Former Southington pastoral assistant will be first woman to lead First Congregational Church in Wallingford

Former Southington pastoral assistant will be first woman to lead First Congregational Church in Wallingford


WALLINGFORD — The newest senior minister at First Congregational Church of Wallingford wants the church to be more than just a prominent building on the corner of South Main and Center streets.

Senior Minister the Rev. Kathleen Cunliffe, who’s also served at churches in the Plantsville section of Southington and Bristol, will be installed this Sunday. She’ll be the 18th pastor at First Congregational Church of Wallingford in nearly 350 years. Her predecessor, the Rev. Dean O. Warburton, was at the church for 21 years before his retirement.

“That’s a good sign, right?” Cunliffe said.

She’s also the first woman to serve as pastor at the church, which is a congregation in the United Church of Christ denomination.

While recent years have seen decline for many church denominations, Cunliffe said she refuses to give in to pessimism. She’s excited to find out how to continue the mission of the church in a culture that’s less interested in traditional Sunday morning services.

“That mission doesn’t change: to love people. The method of how you do that may change,” Cunliffe said. “(The church) has to reach out, it has to engage in its community and figure out how God is calling them to do that.”

Cunliffe was raised Roman Catholic but drifted away from that faith during a “wilderness period” in her young adult years. She and her husband began searching for a church after the birth of their first son and started attending Kensington Congregational Church.

“They recognized we were new and they went out of their way to connect with us,” Cunliffe said.

The family later started attending Plantsville Congregational Church. While attending, her oldest son Josh was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative and terminal disease.

“It really turned everything upside down. I had a lot of questions – why is this happening to me, why is this happening to him?” Cunliffe said. “In my case I went further into my faith as a place of supportive strength.”

She’d been involved in the Plantsville church helping lead children’s programs and the church fair but started to think about the ministry, particularly after she was asked by former Plantsville Congregational pastor Richard Koenig to lead a service.

“That kind of flipped a switch,” Cunliffe said.

She began attending Andrew Newton Theological School in Massachusetts in addition to caring for her family and her son Josh. Toward the end of his life, he required nearly round-the-clock care. Josh died in 2009 at 21 years old.

Looking back on those years of juggling work, family and seminary, Cunliffe isn’t sure how she did it.

“Something else was giving us the strength for that,” she said.

Koenig, who now serves at a church in Woodbury, said the call to ministry by the Holy Spirit is a special thing, although it was a long journey to Cunliffe’s ordination by the United Church of Christ.

“Discerning the call to ministry is a dramatic thing in a clergyperson’s life,” Koenig said.

Cunliffe and Koenig have officiated at the funeral services of each other’s sons. Koenig’s son Christopher died in a hiking accident in 2007.

Cunliffe was Koenig’s pastoral assistant for 12 years in Plantsville. On Sunday, Koenig will give the sermon at Cunliffe’s installation in Wallingford.

“She’s passionate about the way the church can make a difference. The church has made a difference in her life,” Koenig said. “She has a wonderful sense of how the faith community makes an important contribution to the commonwealth.”

The days of expecting people to come to church are over, Cunliffe said. While that leads her to think about new ways of engaging with people, such as theological discussions in pubs or community outreach programs that meet needs, she said it’s led others to adopt a defeated attitude.

According to the UCC’s website, the denomination lost on average a congregation per week from 2008 to 2015. Membership declined from 1.2 million in 2005 to 915,000 in 2015.

That’s caused some to hunker down and adopt a survival-mode mentality, Cunliffe said, holding on to the members and resources that remain. She’s encouraged by pastors who are trying new methods of reaching people and addressing the spiritual needs that are still there.

Her church isn’t trying to sell people a set of beliefs, she said.

“We tend to be less about doctrine and making you believe things and more about relationships with people,” Cunliffe said.

While in Bristol, she launched a homeless ministry which houses families in churches. In that work she joined with town and community leaders to help the vulnerable. That type of mission is what can engage people and make them interested in the church.

“People ask, ‘Who’s cleaning up the river?’ or ‘Who’s helping the homeless?’” she said. “There’s still something very important and meaningful we have to offer.” 203-317-2230 Twitter: @JBuchananRJ

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