PRAYING PARENTS & A LITTLE EVANGELIST
In 1971 in Columbia, S.C., nine year old Jonathan Covington was taken to church by his grandparents, J.B. and Marie Kelly, as often before. Though Jonathan’s parents were inactive in their church, his grandparents were determined to make sure that he had exposure to love of God in the local church. As Jonathan left the house, the rest of his family was still slowly starting the day with a late breakfast. He got in his grandparents’ car for another Sunday in the House of the Lord.
This Sunday was different; at the close of Sunday school, the teacher led the children in a prayer of salvation and Jonathan accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord. He heard that Jesus Christ died for him personally so that his sins could be forgiven. Though he had heard this before, this time it was different. He accepted it with all his heart and by faith received eternal life and the certainty of Heaven when this life was over. Because this decision was genuine, little Jonathan related to Jesus Christ as the Lord of his life from then on. In the decisions he made, the way that he spoke, the things he would or would not do, it was clear that his conversion was authentic. The witness of this child was unmistakable. God was going to use him to awaken some sleeping hearts.
THE ROOTS OF GODLINESS
Ben and Judy Covington, Jonathan’s parents, were busy raising a family and running a school supply business. Though both were raised in devout Christian homes, the demands of the world had consumed their time and talents. The weekends were often the only time when they were able to slow down a little. Church life was only a distant memory. They were content with church services during Easter and Christmas. For them, this helped maintain some sense of sense of remaining true to their parents’ faith and practice. That, for them, was enough.
Judy’s parents (the Kellys) were in the church every time the door was open. They gave their time, talents, and finances to the local church without fail. Judy was part of a large family and when they were all packed in their small home (in the mill village of Olympia), the air was filled with love and laughter.
Ben also had a Christian heritage. He was Benjamin Harrison Covington VIII. His father and grandfather were pastors in the Methodist Church, strong in the Wesleyan tradition. Ben’s mother was a godly woman. Throughout his childhood, she would often sing classic hymns of praise while caring for the home. Ben was the only son in the family. On the day he was born, February 5, 1927, his father was in the pulpit. A messenger entered the church during the service and whispered to the pastor that God had granted him a son. At which point Ben’s father looked out at the congregation and announced, Dearly Beloved, the little bishop is born.
“THINE EYE DIFFUSED A QUICKENING RAY ”
In 1971, there were not many signs of this kind of Christian heritage in the Covington’s home. Ben was a traveling salesman who lived hard, drinking and smoking a lot. Judy followed the lead of her husband by busily meeting the demands of their home and business. However, there was a noticeable change in their son, Jonathan. His consistently gracious character and life began to stir up reminders of what Judy had been taught when she was young. Before long, those changes were being duplicated in her life as Christ Jesus returned her safely “to His fold.”
Several years later (through much prayer) Ben returned from a business trip and gathered the family at the largest sink in the house. Having already stockpiled all the alcohol in the house, he held a family devotion. He declared to them his repentance before God and his commitment to Honor Christ Jesus as a husband and father from that moment on. His commitment would prove to be true.
GOD IS NOT FINISHED YET
As wonderful as this testimony is, it becomes even greater. Ben’s salvation became increasingly precious to him. With the gratitude he had to Jesus, he took every opportunity to declare the saving work of Christ in his life. For example, at school supply conferences and expos, some often wondered if he was in business or some kind of “under cover” evangelist. Before long, wherever he would set up his booth, everyone else would set up somewhere else. This did not discourage him or Judy at all in their faithful declaration of the love of God in Christ Jesus. As a result of this kind of lifestyle, Ben and Judy found a continual broadening group of people who invited them to come and give their testimonies at prayer breakfasts and churches.
At one point, the pastor of Forest Drive Baptist Church in Columbia S.C., told Ben, “If you are going to continue like this, you should be ordained so that churches are more likely to recognize God’s call on your life.” Shortly thereafter, Ben was ordained at this church. He and Judy both continued to go through each door God opened before them.
One of the special blessings God provided to Ben was training in God’s Word. From the time of his conversion, Ben had a insatiable desire for learning the Scriptures. However, because of his responsibilities and expanding ministries, he could not be trained in a traditional manor. He was in no position to drop everything to go to seminary to become trained for ministry. Ironically, he was too busy ministering to become qualified to minister in the local church!
At a prayer breakfast one week, a dear man named Tom Petty listened to Ben’s story and was encouraged by his zeal for the Lord. Brother Tom also recognized a need to balance that zeal with solid doctrine. Brother Tom, an employee of a local Bible College, was recently put in charge of an important project. The school was revamping its audio library by converting thousands of class lectures, mission conferences, and chapel messages from reel-to-reel to cassette tapes. Tom invited Ben to help him complete this giant endeavor and Ben accepted. There is no telling how many thousands of messages Ben listened to. But the seed was being sown and it was falling on good soil.
