The following is the fourth installment of our Profiles in Leadership series. We had the privilege of sitting down with the Rev. Erica Saunders, who recently graduated from Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity and was ordained in the spring of 2019. Rev. Saunders has shown immense courage as one of the first openly trans women ordained in Baptist life. She has recently accepted a call to serve a congregation in Ohio as their pastor beginning this fall. We celebrate these accomplishments with her!
[PST] Reverend Saunders, thank you so much for joining us. Would you begin by talking a little about where you’re from and your experience with the Church growing up?
[Erica Saunders] I grew up in North Carolina, in a smaller town in the center of the state called Asheboro. In 2014, a study was released naming the county in which Asheboro is located (Randolph County) to be the most densely armed county in the state of North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, it’s also one of the most “red” or Republican counties in the state.
Along these same lines, my grandfather was an old time Baptist preacher. I would grow up going to his church occasionally. I think my mom had a bit of preacher kid syndrome, so we wouldn’t go every week. But regardless of how frequently I attended, this type of fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity was very much in the air and became the vocabulary with which I learned to make meaning of the world. It formed the kinds of spiritual questions that stuck with me in life and, still do, in some ways.
Around the age of 12, I started going to a proudly fundamentalist church in Seagrove (south of Asheboro), which I attended for several years. I got really interested in apologetics and all of the ways that people learn to read the Bible as though it were 100% literally, factually true. This stayed true for me for a number of years before things started to change.
[PST] How, then, would you describe that theological change and the cracks and fissures that started to appear? What moved you into a different place for how you were imagining the world and Christianity?
[ES] Well, it was actually a sermon I heard during a week of revival. We had a guest preacher from a church just down the road come to deliver the sermons for the week’s worship services. There was a particular sermon about hell, and along with the usual graphic descriptions, the preacher told a story about how it was so very sad that some people would be on the earth and would never hear about Jesus and that they would, of course, go to hell.
I presume that the preacher was telling us this to inspire us to go tell the Jesus story more fervently. Instead, it led me to wonder what kind of God would blame someone for not believing that which they had never heard. That really didn’t sit right with me. As I started asking people questions about this, my pastor and other folks didn’t warmly receive my concerns. I was encouraged to just trust and pray for more belief in things that I didn’t understand. Later, as I started having more questions about faith and the world – for example, about evolution and what constituted being a good Christian – I just ended up withdrawing from the congregation because I didn’t think I could spiritually grow there any longer.
[PST] How would you describe, then, your journey back toward Christianity and a new way of conceptualizing these questions and concerns?
[ES] Around my junior year of high school, I developed friendships with people of different faith traditions. I had a friend who identified as a Buddhist, several who were agnostic or atheist, and one in particular who was strongly Catholic. I would get in conversations with my Catholic friend about things I was told from my evangelical heritage about the Catholic Church – how they supposedly worshiped saints or didn’t believe in Jesus in the right ways. We would have debates and conversations about faith and, through these and some of the follow up research I was doing around these topics, I actually began to realize there was a lot of Roman Catholic theology that I admired. In fact, I ended up converting to the Church and was baptized later that year at the Easter Vigil.
I identified strongly as a Catholic for the next several years throughout college. This changed, later, when I came out to myself and my friends, as I realized that I wouldn’t have a home in the Catholic Church, either. I realized I couldn’t really stay there and be my whole self.
[ES] As I was finishing college, I was still really captivated by spiritual questions, and I had developed an interest in the academic study of religion as I pursued those questions in classes I had taken at Queens University. I was convinced that I wanted to do a Ph.D. in New Testament studies because that was the place I found the most passion and interest. But, as is so often the case with God, I ended up being called back to the Church and congregational ministry, even though I had no desire to do that when I started off at Wake.
As I was thinking about where I should go, my mother was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease. I knew that her future was short and that she didn’t have a lot of time left. I wanted to be close and spend time with her and help my family be with her through that time. Along with another school, I toured Wake Forest and fell in love with the community and the people, and I knew I that’s where I wanted to be.
[PST] It was around this time in your first year of studies that you began transitioning. Understandably, some readers may think that not all seminaries or divinity schools are welcoming places. What was that experience like for you in light of being at a school of theological education?
[ES] My first day of divinity school was actually my first day presenting as the woman I am “full-time,” as some people in the trans community say. I came out to everyone at Wake and started presenting as myself. I was pretty frightened. I was still coming to know a lot more about myself and my femininity and womanhood and how I wanted to express that. At the time, I had no idea how to make sense of it in light of my own faith, either.
