The Rev. Diane Bennekemper of Freeport is retiring after 21 years of ministry at the Congregational Church in Cumberland. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

CUMBERLAND — Upon becoming ordained in 1974 by the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Diane Bennekamper felt she had two strikes against her: She was a woman, and she was gay.

The Freeport woman, who retired Sept. 8 after 21 years as the minister of the Congregational Church in Cumberland, was informed by the Maine Conference of the UCC minister soon after she was ordained that, due to her sexual orientation, she would not be leading any church in the state.

Recalling in an interview Sept. 4 about coming out at a time that doing so was relatively uncommon, Bennekamper said, “In those days, you didn’t suddenly say, ‘oh, by the way. I think it was really for me a growing awareness.”

“You come to the point where you have no choice,” she added. “You have to be who you are.”

She realized the risks to her desired career. “It was tough enough being a woman,” she said. “In those days, women were never going to be senior pastors; if anything, they’d be lucky to be an associate pastor somewhere.”

Told there was no church for her, Bennekamper spent 17 years as a field representative with the Maine Human Rights Commission. During that time she joined the Maine Conference of the UCC board, and her paths crossed again with that minister.

“I was on the board of directors when we negotiated his departure,” she said with a smile. She politely declined to name him, but said he’d moved far from Maine and has since died.

Bennekamper has seen her profession being as much about enacting positive social change as about preaching the word of God. While she attended what is now McDaniel College in Maryland during the 1960s, her chaplain involved Bennekamper and fellow students deeply in the Civil Rights movement during its heated early heyday.

“It seemed to me that if there were going to positive changes in society, the church needed to take the lead in doing that,” Bennekamper said. “So off to seminary I went.”

That new direction in 1969 marked the first time she’d met an ordained woman.

Paving the way

Returning to her ordained pursuit in the mid-1990s, Bennekamper was an interim minister in Westbrook and Gorham before receiving the call to be a settled pastor at the Cumberland UCC.

“I was the first openly LGBT person called to a church in Maine,” she said. Bennekamper figured the Cumberland congregation was educated and progressively-minded enough that if she was to be called anywhere, it would be to a church like that.

Bennekamper started in Cumberland in 1998 as co-pastor alongside Jack Bixby; yes, she’s heard the references to the John Mellencamp song “Jack and Diane” a few times. When Bixby retired in 2005, Bennekamper stayed on as senior minister.

“I had always said I would never be a settled pastor anywhere, without the congregation knowing” of her orientation, she said. “But since I was the first such person, it was risky. This church was not yet an Open and Affirming Congregation, but Jack led them through that process after we got here.”

To that end, the church’s previous pastor, Dana Douglas, had challenged the congregation to become Open and Affirming, a designation it undertook around 2001, Bennekamper said.

Soon into her time in Cumberland, one elderly but active congregant swung by her office to say, “I just want you to know, you’re just so ordinary,” the minister recalled with a laugh. “That was her way of saying, ‘you’re not all that strange, that we thought you might be.'”

Bennekamper helped pave the way for other people of LGBT orientation to pursue the ministry. One pastor in a nearby church told her she felt comfortable moving across the country to accept a call in Maine “because she knew I was here,” she said. “It was survivable; one could do this.”

The world has changed “enormously” in her 74 years, Bennekamper said.

“If you had told me 30 years ago, 20 years ago, that we would have marriage equality, I would have said ‘not in my lifetime.’ However, it was the United Church of Christ, of all of the churches, that first voted to affirm the issue.”

That affirmation allowed Bennekamper and her partner of nearly 30 years, Lorraine Martin, to finally get officially married five years ago.

“There were 300 people there at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick, and we had a great time,” Bennekamper said with a smile.

‘Masterful leadership’

Twenty-one years of service makes Bennekamper the longest-serving minister in the 226-year history of the church; Allison Smith, transitional minister since last year, will take her place as settled pastor. With its 225th anniversary celebration over, and nearing the quarter-century mark, Bennekamper decided it was a good time to step down.

“I certainly did not want to leave here because people were saying, ‘oh, it’s time for her to go,'” she said. “I wanted things to be in good shape.”

From the sounds of a resolution in Bennekamper’s honor, produced by the congregation and read last month by the Town Council, no one was pushing her out the door. The final “whereas” among a list of 25 praised her “masterful leadership in good and challenging times, deeply moving sermons, tireless pastoral care, and innumerable acts of thoughtfulness and kindness.”

Looking forward, “I expect that I’m going to do a lot of nothing for a little while,” said Bennekamper, who has been involved with the Cumberland Association of UCC Churches and is president of the Massachusetts Congregational Charitable Society.

“There are things I will continue to do, but I really am looking forward to some downtime and a fair amount of golf in September and early October,” she said.

Among the many accomplishments noted in the resolution in Bennekamper’s honor are the church’s founding of the Cumberland Woodbank, which provides fuel assistance to local families; the establishment of the Main Street Children’s Center; housing the Cumberland Food Pantry for several years; and the completion of a three-year conservation program, after which it received GreenFaith certification.

“This congregation really took on the challenge to become green, as you can tell by our solar panels,” Bennekamper noted; they provide 90 percent of the church’s electricity. “… That’s been one of the really significant things here over time.”

She also mentioned the volunteer drivers the church provides to a transportation program in town for seniors, and the gifts the church provides to children at Christmastime.

“We come here on Sunday morning and we worship, but the rest of the time the church is out there doing all sorts of good things in the community,” Bennekamper said.

“We do stand on the shoulders”

Church congregant Sally Bancroft on Sept. 6 praised Bennekamper for having “faithfully and responsibly led our church, always looking for ways to keep us sound fiscally while still taking care of the facility.”

She noted that Bennekamper and Martin “will be sorely missed, having given their gifts and hearts so generously to our congregation.”

The Rev. Mark Doty of the Hammond Street UCC in Bangor, who is also an openly gay minister, was not aware of Bennekamper’s journey when he arrived in Maine from Texas in 2001. A member of EqualityMaine’s board, he has come to know her in recent years.

Although asked by the church’s search committee at the time of his hiring to keep his sexual orientation a secret, he insisted on being open after hiding it for 50 years, Doty said Monday.

“That seemed to really carry the day in terms of just being honest, and I’ve had a wonderful reception,” he said. Being open “really goes light-years, and that’s of course what (Bennekamper) has done.”

She has led “a pioneering effort in the state and for the United Church of Christ,” Doty noted. “We do stand on the shoulders of these folks that have gone before us.”

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