Editor’s note: This story was updated Dec. 3 based on new information. It also corrects errors about the distance from the White House and clarifies that Harry Truman attended the church but was not a member. Baptist News Global regrets the errors.
By Bob Allen
Julie Pennington-Russell, a pioneer among Baptist women in ministry and former pastor of flagship churches aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, will preach in view of a call Dec. 6 at First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
If elected, she will be the first woman to lead the historic church located six blocks from the White House as senior pastor.
Pennington-Russell, 55, stepped down in May after eight years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., which is located next door to the headquarters of the 1,800-church CBF and host for many of the Fellowship’s leadership meetings.
Before that she broke the so-called stained-glass ceiling in pastorates at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco.
The previous pastor at First Baptist Church in Washington, Jeff Haggray, resigned in 2013 after just over three years. The first African-American to serve the church as pastor, Haggray, 51, recently was named executive director of American Baptist Home Missions Societies in Valley Forge, Pa.
A pastor search committee appointed in April 2014 introduced the nominee, saying Pennington-Russell “speaks with a prophetic voice” and brings “exceptional interpersonal skills.” They described her as a “visionary” and “pioneer for Baptist women in ministry.”
Her conversations with the search committee began in June when Chairman Erik Smith introduced himself on an elevator after hearing Pennington-Russell preach earlier in the day at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Dallas.
In a letter to members of First Baptist Church in Washington, Pennington-Russell said she was excited about the possibility of being elected as their pastor.
“Your pastor search committee has described First Baptist, D.C., as a church in which God is stirring a genuine desire for transformation, a desire to come alive in new ways, and to take some risks for Christ’s sake and for the sake of your gospel witness in the city of Washington, D.C.,” she said. “This is thrilling to me.”
Founded in 1802, two years after Congress held its first session in Washington and while Thomas Jefferson was president, First Baptist Church is the oldest Protestant church in the nation’s capital.
Organized as “a spiritual home for Baptists moving to the new federal city,” the congregation played a significant role in the life of Baptists including helping to found Columbian College, now George Washington University, and beginning the first Sunday school in Washington not many years after Robert Raikes launched the Sunday school movement in England.
Former attendees include presidents Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter. President Carter’s daughter, Amy, was baptized there at age 9.
During the interim Deborah Cochran, the church’s longtime minister to children and more recently associate pastor, has served as acting pastor. Stan Hastey, retired executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, has filled in as interim preaching minister.