Sarah Evancho is the first female pastor at Crozet United Methodist Church. She took the ministry reins in July from former pastor Jim Chandler, who the Methodist church leadership has assigned to church development duties—“scalability”—across the state. Chandler, in the post for two years, had succeeded pastor Doug Forrester, who held the post for eight years before being moved to an assignment at a large church in Richmond. Methodist pastors are sent where the church leaders think their talents and communities’ needs line up.
Evancho had been associate pastor at Larchmont United Methodist Church in Norfolk for eight years, a church smaller that CUMC, before learning of her posting to Crozet. This is her first post as pastor. She has a one-year appointment and will be renewed if all goes well.
She’s taken over her new office with an orderly, polished style that includes a few eccentricities like a small electric heater that looks like a fireplace—these days she’s just got the hearth glow going—an essential oil mist machine and an esoteric collection of religious knicknacks like rosaries and images of saints and pictures of Hindu gods. She likes to wear a flamboyant shoe with a very tall heel and she keeps her hair clipped short. She described herself as “Type A and OCD; everything is organized.”
She was born and raised in northern Virginia—“I’m a Pentagon rat”—and in her childhood attended Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon. She graduated from Chantilly High School and got her bachelors at the College of William and Mary (a religious studies major with a specialty in non-Christian religions) before attending seminary at Drew Theological School in New Jersey, where she got a full scholarship. Her husband Clifton is a high school history teacher who is currently substituting and their son is now a first grader at Crozet Elementary.
“I was born and raised a Methodist,” she said. “I grew up in the largest Methodist church in the Virginia Annual Conference, which comprises most of the state. I’ve been exposed to all the major world religions and I appreciate their gifts, and I’m still a Christian.
“It was an honor and humbling to be appointed to Crozet. People wait more than a decade to get appointed to a church. It’s a sent ministry. The bishop tells you where you’re going to go and you go. If you decline, you’re out for a year and you’re not likely to get an appointment.”
She said the conference has more than 1,500 active clergy. “A lot of people would have jumped at the chance to come here. This church has been very welcoming. I owe a lot to pastor Jim. He paved the way and set me up for success. He reached out and helped me transition and he spoke highly of me to the membership.”
Evancho is excited by the recent appointment of the Virginia conference’s first African-American woman, Charma Lewis, coming out of the north Georgia conference, as bishop. “We’re going to extend her an invitation to visit and preach in Crozet,” she said. “It’s a big deal to hear a bishop preach. We’re looking for diversity, reflecting humanity. Methodism in Virginia is pretty vanilla.”
As associate pastor at Larchmont Evancho oversaw the third service on Sundays, which she described as having “a dynamic style, that does not follow a rigid structure but follows the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” She prepared a homily and then an activity response such as prayer stations.
“It’s a very innovative service for Methodism. It’s been done more in Episcopal churches. It’s very successful for young adults, an age group that’s missing from church. We had a culture of redemption. How do you respond to the culture they were encountering Monday through Saturday? We sang Michael Jackson and Pharrell songs.”
Evancho also started a pastor’s Bible study on Thursday nights that drew more than 30 participants. She’s starting it at CUMC this fall. “It’s appropriate for high schoolers on up,” she said. “It’s good to engage them with adults in a mature way. It’s good for them to see that adults don’t have it all figured out.”
CUMC has a membership of about 500 on its rolls and an average Sunday attendance of 285, she said. “Our attendance has gone up over the summer. Some of it is people are just being more consistent, and some are new members. Our location is premium and we have high visibility.
“We have a passion for children and for providing for the needy.” Evancho was referring to the CUMC’s well-known preschool program, its Boy Scout troop, and its equally well established food pantry, which has been a treasure for Crozet over the years. She also cited the church’s hosting of the Crozet Farmers’ Market. “The people of Crozet want to reach out,” she said.
“This is really interesting: every age group is represented here in spades. The intergenerational contact is amazing. Our Vacation Bible School had people from all the breadth of life. The number of youth I see as I’m preaching is incredible and they are paying attention. People have a lot of options of things to do on Sunday mornings. If they choose to come to church that’s a huge statement about priority.
“CUMC is really diverse. We have professors and farmers and small business owners. It’s all walks of life. It gives us all an idea of what we are blessed with.
“I don’t really have an agenda for the church. We know we’re in a period of growth and we’re trying to meet the needs of a changing community. And to push ourselves in new ministry. There are needs here in Crozet. We should be addressing those, such as aging housing for some of our old Crozet members. We can help with renovations they need. Also we want to go beyond giving people food through the food pantry and help them in other ways. We want to take the things we do well and grow. In September we’re going to take stock and see what other needs we have. Do we want to launch another service? Our sanctuary is full at 250. The idea is to build the Kingdom.”