With a family life center, 61 ministries and a $1.5 million operating budget, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church is more than a place where people gather for worship service.

That's why when the church's senior pastor search committee recently sought someone to succeed the church's longtime leader, members looked for someone who could preach, teach and make solid business decisions.

The Rev. Byron Benton, installed as senior pastor in March, is the right fit, members said. A seminary graduate with a Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy, Benton also has an undergraduate degree in business education with a concentration in administrative information technology. 

Benton, 37, most recently led a church in Raleigh and also served as vice president of a North Carolina catering company.

Benton's parents attend Mount Moriah, so the pastor has close ties with parishioners and has also rendered sermons at the North Charleston church.

While pastors preach, teach and provide spiritual leadership, church members also view them as chief executive officers overseeing large organizations and say management skills are important for the task.

A new leader

When the Rev. Augustus Robinson arrived to Mount Moriah in the early '90s, the then-100-year-old church sat on less than an acre of land on Rivers Avenue.

In addition to Robinson's powerful preaching, teaching and warm personality, the pastor also leaned on previous Air Force leadership experience and a public administration degree to grow the church's campus.

The congregation grew from 365 to 1,600 active members and Robinson worked with mayors, college presidents and property owners to acquire several plots of land around the church.

In 20 years, Mount Moriah had expanded its property by nearly 30 acres with a campus that includes a family life center and 2,000-seat sanctuary.

“He was a negotiator," said the Rev. Patricia Crawford of Robinson. "He’s spiritual, but he knew politics, too.”

Robinson retired and, in 2017, a search committee began looking for a new spiritual leader with thorough knowledge, experience and skills to teach the Bible.

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Vanessa Turner Maybank, right, shows Rev. Benton files from the pastor search committee while interviewing candidates for the church at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Committee members said their top concern was finding someone "after God's own heart" who had a passion for ministry and could work with children, young adults, seniors and families.

But committee members said it was also important to find a pastor with management expertise because the church's bills have to be paid.

After receiving membership input through a congregational survey, the committee selected Benton as one of five candidates from a pool of 300 applicants. The pastor gained 95 percent of the congregation's vote to assume leadership.

“He understood running a business, running a church," Crawford said. "Church finances are very important and knowing how to be a good steward of that which God gives. ... We had to have someone who has some business savvy and expertise."

'The Lord's selection'

Financial experts say it is important for pastors to understand the cash flow of the church.

However, the spiritual leaders are different from for-profit business professionals because a pastor's role is not to enrich a person or the church but to expand and improve upon mission and ministry, said Beth Westbury, a certified public accountant who also serves as treasurer and director of administrative services for the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church.

"The skills needed do not require formal training, but that can be helpful," she said. "The skills can be acquired through experience and having trusted advisers."

She added that bad money management is also an indication that a church lacks internal control. Pastors should not sign checks, and expenses incurred by or on behalf of the pastor should be reviewed by another authority, she said.

Westbury said that pastors don't need all of the answers to make good management decisions. She is currently working with a church negotiating a lease with a child development center that wants to locate in the church’s education wing. The project requires consideration of how the church's property tax exemption will be impacted and whether the church’s insurance coverage needs to be modified. The pastor overseeing the effort is seeking input from a variety of sources to make sure he and other church leaders consider all costs, Westbury said.

"I consider him to be business savvy," she said.

Mount Moriah members are excited about the selection of Benton.

John Matthews, a longtime member, is glad a search committee was formed to find the best candidate. He said that the church pulled together to seek God's direction and find the right person for the job.

"There were a lot of people available the church could have selected," he said. "My optimism is based on the faith and trust that we went with the Lord's selection."

Benton is using experience and skills to navigate in his new role. He said his undergraduate degree has enabled him to communicate the church's financial position effectively using charts and graphs in meetings.

He's made minor tweaks to the church's operations. Under his leadership so far, the church has established a new website, online streaming for services, and other efforts to improve communications. 

The church also has plans to implement summer and after-school programs to serve families that can't afford it elsewhere. By October, Benton hopes to launch a five-year strategic plan.

"Stewardship is a major part of our walk with God," Benton said.

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