First Congregational Church’s new minister looks to incorporate activism into church leadership


Photo courtesy of Jason Coulter

Rev. Jason Coulter speaks at a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2021. Coulter became the senior minister of First Congregational Church in April.

Elena Hubert, Assistant City Editor

Sufjan Stevens may not be a traditional part of Protestant Christian discography, but the indie artist is an inspiration for the First Congregational Church of Evanston’s latest senior minister.

Rev. Jason Coulter said he took inspiration from Stevens’ cover of the Christmas song “I Saw Three Ships” to write his introductory video message to the congregation. He called the three ships representative of his goals for the church: worship, fellowship and most importantly, relationship.

“The relationship is what matters,” Coulter said. “If I’m going to be their pastor, I want to know their stories. I want them to trust me that I will care for them and pray for them.”

Coulter became the senior minister for First Congregational Church on April 13, replacing Rev. Ann Rosewall, who retired July 2020. With a past in activism, Coulter said he plans to lead the church in engaging in community with the congregation and greater Evanston.

Prior to becoming a pastor, Coulter spent 13 years as a union organizer for the clothing and textile workers union.

Coulter said seeing the tangible impact of union membership, like health insurance and pensions for Chicago laundry workers and health and safety committees for Indianapolis warehouse workers, was the most rewarding part of his job.

“Being able to change power dynamics in the workplace and organize a group of humble working people who sense the power that is within their grasp, and then for them to be able to sit across a table from a corporation or an employer and negotiate as equals was thrilling,” Coulter said.

Coulter was raised as a member of the United Church of Christ and continued his faith through adulthood. He said he decided to leave union work for the clergy to spread the gospel of a “Jesus of peace and justice” to combat rising right-wing Christianity.

Coulter entered the Chicago Theological Seminary in 2005 and became a settled pastor at Ravenswood United Church of Christ in Chicago after graduation in 2008.

Ravenswood lacked resources and suffered from low membership, Coulter said. He said he helped organize outreach efforts, focusing on LGBTQ+ membership, doubling church membership in about five years.

Coulter has also helped lead social justice organizations that hope to address racism, poverty and workplace injustice. He said one of the reasons he joined the First Congregational Church was Evanston’s tradition of social justice work, including its reparations program.

Coulter said he believes his faith requires him to take a stance on social justice issues, such as opposing racism and homophobia.

“I can’t sit this out and stay neutral when there is so much violence in this world of all forms, so much inequality in every aspect of society, that people of faith are called to take a stand,” Coulter said.

Sarah Pressly, the vice moderator of the First Congregational Church council, said Coulter has been “very clear” in his affirmatory stance on queer people in Christianity.

Pressly, who identifies as queer, said it is especially important for church leaders to openly denounce homophobia.

“To have somebody who is a straight man, a straight white cis man married to a straight white cis woman, stand up in the pulpit and say, ‘Hey all y’all, remember queer folks are folks, and God loves them as they are because of who they are, not in spite of it,’ is vital,” Pressly said.

After the church’s senior minister retired in 2020, a pastoral nominating committee appointed an interim senior minister while it searched for a replacement. After being selected as the finalist, Coulter gave a trial sermon to the congregation, known as a “candidating sermon.”

Bob Krause, chair of the pastoral nominating committee, said Coulter received a unanimous vote of approval from the 108 congregation members who attended his trial sermon. Krause said Coulter’s life experience as an activist aligns with the congregation’s mission to “express God’s Love in action, compassion and justice.”

“In addition to being an experienced pastor, (Coulter) has life experience that fits with much of the mission of the congregation,” Krause said. “Those skills are going to be transferable in our work on justice and anti-racism.”

Coulter said he wants to offer Evanston residents the opportunity to give back to the community through involvement in the church. He said he wants to lead the church “confidently” and “courageously.”

“I want to lead a congregation to the type of environment where we can feel joy again, where we can connect with our neighbors, where we can serve others and change systems and structures and really live into the promise that God gives to all of us,” Coulter said.

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Twitter: @elenahubert25

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