Church flourishes thanks to ‘ingenuity’ of lay leaders

SOUTHWICK-With the Southwick Congregational Church, United Church of Christ on College Highway currently without an interim minister, church moderator Terry Putnam and lay leaders have stepped up to ensure the congregation continues to flourish during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Local governance by its church members is a distinguishing characteristic of the Congregational Church,” said Putnam, adding, “Our membership accomplishes this through an annual church meeting, our elected leaders, and our various committees.”

While church leaders regularly seek guidance from the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ, Putnam noted “we are autonomous.”

“A great deal of effort, ingenuity, and engagement from the congregation is required to sustain and grow our church,” said Putnam. “The COVID pandemic has truly put our ingenuity and engagement to the test.”

Bob Franzen, a member of the Southwick Congregational Church’s building and grounds committee, worked on the plexiglass installation project earlier this year. (TERRY PUTNAM PHOTO)

Putnam said in “normal” times, the role of the church moderator is to preside over monthly committee meetings and leadership executive sessions, as well as the annual all-church meeting.

“Since the pandemic, I have helped to coordinate our efforts to continue our ministry safely, first offering services exclusively online via Facebook and YouTube, and now providing both in-person and online services,” said Putnam.

Keeping in touch with members who remain sheltered in place at home have also been a top priority for Putnam, and leadership group members have made telephone calls, sent cards, and made socially distant visits.

“Our leadership group and I have met virtually throughout the pandemic and continue to tweak the services we provide our members to ensure that we are meeting their needs in the safest manner possible,” said Putnam.

The leadership group includes the chairs of the deacons, finance committee, Christian education, missions and outreach, music, building and grounds, pastoral relations, and memorial gifts.

Presently, in-person and recorded services followed by online Zoom coffee hours are offered each Sunday.

Singing chambers were created at the Southwick Congregational Church because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Pitoniak is seen on left; Mike Pitoniak is on the right, and Roberta Kowal, church organist and choir director, is seated on the pew. (TERRY PUTNAM PHOTO)

“We’ve adapted our in-person services to meet the current safety requirements, including adequate ventilation, while allowing our members to enjoy scripture readings, sermons, music, and fellowship in a condensed, 30-minute format,” said Putnam.

Putnam added that when the interim minister resigned at the end of August, members of the leadership group and the congregation stepped up to fill the void.

“We were able to safely transition within a two-week period from providing online sermons and virtual coffee hours only to hosting weekly in-person worship services complete with live music from soloists, duos, and musicians,” said Putnam. “This would not have been possible without the tremendous efforts of our leadership team.”

Leadership team members include Melanie and Eric Nitsch, Patti Wood, Kristy Johnston, Bob Franzen, Karen Brzezinski, Patty Banasik, Roxanne Cook, Ted Orson and Joe and Donna Sullivan. Additionally, Putnam noted that deacons Patty Banasik, Flo Pitoniak, Dawn Turgeon and Lee Zinnack have also been an integral part of the process, as well as greeters who include Robin Sklarski and Jim Putnam, speakers including Kirsten Allhusen, Flo Pitoniak, Patti Wood, and Bob Bates, and musicians and singers including Roberta Kowal, Eric Nitsch, Bob Franzen, and Mike and Steve Pitoniak.

“We also owe a tremendous thanks to the members of our congregation who continue to support us with their attendance at our in-person or virtual services, with their feedback, and with their thoughts and prayers,” said Putnam.

While weekly attendance at in-person worship service averages 60% of the pre-COVID-19 numbers, Putnam added the church is also serving another 10 to 15 people at the weekly virtual coffee hour service.

“We are not having any internal classes or choir practices for the foreseeable future,” said Putnam. “We are providing music at each service but are limiting it to musicians only, soloists, or duets and have developed ‘singing chambers’ for the soloists and duets to protect the organist and congregation.”

Putnam noted that the church remains financially stable since “donations have continued during the pandemic.”

For Putnam and the leadership group, one of the more challenging aspects they have experienced during the pandemic is “providing weekly worship in a format that meets the needs of our congregation and maintains a ‘connection’ with members who remain sheltered in place.”

The Southwick Congregational Church sign announces “we are back.” (TERRY PUTNAM PHOTO)

Now as the holiday season fast approaches, Putnam and the lay leaders are making plans in accordance with protocols that will keep everyone safe.

“We don’t anticipate much change to our Thanksgiving Sunday service,” said Putnam, adding, “much will depend upon our COVID rate in December for the Christmas Eve service.”

Putnam noted that traditionally, most of the service at Christmas is devoted to choral and bell music.

“With limitations on choirs likely, we will be revamping the service to ensure that it is still meaningful and memorable while keeping our congregation safe,” said Putnam.

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of stories highlighting the ways church leaders have adapted church life to the coronavirus pandemic. For church leaders who would like to share their story, email Westfield News Editor Hope Tremblay at [email protected].

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