In addition to this Ben and Judy were avid listeners to the preaching and teaching of Living Way Ministries in Van Nuys California. For over a decade, they received all that was available from this radio program. Many of Ben and Judy’s friends were from full gospel traditions and they found this ministry to be solid and balanced.
The continual fellowship of dear Christians and these areas of discipleship made up God’s provision for Ben’s training to serve in ministry.
TRANSITIONING – TENTMAKERS TO MISSION SENDERS
Meanwhile, Ben and Judy’s school supply business was not so doing well. Many counseled the Covingtons that the only reasonable thing to do was to declare bankruptcy. It was their conviction that this was not an option. They had sacrificed greatly in order to be obedient to the direction that God was leading them. As a spiritual “mile–marker” to work diligently to get out of debt and avoid declaring bankruptcy, they posted this saying on the wall of the office, “Dear Lord, grant us the time, the strength, and the substance to make straight the way.” Within a few lean years, they were out of financial trouble. God faithfully provided for all their needs.
A very important change happened during this time. A brother in the Lord from upstate mentioned to Ben and Judy that they should consider establishing their ministerial work as a non–profit organization. The nature of their work in ministry entitled them to certain tax exemptions if they could be established and approved by the IRS. They immediately began to take the necessary steps to receive this status. Ben Covington Evangelistic Ministries was established shortly thereafter.
The more they traveled, the more Ben and Judy saw God’s favor on their work. Everywhere they went, the more beautiful people they met. Repeatedly, at no charge, they helped people to start their own ministries. Regardless of their Christian tradition, as long as they were committed to the inerrancy of Scripture, in love with the Lord Jesus, and sensed a call to ministry, Ben and Judy would help establish them in ministry. Often these were ministers who had been hurt or just devout church members that could not find the outlet to follow the call God had placed upon them. As the years progressed, through Ben and Judy, God put together a network of ministers that were actively serving God in spite of having non–traditional ministerial backgrounds. The network of strong friendships and supporters continually grew. Ministry opportunities continued to open for Ben and Judy. While they continued to help ministers and missionaries, they also traveled to Africa, Canada, Germany, Holland, the Philippines, Chili, and Brazil. The more they served the Lord, the wider the network of loving relationships that were built. None of it was planned. Everything developed as the Covingtons prayed, obeyed, and responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
GOD OPPOSES THE PROUD
At the height of Ben Covington’s itinerant preaching and world travels he experienced what appeared to be a major set back in his evangelistic work. It proved to be, however, in the wisdom of God, a tremendous blessing. In the early 1980’s, Ben’s ministry calendar and travels stayed full. Along with these blessings, he met many distinguished Christian leaders and shared his heart with them. But no sooner did he stop to consider these accomplishments than suffered a heart attack that sidelined him from the ministry that he loved and enjoyed.
During his extended recovery he was unable to travel and preach. Ben Covington was forced to get off the ministry fast–track that he had been on. He cried out for God to set him free from his physical limitations so that he could return to his ministry. For months, God provided no answer and little comfort. Ben’s discouragement grew. The darker his days became the more fervently he prayed for God’s mercy.
Finally, the Lord faithfully convicted him of the sin that had subtly crept in on him. One morning he was reading 2 Chronicles 21. Suddenly, he was cut to the quick of his soul. This chapter is the account of Satan deceiving King David into taking a census of his army. Bishop Covington realized that in all the activity for God, he had been duped into this exact same sin. He was proud of his accomplishments. He was proud of who he knew. He had based confidence on his human ingenuity and influence instead of his Lord Jesus Christ. Immediately he repented of his guilt before God and received forgiveness. It was a lesson he would never forget. It was a snare that he would never again fail to beware of for the rest of his life.
Shortly after this season of physical hardship, God restored Ben Covington as a traveling evangelist and missionary again. But the conviction of this lesson was firmly rooted within him. From that point on, anytime there was any administrative activity that required mass communication such as bulk mailing, he quoted this text and insisted that he not know how many were on the list. This sin of counting members and the pride of the human heart would never divert him from his service to Christ Jesus again. (This is a distinguishing trait of the overall ministry of TMCI that must always be preserved.
