Marking 225 years at the Southfield Church, a k a the United Church of New Marlborough
Southfield — When Robert Olsen moved to town more than a decade ago, the location of his family’s new home—next door to the Southfield Church—was auspicious; at least that’s how it appears in retrospect. He was working full-time at the Southfield Store, a position that precluded his attendance at Sunday morning services in the village church that was currently operating without a minister. It was an ordinary day at the rural coffee-shop-turned-popular-brunch-spot when someone from the church came in and issued an invitation that ultimately changed the course of Olsen’s life: “You and your family should come to church,” the congregant said. And Olsen happily obliged, immediately joining the choir and quickly rising to head deacon under a newly appointed interim minister. Two years in, the interim minister departed rather hastily, leaving the congregation once again searching for someone to lead them through the next transition. The very next week, a previous pastor who had been a guest at the Sunday service stayed on for the church meeting and offered sage advice for the small but mighty Congregational church: “Don’t go looking for another pastor,” he said. “Minister to one another, and just give it time.”
Suffice it to say, Olsen rose to the occasion. “Over the past seven years, I’ve been filling that role,” he shared in a recent interview. “I’ve grown into it to the point where it is very important to me, almost precious,” he added. Olsen’s ministering to his fellow congregants, often as few as six on any given Sunday, hinges on a refreshingly simple approach: He engages in conversation about faith from every angle while remaining open to the evolution that inevitably comes with time. “I’ve just dug in and done the hard work,” said Olsen, who grew up in Kansas City, where he attended a Baptist church, which means the Congregational church feels really close to him. He has looked to others in the community for guidance, including Liz Goodman of the Monterey Church of Christ and Jill Graham of the First Congregational Church of Sheffield, both of whom he considers mentors and who have pushed Olsen to examine what it means to minister to others. “It’s really scary and it’s difficult, when someone is grieving or dying, to go and sit with them,” said Olsen. “Those are hard situations to walk into, but as a pastor, you’ve got to walk into them,” he added of his many responsibilities. Olsen has inevitably become well-versed in hard conversations. “To just learn to sit and listen and be there and hold someone’s hand and give them a kiss goodbye—[It’s] meaningful for them and meaningful for me, too,” which, Olsen said, “is not about Sunday mornings: It’s about life.”
It was Father Bruce of Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Sheffield who raised a pivotal point in conversation: “If these [small, rural] churches are to remain open, the laypeople will have to stand up and take roles,” he advised, which is precisely what Olsen did. In the absence of ordination and formal seminary training, he has welcomed everyone, regardless of faith or denomination, to join him in conversation. Olsen recalls Sunday mornings as a kid, sitting in church thinking, “that doesn’t make any sense” with regard to what he was hearing from the pulpit. He brings that experience to the Southfield Church each week, along with an understanding that “a lot of this is hard to believe” when it comes to scripture. which is why Olsen brings what he calls “a willingness to walk” to the position. He does not speak from the pulpit, rather a wooden lectern on the same level as others, and he contemplates tough questions rather than simply proffering answers. “If you’re looking for certainty, I can’t do that,” Olsen said with full transparency, “but I can give you questions and we can be here together,” which, in a small setting, is possible.
“There is all this talk about the church dying, and on one level, the church as we know it is dying—but the church is not dying, it is evolving,” said Olsen. He has read about churches that take shape in bars, church services that happen over dinner or, in Olsen’s words, “smaller incarnations of what we have known before.” It is absolutely true that attendance at Sunday morning worship is dwindling; nationwide, the average attendance is 40, including the megachurches that host thousands of parishioners to the village churches that might have but a handful of familiar faces on any given Sunday. Olsen recalls 300 parishioners in church on any given Sunday morning while growing up; in time, attendance fell to half of that. And today his mother reports that the same congregation now has 40 in regular attendance. “At our church, we can have six, and we keep going,” Olsen said of Southfield.
Perhaps it is the sheer perseverance of the surrounding community that has kept the village church going for so long. Now in its 225th year, the tiny church was originally organized April 28, 1794. At the time, the town meetinghouse—on the green in New Marlborough and considered the “mother church”—could not accommodate the town’s growing population. It made sense, with that church being in the north part of town, to construct a new church in the southernmost village; the first pastor was installed in October of that year, and a mid-1800s renovation made the church look the way it does today—complete with vestibule, clock tower, steeple with bell and soaring windows.
Last Saturday, Olsen organized an interfaith hymn sing and potluck dinner as part of the church’s anniversary season. “I had no idea how it would turn out,” he admitted of the open invitation he issued asking, “What are your favorite sacred songs? Let’s get together and sing them.” In the end, the proof was in the proverbial pudding. At 4:55 p.m., no one was there. And then, in the midst of the prelude, people started pouring in. “We all sang each other’s songs; it was glorious,” Olsen recalled. And the feedback was reassuring: the Christians found the Jewish songs beautiful and vice versa. To say that the event was a success would be an understatement: “[To] sit together, eat together, drink together, listen to each other’s stories: That is a beautiful thing.” This is the fifth summer Olsen has organized a music series at the Southfield Church, expanded this season to mark the 225th anniversary. “We could not let this milestone go by [without doing] something,” he said of the 12 events that began May 11 and will continue over the next three Saturdays. Olsen invited everyone back who had ever performed, and most were able to return including the Russet Trio (Saturday, July 20, at 7 p.m.), the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival Fellows (Saturday, July 27, at 4 p.m.) and Manon Hutton-DeWys (Saturday, Aug. 3, at 7 p.m.). All events are free and open to the public; a retiring collection is taken after each performance to support the artists. Thus far, the anniversary events have drawn between 45 and 125 people to each performance— a testament to both the power and allure of coming together for a common goal.
In 1960, the three congregational churches in town voted to be combined into one; the Mill River and New Marlborough churches eventually closed, and the Southfield Church became the United Church of New Marlborough. “It’s not been without conflicts,” Olsen said, but the successes have far outweighed any detriments over the years. Just last month Olsen had the privilege of having Rev. Bruce Wagner, pastor of the church in 1960, attend Sunday service; despite having relocated to a senior community in Princeton, New Jersey, he has returned to Southfield several times. “The first time he came, he was shocked,” Olsen said. Wagner, completely taken by what the small congregation was doing remarked, “This is the vanguard; this is what the church needs to become,” which, for Olsen and his flock, was validating, perhaps in the same way they are breaking down what it means to be religious—or, as Olsen sees it, “We’ve stripped down the extra because, logistically, we’ve been forced to. We’re getting down to brass tacks,” which inevitably leaves room for what’s most important: to make space to be with one another.