• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

New VPC pastor a 'second career' minister

KEITH BENZE is the new pastor of Versailles Presbyterian Church, which has been at its present location at 130 N. Main Street since 1878. The former FDA regulator jokes, "What I tell everybody is that I'm still in regulatory compliance - it's just a different set of regulations." (Photo by John McGary)

Until 2009, the new leader of one of the oldest churches in Woodford County was in an entirely different line of work - or perhaps not. Keith Benze, now 58, worked with companies regulated by the federal government, primarily the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), showing them how to stay in compliance with federal regulations, and when they weren't, how to fix the problems. Asked if there are similarities between his former and present occupations, Benze smiled, then said, "What I tell everybody is that I'm still in regulatory compliance - it's just a different set of regulations." Benze, who calls himself a "second career" minister, delivered his first sermon as pastor of Versailles Presbyterian Church (VPC) on Sept. 11 after an audition of sorts a month before. The lifelong Presbyterian said he'd felt called to the ministry in high school, but chose another path, earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's degree in business administration. "Far more education than any human being should have," Benze said. He put those degrees to work for the FDA, and while he and his wife, Cheryl, a creative arts clinical coordinator at UK Healthcare, were comfortable, for Benze, that wasn't enough. "I just felt like I needed to do more with my life than I was doing. I don't know any other way to put it," Benze said. "Cheryl and I - and I don't mean this in any way to sound gloating or conceited or anything - we really had everything we wanted. And there was just still something missing in life. Over about 25 years, I just started to feel like this is where God really wanted me to be." Benze obtained his master's degree in divinity from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., in 2009. That October, he became the minister of First Presbyterian Church in Henderson, N.C. The theme of his first sermon as VPC pastor focused on servant leadership. "I believe that, yes, I'm supposed to be the leader of the church, but I'm not really a manager any more. I lead by doing. My philosophy sort of is, I lead from behind. I kind of move people in the right direction and I lead this church by serving them ." Benze said. Benze said his previous pastoral post was in a county with a 10 percent unemployment rate and more than a third of the residents using some sort of government assistance. His church had a homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Woodford County, traditionally one of the wealthiest in the state, likely has different needs, he said. Benze said he's too new on the job to detail specific goals, but he hopes his church can be a leader in the community by serving the community. "I want to learn the community, I want to understand the needs of the community, I want to be involved in the community. ." Benze said. Benze said his 275-strong congregation was well served by former pastor Melissa Bane Sevier, who left in April 2015, and interim pastor Darryl Baker. "I walked into a very well-organized church that has a lot of really good leadership and it's just - I don't know any other way to describe it. It's just a group of people who really are truly open and welcoming to anybody and really care and love each other, but do it in a way that's fun. We spend a lot of time laughing, and that's what I think makes it so fun," Benze said. "There's a Bible verse that says, 'Jesus wept,' and I keep looking for one that says, 'Jesus laughed.' Haven't found it yet, but it's got to be there somewhere." Of course, there will be loss along with the laughter. Pastoral care - Benze doesn't call it counseling because he's not a trained counselor - is one of the most important parts of his job. "To me, the difference is that pastoral care is listening. It's providing comfort and if someone needs more care than what we can provide, helping them get the professional help that the need," Benze said. Some of those he speaks to will be struggling with their faith, or have no religious faith at all. In North Carolina, one of his regular attendees was a self-proclaimed non-believer whose wife was very active in the church. "My message to him was simply that you (and I) believe in the same inherent goodness and love. When things are tough, people are going to take care of each other. I choose to call that God. And to me, when someone's struggling with their faith, what I want to do is try to help them find that presence of God in their life and say, 'You may be struggling or you may not see this or you may be in pain or you may have family and friends that are in pain, but God is still present and active, and this is why I believe that,' and help them find that," Benze said. "I think that there's an inherent goodness in humanity, and I think most people would agree with me. And to me, I choose to call that inherent goodness God. And so what I try to do when I'm talking to people who are questioning is help them to see that goodness in the world and to try to help them focus on that." Along the way, Benze will use laughter and love to help the people he's trying to "regulate" remain in compliance with themselves, their home and church families, and their God.

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