Called to the care of souls at Ridgebury’s little church

Deborah Rundlett is now leading Ridgebury Congregational Church, which had gone more than four years without a pastor. — Macklin Reid photo
Deborah Rundlett is now leading Ridgebury Congregational Church, which had gone more than four years without a pastor. — Macklin Reid photo

Being called to the care of souls — other people’s souls — comes from deep, with roots reaching far back. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life.

“I knew that I was called to the ministry when I was 12 years old,” said the Rev. Deborah Rundlett, the new pastor of Ridgebury Congregational Church. The church had gone four years without a pastor before Rundlett’s arrival.

Her realization about the ministry came during a sermon at the Reform Church of Bronxville, the church that nurtured her youth in the Westchester County, N.Y., village.

“Dr. Copenhaver was preaching. It was Easter Sunday. And I thought: ‘I should be doing that.’ The only problem was there were no women doing that,” Rundlett said. “So they humored me. I told them I was called to be a pastor. They thought I’d grow out of it.”

After decades of living the work, her chosen life task is still something that humbles her.

“People are nurtured in their faith in church,” she said.

“How do you help people grow into spiritual maturity for the flourishing of our communities?”

One answer is: Not easily.

“We’re in a time of disruptive change,” Rundlett said. “That requires the whole person — body, mind and spirit.”

Ridgebury Congregational Church has been making do without its own full-time pastor for almost half a decade.

“We’ve been getting along with fill-in ministers and term ministers,” said church member Nancy Boersma.

It’s a congregation with about 80 active members, and a more than 160-year-old building — the small white Greek Revival church off Ridgebury Road at the intersection of George Washington Highway.

“It’s an extraordinary group of people. They’re amazing,” Rundlett said. “Actually, I think sometimes they’ll figure out that they don’t need a pastor — they did the work themselves for four years. But they said I can come along and join the fun.”

‘Energy and excitement’

Congregation moderator Lou Yarrish — a retired Ridgefield fire chief — said they’re happy with their new minister, who started Oct. 1.

“Debbie has brought energy and excitement to our congregation,” Yarrish said. “And her sermons inspire us to be better Christians in our everyday life.”

Each Sunday morning represents a lot of thought.

“We plan a whole quarter ahead,” Rundlett said. “You want the music to weave, and the prayers to weave. Because my goal is to help people to grow up into spiritual maturity. Sermons are not haphazard: Each cycle that I preach begins with the end in mind.

“The first cycle, I began here: What does it mean to be a church — or the body of Christ — in the 21st Century?”

The six-week cycle of sermons will end with: “What does it mean for me to find my kneeling place in terms of my relationship with God?” Rundlett said.

Services at Ridgebury Congregational Church are Sundays from 10 to 11.

“And then there’s food — always,” Rundlett said.

Family affair

Rundlett and her husband, Dick Greenwood, live in the parsonage on the corner of Ridgebury Road and George Washington Highway, across from the church.

“It’s fabulous. It’s this lovely old house, just be careful where you step,” she said.

“The church has invested deeply to make it a home again, and it is a place where we will do ministry — because we believe ministry begins with hospitality,” Rundlett said..

“My husband is also a pastor, although he’s retired,” she added. “And he absolutely shares in this venture.”

They have daughter, a commercial pilot living in Chicago.

Living with them in the parsonage are two Labradors, Barnabas and Luke.

Barnabas is social and often joins church meetings

“He feels he should always be with humans,” Rundlett said.

The parsonage is “rich with history,” she’s aware.

“That story of the parson’s wife screaming at the redcoats to go home — she had to be pulled back in the window before she got shot by a musket — whether apocryphal or not, I love that story,” she said.

Path to the pulpit

Rundlett has seen pastoring from a variety of angles — congregant, pastor, teacher of pastors.

“I served congregations here in Connecticut, in Westchester County. But then the journey became our home. I’ve served in San Diego, Chicago, Amish country in Ohio, Pittsburgh,” she said.

After high school in Bronxville, she went to Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

“It’s still an all-women’s college,” she said.

Rundlett followed college with four years in advertising, and was “part of the launch team” for IBM’s personal computer.

The desire to stand in front of a congregation giving sermons was put on hold.

“Who needs to listen to a 21-year-old?” Rundlett said. “I needed some living and life experience.”

A few years in advertising, then Yale Divinity School.

“I played hookie one day and I went up and applied to Yale, and then was accepted,” she said.

“My rep from Fortune magazine didn’t quite know what to do, so he brought my flowers. Tiffany was one our clients, as well, and they gave me a tea service, because I was becoming a pastor.”

The advertising experience proved helpful.

“Went to Yale Divinity School, loved the head stuff, the learning,” she said. “...The practical approach, in terms of doing ministry, came more out of my advertising years.”

Pastor of pastors

“My first call was to a new church development in Brookfield, Connecticut. And my second call was to a turn-around church in Port Chester, New York,” Rundlett said. “And that church, we grew fourfold, and came to represent people from 16 different nations. It was fabulous. Spent 10 years there.”

Eventually, her role changed.

“Of the last 18 years, 14 have been coaching and equipping other pastor-leader teams,” she said. “My work shifted from being the pastor of a congregations, to a pastor of pastors.”

She added teaching — “a doctoral track on leadership” at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio.

“I had students from 30 different nations. It was really cool,” she said.

But life is about growth, change — and returning.

“I think the return to parish ministry is the desire to be on the ground again, working with people committed to the transformation of their community,” she said.

“The organization I served before coming here was 32,000 people. I was in charge of the care of 32,000 souls. That gets you pretty far removed from being on the ground.”

A pastor nurtures individuals, and a community.

“The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, ‘we all come to earth with sealed orders.’ I believe my job as a pastor is to help people, individually and collectively, to unseal those orders,” she said.

“Because here’s the reality: when people are doing what they love, it contributes to a flourishing community. And when they are not, they are miserable — and that can really tear at the fabric of community.”

To help individuals find community, and help communities thrive and grow, is to take part in making the world a better place, according to Ridgebury’s new pastor.

“We’re in a threshold time,” Rundlett said, “and I believe we can make a difference in terms of helping people find that intersection of passion and strength in response to the needs of our communities.”