GOD GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE
As they recognized those who were clearly called to ministry, Ben began to develop an ordination service for them. Meanwhile, Judy was beginning to be overwhelmed with the amount of paperwork involved in getting people started in ministry. They began to wonder if there was an easier way. Finally, in 1990, a good friend informed the Covingtons of an opportunity to shift the ministry from an independent to group status. This would permit them to serve as liaison between ministers and the IRS with full authority to grant ministerial credentials and tax exemption under the covering of the ministry. This was exactly what Ben and Judy were looking for to meet the demands of the work God had given them. In short, through many miraculous events, Ben Covington Evangelistic Ministries soon became The Missionary Church International whose mission statement is: Planting Churches and Serving Missionaries Around the World for Over 20 Years. TMCI was officially born with Ben serving as founder and Senior Bishop.
What a mountain-top experience to see what the Lord has established in this humble setting! It was not financially prosperous, but the joy of ministry and sharing in others’ experiences in spreading the gospel was thrilling for the Covingtons. The excitement was short lived, though, as Ben Covington suffered a stroke. Once again, he found himself seeking God’s mercy. Where had he gone wrong? Had he unwittingly become proud of himself again? Had he rebelled against the Lord in ignorance? Ben Covington again prayed without ceasing during another extended recovery period. He cried out, “Why have you allowed this Lord? I’m winning folks to Jesus every week.” At last the Lord spoke to his heart and said, “There are many who are better preachers than you and I have called you to send them. You will stay and they will go in My Name.” As Brother Ben’s health remained fragile and slowly declined over the next 12 years, that is exactly what happened.
Between work and family responsibilities, Judy also finished a bachelor’s degree at a local Bible College. Though she had already spent years in studying God’s Word, it was thrilling for her complete this further training. The Lord continued to use her in support of Ben’s vision. She managed all the important details in the office. Also, she provided help and prayer for ministers all over the world. To this day, she has joy in teaching the Bible and caring for the needs of missionaries. Ben Covington also found great joy in regularly providing financial gifts to evangelists and missionaries that he had come to love.
BOB COULTER: FROM SKEPTIC TO FELLOW SERVANT
Bob Coulter was the co–owner of a manufacturing plant in Shelbyville, Indiana. In the mid 1980’s, Ben Covington came to hold a revival at his church. The short of the story (as Bob tells it) was, I was not impressed. All I could think was ‘where did we find this guy?’ If Bob had had his way, he would have avoided Ben but since he was a prominent elder in the church, an encounter over lunch was inevitable. During their conversation, Bob told Ben about the manufacturing plant that he owned. Also, Bob mentioned that things weren’t going well because of the malfunction of a very important machine. Ben mentioned that he would like to come and pray for God to bless the business and the machine before he left town. Bob said that would not be necessary.
Bob had been paying a technician $150 a day for two weeks to fix this machine. The technician was at his wits end. Ben showed up at Bob’s office early that week. He was ready to pray for God to bless Bob’s business and ask the Lord to fix the machine. Bob reluctantly allowed Ben to do this and they parted company.
As Bob was driving from the parking lot to run a few errands, he saw the technician loading his tools in his van. Bob pulled up next to him as asked, “Are you taking an early lunch?” The technician replied, “It’s fixed.” I don’t know how, but it’s running like new.
From that point on, Bob Coulter became an active part of the ministry. In love for Jesus and the Covingtons, Bob and his wife Ginny have tirelessly served in the work of TMCI. Among the blessings they provide is hosting the TMCI Annual Conference each year.
Each member of the TMCI, particularly our bishops, can tell stories like this because they have crossed spiritual paths with the Lord’s activity at TMCI. Bob’s story is highlighted here because he succeeded Bishop Covington at Ben’s death on July 17, 2003. On this glad day Bishop Ben entered into his Eternal Home with Jesus.
As Judy continues to manage the responsibilities of the office, Bishop Bob Coulter coordinates and cares for the TMCI flock. He was Ben’s choice to take his place because of his faithfulness in church leadership and (more importantly) his deep love for the Lord Jesus. Bishop Covington knew that the vision of the ministry go forward under his care.
L.I.M.I. - TMCI 'TO THE NATIONS'
Another important part of TMCI’s history is the story of Mitch and Debbie Martinez who are among our first and most fruitful missionary families. In September of 1991 they visited the Dominican Republic as translators for an evangelist and his team. Upon returning to the U.S. they were convinced that God had called them to work in this island nation. When they approached their denominational missions department they were discouraged from applying to be missionaries. The reasons included restrictions due to their cut off ages (37), having too many children (5) and a teenager, their oldest was thirteen years old at the time. However, Mitch and Debbie were convinced that they had to obey God's call for their lives. After months of prayer about a missions covering for this calling, Bishop Ben Covington of The Missionary Church International (TMCI) invited Mitch to accompany him to South America as a translator for a two week trip. It was on this trip that Mitch learned about TMCI and the missionary arm of the ministry known as "Your Missionary Outreach" (YMO). TMCI was privileged to serve Mitch & Debbie and the rest is history.
