Meet Benji Van Fleet
By LORETTA FULTON
The new pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church won’t have to spend much time learning his way around Abilene.
Benji Van Fleet assumed the role of senior pastor at the historic downtown church on July 1. The Van Fleet family–Benji, his wife Anna and their 7-year-old son Abe–moved to Abilene from First UMC in Stanton, near Big Spring. In 2009, Van Fleet earned a master of divinity degree, with an emphasis on spirtual formation, from Logsdon Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University. While a Logsdon student, Van Fleet served as part-time pastor of Noodle Baptist Church. He also was pastor of First UMC in Munday from 2016 to 2020. He had been at Stanton since 2020.
Abilene will be the largest city that Van Fleet has lived in as a pastor and St. Paul will be the largest church he has been appointed to.
“Yet the greatest challenge facing every Christian congregation in America, regardless of size, location, or denomination,” he said, “is the need to share the gospel with our new neighbors.”
Van Fleet brings with him some fresh thoughts on how to do that, including the use of art as a means of connection.
“I’m really looking forward to bringing something new to the Abilene Artwalk this fall,” Van Fleet said, “so be sure to look for St. Paul’s “Advent Artwalk” table there, and maybe even at the Mall of Abilene when Santa comes to town this Christmas!”
Q&A with Benji Van Fleet
Q Your degree from Texas Tech is in Russian language and you spent time in Moscow in a study abroad course. What was your attraction to the Russian language and to Russia itself?
A My degree in Russian language is more of a fluke coincidence than personal passion. To be honest, I went to Texas Tech to get a B.A. in Architecture and live “the American Dream” of having a career, a spouse, a two-story house, three kids, and a white picket fence: the whole nine yards! However, after my freshman year, a lot of things happened in my personal life–including a crisis of faith–which altered my outlook on the world. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that it wasn’t architecture, so I decided to take the university required courses, including my foreign language credits.
By the time I registered for my sophomore classes, both Spanish classes were full, so I picked Russian because it was still listed as open for enrollment. When the opportunity came up to go on a study-abroad course to Moscow the following summer, I took it. During my time there, I experienced a call to ministry. When I came home, I spoke with a few pastor friends, and they suggested that I finish my undergraduate degree and go to seminary for a Master’s in Divinity. I had more credits for a Russian degree than anything else, so rather than change majors again, I took what I needed to finish a Bachelor’s.
Q You mentioned that you translated worship lyrics into French for the Congolese refugees while you were a pastor at Noodle Baptist Church. You obviously have a talent for languages. Did you consider a career using that talent?
A One of the main priorities I have as a pastor is to help all people be welcome to worship. I took French in high school, and so when a group of French-speaking Congolese refugees started coming to the service at Noodle Baptist Church, I wanted to do whatever it took to make sure they could participate. Only two people in the two families spoke English, so I purchased French-English Bibles for the pews, and spent a few hours each week translating the lyrics of the hymnal songs into French and printing them as an insert for the bulletin.
If I have any linguistic talent, I use it in my work as a pastor of a worshipping people. One of the most profound experiences of my pastorate was on Pentecost Sunday, 2015. I asked two of the refugees to read Acts 2:1-8 out loud, simultaneously with me. One read it in French, one read it in his tribal language, and I read it in English. As such, the congregation got to experience what it was like for the disciples and crowd on that first day of Pentecost to hear the Good News spoken in their own mother tongues.
Q What attracted you to Logsdon for a master of divinity degree?
A I transferred to Logsdon Seminary from Asbury Theological Seminary in 2012 primarily because my wife and I wanted to start the next phase of family planning closer to our parents and friends in the Northwest part of Texas. Anna had already finished her Master’s degree, but I still had some studies to complete, so I applied to Logsdon Seminary as the logical, geographical choice for finishing my Masters of Divinity. More than a few of my Asbury seminary professors were taken aback by my choice to transfer to a smaller seminary, and were glad to write letters of recommendation for Emory or Princeton. A few of my Texas friends suggested that my resume would look better with a degree from seminaries like Perkins, Truitt, or Southwestern. Yet I have found that the quality of ministers is determined by their personal spirituality and self-discipline, and not by their pedigree or the name of the school on their diploma. I have met women and men who are far better at leading congregations as pastors and preachers than I will ever be, yet they have no seminary degree, or any intention of ever getting one. Their holy fear of God, and their love for Christ and neighbor is what guides them and makes them effective ministers… and I want to be like them when I grow up!
Q Your bio says that your wife also is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary. Is she ordained? Where did you meet?
A Anna received a Master’s of Counseling degree from Asbury in 2012. She and I met as “pen pals” during my time as a youth minister at First United Methodist Church of Shallowater, Texas. The full story of how we met and started dating is worth hearing, but it’s better to hear it in person, and even better while sharing a meal together.
