Liz Coates is learning not to trust her first instincts.
After years of saying no to a life in ministry, the 35-year-old can’t imagine herself doing anything but working in a church. After swearing she’d never leave her job as associate pastor at First Baptist Church on Green Street in Gainesville, she’s now open to a new opportunity — becoming the assistant pastor at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.
On Tuesday, Coates bid farewell to First Baptist after nearly 10 years of service and headed for the Empire State and a new community to share her passion for Christ.
The ever-changing journey for Coates in the ministry is not a path she saw for herself. As the daughter of the Rev. Bill Coates, senior pastor at First Baptist, the Gainesville woman swore she would never follow in her father’s footsteps.
“I never thought I’d work in ministry,” Liz Coates said. “I grew up in a pastor’s home. I knew too much about what the church demands of a life, and I didn’t see it as a fit.”
However, that changed. Right out of college with an English degree, she began working as the office coordinator for the Family Life Center at First Baptist because she needed a job. She grew to love working in the church and became the minister of outreach at the Family Life Center in 2007. That included working with young adults.
Five years later, she enrolled in seminary at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Macon. She began her role as associate pastor in February 2016 and became an ordained minister in June 2016.
“Once I got going, I now cannot see myself doing anything else,” she said.
In her role as associate pastor, she devoted her time to her passionate causes such as fitness, youth outreach, foster care and prison re-entry. Most recently, she helped First Baptist host a refugee family from Syria as they relocated to Gainesville.
Some of her other memorable moments throughout her tenure at the church include hosting a “Friendsgiving” dinner for members of the young adult ministry, watching participants cross the finish line at the Family Life Center 5K and worshiping through song with women at the Arrendale State Correctional Facility in Alto. She said all of these memories illustrate the ways she endeavored to connect her ministry to the broader community.
After building such a strong relationship with Gainesville over the past 18 years, Coates said she was hesitant to leave. She said she went to an interview at Plymouth convinced she wasn’t going to move. But after seeing the church’s outreach with social justice and Habitat for Humanity, she felt another call from God. She had to disregard her initial decision and accept the position.
“I’ve learned not to trust my no’s,” she said. “The pattern in my life is I never think that this is going to happen to me, but God always has another plan. And I end up coming around to it eventually.”
Coates said she is grateful for the time she spent at First Baptist because it gave her the opportunity to grow as a minister and Christian.
“This place has been my incubator. It’s grown me into who I am,” she said. “The work here that I have done has been very personally satisfying, and I can go knowing that things here are left in a good place.”
She’s excited, and a little nervous, about moving to the North. She had to purchase her first winter coat to prepare for the colder weather.
But one thing she’s not worried about is what will happen at the church in the future. She left knowing her job is in good hands, because she picked her replacement.
Coates met Rachel Freeny, 25, of Nashville, Tenn., at the McAfee School of Theology. She brought Freeny to First Baptist to begin a ministry residency in January.
Freeny worked closely with Coates on several ministry projects, including foster care and supporting the refugee family. After being ordained in October, Freeny is thrilled to take over the role of associate pastor.
“I’m very excited, but Liz left some big shoes to fill,” said Freeny, who began her professional career at First Baptist. “It’s really been a privilege to work alongside her because I’ve learned so much about what it means to be a church that’s involved in this community. I feel like I’m a better minister from working with her.”
Although Coates is eager to experience new challenges with Plymouth, she said she will miss the relationships she’s built here and her church family at First Baptist.
“I’ve really loved it here,” she said. “I am so proud to call this my home church, the church that will forever be on my resume and in my heart.”