Thankfully, I found a lot of support at Wake. Before I arrived at the school, the dean of students called and offered support and told me of all the different resources they had – things like ways to change my name in the computer system and suggestions about coming out to the wider class. There were certainly challenges, but overall, the student community and faculty and staff made it their goal to understand and to know me along with wanting to be known by me.
[PST] We’re happy to celebrate with you both on the conclusion of your studies at Wake, having graduated in May, and also on your recent ordination. Could you tell us a bit about your experience being ordained?
[ES] We have to do two internships as part of our curriculum at Wake. While I was still thinking about a future in academia, I began – as early as my first year – to feel a pull toward the Church. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be ordained or serve in a pastoral role, but I definitely wanted to find a home in congregational life. I was scared and confused, of course, about finding an open and affirming church family. Lots of congregations claim to be open and affirming, but I still had to wonder what congregations actually mean by that. Were there limits or complications around their desire to be fully welcoming?
As I was thinking about these internships, I attended a service for the Trans Day of Remembrance, which is an annual day in November to memorialize all of the trans people killed by transphobic violence throughout the year. The service was held by Wake Forest Baptist Church – the congregation that would eventually ordain me – and I was given the chance to speak. Afterwards, I spoke to the pastor, and after one short conversation, she said that if I ever needed a place to serve, that I would have a place at Wake Forest Baptist Church. This led me to do an internship at the church, and I fell in love with the congregation. It was during this time that my vision and conception were formed of what the Church can be and what congregations can be. Through many ongoing conversations with the pastor and my professors, I discerned that congregational leadership was the direction that God seemed to be suggesting for me.
[PST] And now you’ve accepted a call to pastor a church? Again, congratulations!
[PST] Given the wider climate of American politics and the Church in the U.S., you’ve had a unique experience moving through a school of theological education as a trans person. Based on your own experience, what would you say worked well for you – in terms of institutional support – at Wake? What might other affirming theological institutions do to support trans folks attending their schools?
[ES] I would echo a quote that I’ll paraphrase from one of my readings in a theology class. Elizabeth Johnson, in She Who Is, said that one’s experience of God is intertwined with one’s experience of herself. I would point to that notion and say to allow people space to explore who they are and who God is; to allow all students, and especially trans students, the space to do that from their own identity. I would affirm that it’s a sacred task to know our true selves, and that we better understand God through that process of affirming the person God made us to be.
Of course I would suggest other practical things that should be done no matter where we are in life – whether in a faith community or outside of one. Things like using a person’s preferred name and pronouns. Do the necessary self-education before asking trans folks themselves to do the work of educating you.
[PST] When life is challenging or things get hard, what do you do to get through those times? What kind of things do you hold onto?
[ES] As I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition, I recognize within myself some of the internalized wounding and trauma, the bad messages that people can carry from that kind of formation. On some of my bad days, I have questions of ‘What if I’m really just getting into a life of sin? What if they were right?” The spiral of self-doubt and impostor syndrome come back into my mind.
But when I’m having these bad days, the first place I go is to the fruits of the spirit passage in Galatians. What that means for me is an affirmation... an affirmation that wherever something is positive, wherever there’s love and joy and peace and patience and generosity... wherever those things are, God is there also. To really rest in the beauty of that, to express joy and to receive joy, to know that everything that increases my ability to love and be loved is a direct gift from God. I’m able to trust that God is present with me and working through those gifts in my life.
[PST] When you’re not busy graduating from graduate school and navigating an important call process, what are some things you like to do? How do you keep busy?
[ES] I’m currently exploring an interest in hiking and being out in creation. When I was younger, I was once lost in the woods for fourteen hours with my family. That kind of soured me for a while on wanting to do those types of things. I’m learning again, though, to love that environment and to take in the beauty of the outdoors. I also love to write and read, so I’m excited again to explore that outside of the context of papers and homework and class readings. I’m also a very amateur photographer, and I enjoy exploring that.
[PST] If you had a chance to get one message out to the Church, about anything, what would it be? What would you want to say?
[ES] I would say that all human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of the infinite and transcendent God – who is love – and that each one of us holds a unique, one-of-a-kind piece of wisdom or insight about who God is or how God works or what it means to be human. That’s a message I think the Church would do well to keep trying to embrace.
The Rev. Erica Saunders teaches God's expansive love and radical justice. One of the first openly trans women ordained in Baptist life, she holds the Master of Divinity from Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Her passions include the study of Christian origins, preaching, and lame puns.