Baptist church calls transgender pastor

Members of an Ohio congregation are inviting the community to a Sept. 8 worship service officially welcoming one of the few openly transgender Baptist ministers as their new pastor.

Erica Saunders

Erica Saunders, a 2019 graduate of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity ordained to the gospel ministry this spring by Wake Forest Baptist Church, began July 1 as pastor of Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio.

Founded in 1866 as the First Baptist Church of Oberlin, the congregation today describes itself as a “small, but active and social action-oriented congregation” that is “very involved” in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, the Alliance of Baptists and the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester/Genesee Region.

Saunders, who began the process of changing her gender presentation during her first year of seminary, follows the 40-year co-pastorate of Steve and Mary Hammond. Steve Hammond, in his final sermon June 16, reminisced about as a graduating senior in seminary meeting with executive ministers in American Baptist Churches USA who dismissed his doctrinal views as too radical to recommend him to a traditional church.

It all changed, he said, when he had 15 minutes with John Sundquist, at the time executive minister in Ohio who went on to serve as executive director of the Board of International Ministries of American Baptist Churches USA from 1990 to 2003, who told him about “a church crazy enough to take me.”

Mary Hammond started out as a pastor’s wife shortly after her husband graduated from seminary in 1979 but after six years began serving as co-pastor. She was ordained as a minister in 1988.

The pastoral search committee said in a letter to church members that the group received 16 candidates to replace the couple and narrowed the field to five and eventually down to a final two.

“Both candidates were very strong candidates, but Erica stood out as a candidate with unique strengths,” the search team said. “Bright, compassionate, faith-filled and spirit-led with a loving presence, she showed as much interest in each of us as we did in her. At the end of our time together on Sunday, when we formed a circle and said a departing prayer, I think we felt and she felt a sense of calling to our church.”

Saunders said in a statement she is “grateful for the gospel witness provided by Peace Community Church.”

“With God’s help, together we can follow the example of Christ and create a beloved community marked by abiding peace, expansive love and radical justice in Oberlin and beyond,” said Saunders, one of the first openly trans individuals to be ordained by a Baptist church in the United States.

Peace Community Church

The church, which adopted the name Peace Community Church in 2000, decided by consensus to welcome and affirm LGBTQ persons in 2005.

The church self-describes on its website as “an inclusive congregation that boldly and earnestly embraces the call of Jesus to seek God’s Realm.”

“We work together to bring peace and justice to our world,” the identity statement continues. “We gather to worship and praise God and build an authentic community of harmony, joy, and celebration, and to pray and care for one another.”

Oberlin, a community of about 8,600 residents located 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, is home to Oberlin College, a liberal arts college and music conservatory founded as a Christian school by Presbyterians in 1833.

The school — which has graduated three Nobel laureates, 16 Rhodes Scholars, and numerous winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Academy, Grammy, Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe awards – ranks consistently as one the nation’s most LGBTQ-welcoming campuses.

Saunders, who while in seminary served as a ministry intern at Wake Forest Baptist Church, which meets on the university campus, said her first several weeks of ministry in Ohio are going well.

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know this community, and I’m excited to see what God has in store for us,” she said in an e-mail Aug. 14.

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