West Hartford

First Church of West Hartford Gets First Female Senior Pastor in Its 309-Year History

Jane Willan will deliver her first sermon in February and hopes to rebuild community in the midst of the pandemic.

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A big change is coming to a local church. For the first time in its three centuries of history, First Church of West Hartford is welcoming a female senior pastor.

Reverend Jane Willan will deliver her first sermon on Feb. 13.

She said the women in the church who have come before her paved the way for her to take on this role.

The First Church of Christ has stood at the center of community life in West Hartford for 309 years. With five different meetinghouses and a rich history, there is a long list of pastors. However, Willan is the first woman to step up to the pulpit as a senior pastor since the church was founded in 1713.

“It's an honor, I feel somewhat humbled by it,” she said. “I just see women's leadership evolving and growing.”

After getting a Master's degree in biology and attending Vanderbilt Divinity School, Willan has served as a pastor for two decades. She comes to West Hartford from First Congregational Church of Paxton in Massachusetts.

“I'm drawn to it because it's a church that has so much social justice, and a church that's really living outside its walls,” she said about the move to First Church of West Hartford.

Willan is inspired by the spirit of inclusivity.

“They welcome actively all LGBTQ individuals,” she said. “They also are welcoming and kind of supporting two Afghan families with the refugee crisis that we're all facing."

As she prepares to lead a new congregation, Willan already has plans. One central goal: building up community in light of the ongoing pandemic.

“COVID isn't over, but building back the membership that has somewhat drifted away, or at least been kept away in their desire, very good desire to isolate and to be safe during COVID,” she said.

Willan joins a select group of women at the helm of a church. While there are more than 31,000 pastors in the United States, only 13% of those are women, according to Zippia, which tracks data on careers.

However, Willan said that's starting to change.

"It's not an issue now for women to step into roles like this, really,” she said.

Willan said that it's the steps women in generations before hers have taken to shape religious history that allows her to step into this leadership position today.

“I really think if it weren't for women, there wouldn't even be a Church, because in so many ways women carry the church,” Willan said. “It's a great honor to be in this role. But it really is because of all the courage and the hard work of people, of women who have come before me.”

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