Outgoing Episcopal bishop of Arkansas praised for leadership

Larry Benfield is shown at left as a reverend inside Little Rock's Christ Episcopal Church on March 31, 2004, and at right as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas on Dec. 19, 2021. Benfield, who plans to retire near the end of 2023, is standing outside Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock in the photo at right. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo; right, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

As he heads toward retirement, Bishop Larry R. Benfield, the Arkansas Episcopal diocese's shepherd since January 2007, is getting high marks for his leadership and service.

"He's been in the job for 17 years, and he's been absolutely attentive and faithful and dutiful in a job that is hard to do that," said Christopher Keller III, former dean and rector at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock.

"If you go into his office with a problem, the problem's going to get smaller while you're in there, not bigger," he said.

Keller, whose father was the diocese's 10th bishop, was among those who gathered last week at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Little Rock for an evensong celebration of Benfield's ministry.

The service featured music ancient ("Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah'') as well as a modern ("Justice, Mercy and Humility," by Tim Allen, St. Mark's minister of music and organist.)

"When I was talking to [the bishop] about this service, he told me his favorite text was Micah 6: 'What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, show mercy and walk humbly with your God,' and so we decided that was going to be the basis for the anthem," Allen said.

During six years at Trinity Cathedral and 11 years at St. Mark's, "the bishop has been personally very kind to me and helped me a lot. ... He's always been a delight to work for, a delight to collaborate with," Allen added.

Raised a Presbyterian, Benfield, a native of Johnson City, Tenn., discovered the Episcopal Church while he was an undergraduate studying in Florence.

St. James Episcopal Church, sometimes referred to as "the American church," has long been a gathering place for expatriates there, and Benfield was welcomed into the community.

He returned to Tennessee, a semester later, with improved Italian skills and a new-found love for the Episcopal church.


After earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Benfield headed to Texas, working at First City National Bank of Houston on weekdays and worshipping at Christ Church Cathedral on Sundays.

Rather than remaining on a secular path, he ultimately decided to go into the ministry and enrolled at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Following his graduation there in 1990, Benfield served as a chaplain at Texas A&M University before accepting a position at St. Mark's, first as a curate (or assistant priest); later as interim rector (or head priest).

He later led St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Hot Springs on an interim basis, then returned to Little Rock to serve as planned giving officer for the diocese and, eventually, as rector at Christ Church.

Prior to being contacted by St. Mark's, "I'd never driven through Arkansas. In fact, I'd never been in Little Rock at all," he said.


He quickly realized it wasn't as flat, hot and humid as his slice of the Lone Star State.

"When I went back to Texas after that visit, I said, 'I think I want to go there because it's got hills, it's got four seasons and it feels like home.' And I have to say that this place has increasingly become home to me through the years," he told the evensong audience.

"My wonderful friends at St. Mark's and the folks at St. Luke's Hot Springs and the folks at Christ Church became family members for me and this diocese has become my family," he said, thanking them for the "singular honor to do this work among you."

"I appreciate so much your trust and your confidence in me, and it's been an amazing time and place in which to be bishop of Arkansas, and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world," he said.

Benfield was elected Arkansas' 13th Episcopal bishop on the seventh ballot on Nov. 11, 2006, the first time someone from within the diocese had been picked.

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop at the time, traveled to Little Rock for his Jan. 6, 2007, consecration.


He assumed the leadership mantle at a time of great division within the national denomination and within the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which it is a part.

In some dioceses, battles over money and property raged for years; that wasn't the case in Arkansas.

"He's just been there in a lot of ways to keep the diocese on an even keel during some real rough seas," said Carey Stone, rector at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in North Little Rock.

"With all the changes throughout the last [17] years and then with covid, he stepped up and helped us stay straight and find our way, so I'm really going to miss him," Stone added.

During Benfield's tenure, the national church lost roughly one-third of its adherents, with membership falling from 2.1 million to about 1.4 million in the United States. During the same period, Episcopal Church membership in Arkansas fell roughly 5%.


In August, the state diocese elected John Harmon, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington to serve as its 14th bishop.

Benfield's crozier will pass to his successor at Harmon's consecration, Jan. 6, in Little Rock.

After that, "I'm going to take some time to rest a little bit and do some repairs around my house and keep a low profile in the diocese for the time being," Benfield said afterward.

"I'll be talking with the new bishop after he arrives about what sort of stuff he might need me to do after I've taken some time off," he said.

Benfield, 68, plans to travel some.

"I've never been to Scandinavia. I'd love to go to see Scandinavia," he said.

There's also a chance he'll stop by St. James Episcopal Church in Florence, Italy.


"I want to go back and spend a long vacation in Italy," he said. "I'm practicing my Italian, which is not good."

The diocese, in Benfield's view, is healthy.

"I think the diocese is doing well. We continue to see the dioceses in the southern part of the United States exhibiting, I think, significant health, and Arkansas seems to have recovered relatively well from covid," he said.

There's more harmony than division, he said.

"This diocese has had an amazing ability for people to work together and not get in disputes with one another," he said. "They've been wonderful to work with."

  photo  John Harmon (left), the bishop-elect of the Arkansas Episcopal Diocese, and Bishop Larry Benfield, leader of the diocese since Jan. 6, 2007, are shown in undated courtesy photos. Benfield is retiring after 17 years at the helm. Although he’s an east Tennessee native, “this place has increasingly become home to me through the years,” he told an audience in late 2023. (Courtesy photos)