Even prior to the onset of COVID-19, New Canaan’s local clergy association stood out in the experience of the Rev. Stephen Chapin Garner.
Collegial and kind, it includes unusually gifted people whose monthly gatherings are free of a type of guardedness can limit such groups, Garner said.
As the pandemic set in this spring, bringing unforeseen practical challenges among other demands, New Canaan’s spiritual leaders began leaning harder into one another, according to Garner, senior minister at the Congregational Church of New Canaan.
“We laugh together, we joke, we share the challenges of time and we have gone past ‘friendly,’ to friends,” Garner told NewCanaanite.com. “For me, some of these folks are people I would turn to if I had a complex issue in my life, let alone the church. I would say in what has been a really difficult time, it is without question one of the truly bright lights.”
Starting in March, Garner and fellow clergy members doubled the frequency of their gatherings—hour-long respites from tending to the spiritual needs of their congregants in an increasingly isolated world—to connect with one another and share practical advice on matters such as air filtration and how to hold a Sunday service during a public health emergency.
“This has quickly turned into the most important clergy group I am a part of, and I look forward to it,” Garner said.
The group that meets regularly includes Garner, the Rev. Peter Walsh of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the Rev. Rob Kinnally of St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church, the Rev. Derek Fallon of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, the Rev. Bob Walker of United Methodist Church of New Canaan, the Rev. Scott Herr of First Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Kibbie Laird, the Congregational Church’s associate minister of children, youth and families, and the Rev. Tom Lilly, director of spiritual services at Waveny LifeCare Network.
Walsh said that as it became increasingly difficult for churches to manage the health crisis in addition to managing people, clergy members developed “an incredible mutuality” not only among themselves but also with municipal and nonprofit agencies that meet human services needs, such as ensuring that seniors can stay safe at home while getting meals and groceries delivered.
“It has highlighted the best that New Canaan has to offer, which is an incredible community of service and an incredible community of giving,” Walsh said. “I don’t think in the greater world, a town like New Canaan would have the reputation of being such a giving community and such a caring community, yet that is manifested in the Zooms we are having and it certainly has manifested itself among clergy in the community.”
The necessary isolation of many parishioners for health reasons has presented central difficulties in providing pastoral care during COVID, Garner said.
“We are about being together with people and here we are told, ‘You must remain at a distance,” he said.
Yet in-person work still goes on amid the crisis, so with virtual engagements the workload of local clergy members has “mushroomed,” he said.
The gatherings therefore provide a “wonderful debrief where we are able to bear one another’s burdens a bit,” Garner said.
For Kinnally, a sense of shared mission and challenges has been a major benefit of the group.
“I guess what I take away from each meeting is a sense of collegiality, that we are all walking with the same God and doing the same thing in that we are walking with the people in our congregations through everything that they are going through, and so to know that others are doing what you are doing—I have a network of fellow Catholic priests, but they are not in the neighborhood,” he said.
“So what we have in common, in addition to the same God, is the same town and everything that is unique about the town and wonderful about our God is something that is unique to us. This is the group that’s in New Canaan doing their God thing, walking with people in this incredibly challenging time. Part of it is very spiritual. I feel a sense of support from one another—it’s one more person praying for me, someone who gets what I do.”
Kinnally added, “I think it strengthened not only our faith in God but also our faith in one another and our ability to really walk with people.”