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First Church West Hartford Calls First Female Senior Pastor

Rev. Jane Willan. Courtesy photo

Reverend Jane Willan will become the first-ever female senior pastor at First Church West Hartford.

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During a season of transitions at First Church, West Hartford, the excitement of the moment is that the town’s 309-year-old Congregational church has called Rev. Jane Willan as its 21st Senior Pastor.

“In its more than 300-year history First Church has seen lots of change and growth: five different meeting houses, 20 pastors, and several interim leaders, but never a female in the settled senior pastor position! We are very excited for this change, and we believe West Hartford is ready,” commented current church moderator Eleanor Wight.

Rev. Willan delivered a “Candidating Sermon” at First Church on Jan. 9, 2022. Following worship, church members filled in ballots at a Congregational meeting. 105 voted unanimously to extend the call to Rev. Willan. She will begin serving in her new role on Feb. 8, 2022.

The steps

In May 2020, First Church assembled a Senior Pastor Search Committee of nine volunteers following the retirement of Rev. Dr. C. Geordie Campbell in January. Despite being the beginning of the pandemic there was important work to do and the committee proceeded, adapting their activities to comply with Covid protocols.

Under the guidance of interim Senior Pastor Rev. Erica Avena, Acting Associate Pastor Rev. Amie Giguere, Director of Worship Arts Jim Boratko, John P. Webster Library Director Jennifer deSimas, Bridge Pastor Rev. Dr. Michael Newheart and others, the church continued to offer worship, support and programming though YouTube, phone, emails, and Zoom. Meanwhile the Search Committee began its work of updating the church profile.

“Due to the pandemic, our Search process was unlike any other. Our meetings and initial interviews were held entirely on Zoom,” commented chairperson Suzanne Carnes. “We also visited other churches virtually to listen to sermons of potential candidates. Only finalists were scheduled for in-person interviews.”

The Search Committee first became acquainted with Rev. Willan at the end of September 2021 after they received her Ministerial Profile. Her profile was the 15th one they reviewed and stood out for several reasons. Rev. Willan shared her passion for social justice. She was among the first to officiate same sex marriages in Iowa. She also committed to “effective and dynamic stewardship,” and has developed and sharpened her own skills in this area.

Rev. Willan serves the wider church as a board member of the Central Massachusetts Association and the Board of Ministerial Aid. Within her own community, she is on the Board of Directors of Colony Retirement Homes.

Rev. Willan comes to First Church, West Hartford from within the United Church of Christ (UCC) Southern New England Conference. She was ordained in 2003 and has served congregations in Massachusetts and Iowa. Rev. Willan holds degrees from Hiram College, (Ohio) Boston University, and received her Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School.  She is no stranger to Connecticut, having worked in Simsbury early in her career, prior to her call to ministry.

As the Search Committee noted, Rev. Willan was a pastor who relates well to others.  She was candid and genuine. She moved us with her commitments to ministry and her own humanity in the stories she shared. “After our in-person interview with her, I remember scanning the circle of faces around me looking for their reactions. Everyone was wearing a mask, so it was very hard to tell. But once we had a chance to talk, it was clear that all of us knew she was the one we would recommend,” stated Carnes. The committee reviewed 17 profiles (or resumés) and interviewed more than half of them. “We had our list of qualities we were seeking for the church at this time. We couldn’t be happier with how everything came together. Our committee quickly came to consensus on Rev. Jane as our recommended candidate,” added Carnes.

“I was drawn to the First Church community by its strong use of technology, the community outreach, the involvement with the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance (GHIAA) and the interfaith partnerships,” commented Rev. Willan during one of four scheduled “meet and greet” sessions with the congregation Jan. 8.

Rev. Willan brings a wealth of knowledge about churches, is a self-proclaimed “numbers person,” and during the meet and greet she spoke of the need for a senior pastor to be empowering while nurturing the community she serves.

When asked what she will bring to the congregation in West Hartford, “one thing that bothers me is when a church says, ‘we need to attract more young families.’ I don’t think, as a church, we attract. What we need to do is be a welcoming place for all people, and the growth will come.”

Rev. Willan likes to spend her spare time with her husband Don, their dog, Moses and cat, Winifred. She enjoys writing fiction and is the author of the Sister Agatha and Father Selwyn Mystery Series. She and Don will be relocating to Connecticut in the very near future.

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