Through this ministry partnership, TMCI put the Martinez’ in contact with wonderful individuals and pastors who helped support and encourage them over the years. Mitch & Debbie joined TMCI in March of 1992 and arrived on the field in July 1992. Since that time they have planted 5 churches there and built or been involved in the construction of over thirty churches and schools. The largest project was the Christian school which the Lord laid on Debbie’s heart as she witnessed the tremendous opportunity and need where they lived in La Vega. La Vega Christian School continues to thrive today. It is a 32 classroom three story facility on a three acre parcel of land. It has 500 students enrolled, and a staff of over 75 (full and part-time) employees. For more than 13 years they have been operating this school. Mitch has also developed a TV production studio and they are currently producing two weekly programs there on the school campus.
There is a very important part of this story that is part of our spiritual heritage. Along with TMCI’s good work with the Martinez’ there were also other similar partnerships in much of Mexico and Central & South America. It is common knowledge that scholars in the study of missions recognize that hispanic Christians may hold a tremendous key to penetrating some of the remaining unreached people groups of the world. So beginning around 2005, Senior Bishop Bob Coulter had a growing desire to see TMCI provide a similar service to Hispanic ministries within the U.S. Unfortunately, for over 5 years all TMCI’s sincere efforts seemed in vain.But in God’s fullness of time, Mitch & Debbie went on furlough in the spring of 2010 to summer 2011. They joined the TMCI staff to help in the development of the Hispanic Ministries side of TMCI. They encouraged the development of the LIMI (TMCI in Spanish) website which could serve as a connecting point for Hispanic individuals, missionaries, and churches needing ordination or a 501(C)(3) charter. They also worked hand in hand with TMCI leaders in presenting dual language (English and Spanish) Ministry leadership workshops in various major metropolitan areas. This has become the very ‘spark to ignite’ the desires of the TMCI vision, and more importantly the schedule of God’s redemptive calander and our part in it.
May 2011 -As Mitch & Debbie prepare to return to their beloved work in the Dominican Republic, they express this sentiment to hispanic believers and ministries everywhere, "We highly recommend TMCI as an organization that sincerely believes in helping the individual fulfill his or her call to the ministry."
“WELL DONE THOU GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT, ENTER INTO YOUR REWARD ”
As mentioned, Bishop Ben H. Covington VIII died July 17, 2003 after struggling with failing health for many years. Judy stood by him tirelessly in his final years. She once said, “Because of the way Ben was, God had to make it impossible for him to travel and preach.” Looking back it seems that God used his declining health to ensure that the ministry could focus on sending others to proclaim the good news.
One of the last things he bought was a digital hymnal that contained over 10,000 hymns along with the hymnals of all major denominations. He went through them all, praising God and studying the stories that inspired the words of each hymn.
He closed out his time on earth with prayer and praise. He kept photos of his beloved friends and fellow servants in his bedroom and prayed constantly for them as God brought them to his remembrance. He died a happy man. Not a man untouched by the sorrows of this life, but one who blended life’s sorrows and joys with a vibrant faith in the goodness and promises of God. In January 2003 Bishop Covington was named as the 2004 Phillip Award recipient – the highest award the United Methodist Church gives to evangelists. However, he did not live long enough to be presented with the award.
Ben Covington achieved what he vowed to accomplish at the close of all his letters. It read, “Serving the Lord to reach the heathen until our last breath.” This is what it means to finish well. Our prayer is that those whom God chooses to bring together in this fellowship will do likewise.
OVERSIGHT FOR LIFE
“Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons.”
For years Ben and Judy Covington traveled throughout the world spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. They led thousands to Christ and assisted in the planting of churches wherever they went. After years of ministry, Bishop Covington had a heart attack which caused a major change in their ministry. He felt a clear call of God to establish The Missionary Church International to provide Christian ordination to men and women who had been called by God to ministry. Ben saw the circuit riders of early America as those used by God for ministry with no regard for socio-economic position.
Since its founding, The Missionary Church International has ordained thousands of ministers and missionaries who serve the Lord around the world. Every minister works independently and is under the authority of God alone. With the exception of a home office, the church owns no property and does not give direction to the place or nature of any particular ministry.
The Covingtons’ concept of ministry and ordination has been hailed by many as an accurate duplication of the work of the first century Christian Church. They have been an inspiration to countless persons and have begun a movement that will serve the Risen Lord until His Glorious Return.