Q As a Licensed Professional Counselor, does Anna plan to open a counseling center or join one in Abilene?
A Anna is a counselor with Agape Counseling Services of West Texas, based out of the Permian Basin area. The pandemic created a real need for teletherapy that is not limited by conventional meeting times, distance, or ability to pay. As such, Anna continues to do ministry with people through Agape’s online counseling services. If you know someone who needs counseling, or a listening ear, tell them to check out Agape.
Q St. Paul will be the largest church you have pastored. What challenges do you foresee that weren’t an issue at smaller churches?
A St. Paul certainly has the largest building, lasting legacy with McMurry, and the most established television ministry of any congregation that I have served! At the same time, St. Paul has the same ministry challenges facing any urban downtown ‘steeple church’, and had its fair share of funerals during the pandemic. Additionally, the United Methodist Church as a denomination is entering a time of separation, which also affects St. Paul.
Yet the greatest challenge facing every Christian congregation in America, regardless of size, location, or denomination, is the need to share the gospel with our new neighbors. At one time, the U.S. ranked #1 in sending Christian missionaries to other countries. But for more than a decade, the U.S. ranked #1 in the mission field for receiving Christian missionaries from other countries, according to a study by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. While rural towns remain somewhat ethnocentric and homogenous in population, urban cities like Abilene are experiencing a growing diverse population. I am thankful to be serving in a congregation that opens its doors to all people, and shares its space and resources with worshipping communities from other cultures and countries.
Q When you were at Logsdon, were you involved with any activities or volunteerism in the community? If so, do you plan to reconnect with those? The International Rescue Committee came to mind since you mentioned the Congolese refugees.
A Everywhere I go, I try to find some way to connect in service with the community. When we first lived in Abilene, my wife and I helped build a pair of Habitat for Humanity houses with First Baptist Church, and I frequently volunteered at City Light Ministries. During my time in Munday, I got involved with the Lions Club. When I was in Stanton, I served on the city’s Economic Development Corporation Board. As we settle into the new rhythm of life in Abilene, I look forward to finding new opportunities for service both within and beyond the Abilene area.
Q As you know, the United Methodist Church is going through an upheaval, with many congregations choosing to disaffiliate. Did you see that coming when you chose to follow the path of ordination as a UMC minister?
A Yes. I chose to serve the UMC as a full-time local pastor in 2016, which is the same year the UMC General Conference came to an impasse on the conflict over the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals as clergy, and same-sex marriage ceremonies. For the last seven years, I have watched as factions within the denomination worked to find solutions to the conflict, and I have felt the weight of frustration from a pandemic that has postponed the UMC’s General Conference gathering until 2024.
Some have decided they have waited long enough on the denomination, which continues to delay any decisive action until the General Conference delegates can meet in person. Those who remain UMC will remain under the structure of our Book of Discipline, which allows people who self-identify as LGBTQIA+ to become members of the church. However, it does not allow practicing homosexuals to be ordained as clergy, or for clergy to officiate same-sex marriages. It also does not allow same-sex marriage ceremonies to take place on church property.
Politically speaking, this “center” position is not “liberal” enough for the left-wing, and not “conservative” enough for the right-wing. As such, two new denominations have been formed by disenfranchised UMC leaders: the Liberation Methodist Connexion (LMX) and the Global Methodist Church (GMC). The LMX has structured itself to allow same-sex couples and clergy to be married and ordained. The GMC has structured itself to exclude same-sex couples and clergy from membership and ordination. The LMX is more prominent in coastal states like California, Washington, and Maryland, where the GMC is more prominent in southern states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia.
Q Has St. Paul started the discernment process to determine whether to remain affiliated with the UMC or to disaffiliate? If so, did the direction of the church weigh on your decision to accept the position of senior pastor?
A St. Paul UMC has yet to begin its process for discernment regarding its future with the denomination as a congregation. This process looks different for local churches than it does for clergy, and so my personal decision is not affected by the church to which I am appointed. That being said, Methodist churches and clergy in the Northwest Texas Annual Conference will go through a process of discernment between now and 2024. It will cause moves and reappointments for clergy who choose to affiliate with a different denomination than the one that their local church chooses. Therefore, our area can expect to see several changes in clergy for Methodist churches over the next six-to-eighteen months.
Q After you get settled, do you plan to introduce any new programs, classes, etc., that you found meaningful at other churches?
A I will take any opportunity I can get to share the gospel, and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, starting right here in the Big County. I’m really looking forward to bringing something new to the Abilene Artwalk this fall, so be sure to look for St. Paul’s “Advent Artwalk” table there, and maybe even at the Mall of Abilene when Santa comes to town this Christmas!