New ministers at Wilton’s oldest church

The Wilton Congregational Church, one of Connecticut’s oldest, has two new ministers, the Rev. Dr. Anne Coffman and Candice Dolberry.

Coffman, a resident of Ridgefield, joined the church in October as transitional senior minister, filling the position left vacant by the Rev. Dr. Arnold I. Thomas.

Unlike an interim senior minister, a transitional senior minister goes through a discernment process and is considered for permanent hire.

Having spent the last month settling into her new role, Coffman said, “It’s going good.”

“This is a great church and it’s a great town, and I’m really excited about the possibilities here. Working with the staff here is wonderful. The people are energetic and positive; it’s a great place.”

“And it feels great to be here,” Coffman added.

Coffman received her Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School and her Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. Before heading up the ministry at Wilton Congregational, she spent several years as interim senior minister for the New Canaan Congregational Church.

And while Coffman has now served 10 different churches in Fairfield County, this latest, in her view, stands out from some of the rest.

“One thing that’s really exciting to me,” said Coffman, “is that this is a very old church — it was founded in 1726 — yet it is still such a vital and warm and welcoming place.”

Coffman finds the church’s history notable, but also sees that history as something important for her to be considering as she plans her first steps forward — steps she intends will bring about progress though without burying tradition.

“I think that the history and the continuity are important to people, but we’re all very cognizant that this is the 21st century, and we can’t do things like they did in 1750,” Coffman said. “It’s the same God, but the way we worship is not exactly the same. We are thoughtful about how to preserve what’s most important while adjusting and adapting to a changing world.”

“We’ll always worship,” Coffman added, “but it’s trying to figure out what’s most important so that that’s maintained while the rest can change.”

Coffman’s vision for the future of Wilton Congregational Church is as a place members of the community will call their “spiritual home.”

“I would love for this church to continue to be warm and welcoming to everyone, and to be a vital and nurturing place — a spiritual home is what I want, this place to be a nurturing spiritual home for people here in Wilton, people of all ages,” Coffman said.

Danbury resident Dolberry, the church’s first African-American female minister, is also its first full-time director of children and family ministries, a newly created role at Wilton Congregational.

“It really says a lot about the church,” Dolberry said. “They really want to invest in the families and the children here.”

The tasks charged to the director of children and family ministries are to direct church school for Pre-K through 5th grade as well as to develop new programs geared toward families with young children.

And since she joined in May from Jericho Partnership in Danbury, where she served as volunteer coordinator, Dolberry has already performed both of those tasks in a number of verifiable ways.

For instance, she developed Kids’ Night Out, a kids’ social night of church-related and philanthropic activities one Friday each month, as well as Trunk-or-Treat, in which children played Halloween games and then trick-or-treated out of the trunks of “15 to 20” cars parked outside Wilton Congregational.

“Instead of trick-or-treating in different areas — especially because Wilton is really spread out — they were able to wear their costumes and trick-or-treat right here in our parking lot,” Dolberry said.

Dolberry also has made several changes to the church’s children’s Sunday program, renaming it “Children’s Church” and departing to an extent from conventional Sunday school structure by keeping different age-groups together while she teaches the week’s lesson.

Another program that, in addition to Trunk-or-Treat, Dolberry considers to be one of her most notable, would be her Summer Series.

Unlike most vacation bible schools, which typically run for one week, Monday through Friday, Dolberry created something similar but that meets once weekly on Sundays and that hones in on one specific religious concept. This summer, the topic was creation.

“We went outside; we talked about creation; we found leaves and grass; we did scavenger hunts; we played games; it was fun,” Dolberry said. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t think you always have to teach inside of a classroom. Sometimes it’s better to go outside to see what you’re talking about.”

The route Dolberry took to where she is now is somewhat of an unorthodox one; she began her professional career in corporate, as a consultant, but along the way she came to the realization that a lot of people’s problems run “much deeper than finance.”

Contracting out to nonprofits, such as the Salvation Army in Meriden, “I would speak with people who lived in the homeless shelter next door,” Dolberry said. “I’d see women who had babies who were eight-weeks-old, and they’re living in a shelter. People would tell me stories of being raised in the tunnels of New York.”

“I realized that what they were missing was faith. They didn’t have that anchor to guide them, so I started pursuing ministry,” Dolberry said.

At present, Dolberry is continuing that pursuit, working on her master’s in divinity at Hartford Seminary. She is a licensed Baptist minister honored by the United Church of Christ who holds a number of continuing education units earned from Yale Divinity School.

Though she has certainly broken new ground by becoming the first African-American female minister at Wilton Congregational, Dolberry insists it is not she who has done so.

“It’s the people around me who have broken new ground,” she said, “and I think they did that when they brought on Rev. Arnold.” Arnold was the first black minister of either gender to have pastored the church.

“Watching the news and the media and just the climate of the United States and all the racial tension that has been going on for the past year,” Dolberry continued, “for Wilton Congregational Church to step outside of that and to invite diversity into their place of worship — that says something about those people. That says that they are really truly Christians at heart.”

Looking forward, Dolberry said, “I hope to be a bridge to fill in the gaps along the way, and to help create, with Rev. Anne, a family unit within Wilton Congregational Church.”