my consultation with the Great One, He said, ‘It’s time for this to happen. It’s time for you to do this,’” Smith recalled.
He felt like God was telling him, “I’ve been preparing you for this. You’ve got to walk out in faith. Just keep your eyes on me and you’ll be alright.”
Smith had actually been feeling a call to ministry for some time – even though he built a career in education.
Smith moved to Orange in 1980 to teach shop. He took his first shop class in 7th grade and majored in industrial arts at Prairie View A&M University.
He was inspired to go back to Prairie View A&M to pursue a master’s degree and administrative certificate. Eventually he became principal at West Orange Cove CISD.
In 1983, Smith married Ibernia, a life-long United Methodist.
“I grew up Baptist,” Smith said. “We decided we were going to see which direction we were going to go.”
They created a plan – alternating Sundays between a United Methodist and Baptist church. Before long, they moved to two Sundays at the UMC and one at the other congregation.
“Then it got to be three to one, then four to one,” Smith said. “Eventually, it was all United Methodist.”
The Smiths joined Salem UMC in Orange. “We’ve been pretty active in church ever since,” Smith said.
He was drawn to the connectional system. “I liked the nature of the church, the cohesion. It wasn’t a stand-alone. It wasn’t all by itself,” he said. “When I did something at that church, I was part of the UMCs. I gave the offering at Salem, but it took care of world-wide ministries. And that is absolutely awesome.”
Eventually, Smith became a lay leader and speaker. He presented at Methodist Men groups and events in the area.
The more he spoke, the more he was considering becoming a member of the clergy. Still, as a busy school principal, he was concerned about finding sufficient time to write weekly sermons and perform pastoral duties.
When Wesley UMC expressed their faith in him, Smith was resolved to find a way.
He also enrolled to get his license as a local pastor and received his certification last summer.
Harvey and Doris Wilson said Smith started right in time.
“I just believe God was in charge of all of this,” Harvey said.
He explained, “The community our little church is in has changed over the years. We knew if something wasn’t done, this church wasn’t going to make it.”
Attendance had declined to an average of about 20 members on Sundays. “We were losing, not gaining, members,” Doris said.
Now, membership has more than doubled, with about 55 people in the pews. At the last Bible study, 25 individuals attended.
Having a pastor of a different race makes the congregation more welcoming. Harvey said. Membership has grown more diverse.
“Pastor Benny has brought energy to the church,” Harvey said.
For instance, Smith restarted Sunday school after COVID. He has helped build the Men’s Ministry and encouraged their participation in the Sleep in Heavenly Peace local chapter. The charity builds beds for children who would otherwise not have one of their own.
Smith also launched the church’s Family Fun Night in July. Instead of VBS, the congregation hosts a weekly night with games, activities, Bible studies and prayer for the entire family. “This has become a bright spot at our church,” the pastor said.
Smith spends time each day preparing for Wednesdays and Sundays at church. His experience as teacher and principal readied him for being a pastor, he explained.
“This work is what’s important,” he said. “I’ve been a hands-on teacher – and now I’m a hands-on pastor. There are definitely parallels. All my life, He’s been preparing me. Isn’t that God? He says, ‘Everything you need, I will provide.’”
Smith looks out at his congregation on Sunday mornings and feels at home. “They are a loving group of people,” he said. “They are encouraging. They are inviting.”
And his parishioners share his joy.
“He’s the real deal,” Harvey said. “He’s preaching God’s word, and it’s meant for each of us.”
“We love him,” Doris added. “We’re so glad we found him. We needed someone to reinvigorate the church. And it’s just been wonderful.”