The church that Elizabeth Evans Hagan serves is radically different from her Southern Baptist upbringing. Yet her journey to Washington Plaza Baptist Church actually began in those formative years. “I think I developed a relationship with God, or a sense of spirituality, that I knew was going to be completely different from that of my parents, and even the church I grew up in.”
Her congregation at Washington Plaza, where she was installed as senior pastor March 1, 2009, includes a large African-American, Chinese, and growing Hispanic representation. It is welcoming and affirming of all people, and a church where seekers feel at home.
“I have people who enjoy the fellowship of the community and sing in the choir, but who are still figuring out their faith,” says Hagan. “The beautiful thing is that we’re building a community that’s learning how to be church. My calling is to bring Jesus to them: to ground them in the Christian tradition and in this community.”
The daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor, the Chattanooga, Tenn., native might be seen as a prophet without honor in her childhood home. Her father does not endorse women in ministry, and his church is not an anomaly. According to Chaves, half of American congregations are either in denominations that do not permit female clergy, or independent churches that do not allow female head clergy. While 37 percent of congregations that identify themselves as “theologically more on the liberal side” are women-led, only 9 percent of American churches claim to be liberal.
If you were a man …
When Hagan was growing up, she often spoke or led activities with her youth group. “People would come up to me afterwards and say, ‘If you were a man, you’d make a really good preacher,’” she says. “I felt a calling toward ministry the summer before I entered high school.” But at 14, Hagan felt no one seemed to understand her, or “really knew what to do with me.”
In fact, it wasn’t until she was a student at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., that Hagan heard a woman preach. Then, during her time at Duke, she clearly grasped her vocational path. “It was an overwhelming sense that God was saying, ‘You are here to learn how to be a pastor,’” she says. “That’s what I knew I was looking for when I graduated.”
Hagan started the search-and-call process for a pastoral post nine months before graduation. “I still didn’t have a position by the end of the next summer, and not because I wasn’t in conversation with churches, but just because it was slow,” she says.
But Hagan remained determined and focused.