Soon after the November fire that devastated the Saugatuck Congregational Church, Alison Buttrick Patton had her 2nd meeting with a committee searching for a new pastor.
The congregation was reeling. No one knew what lay ahead — including how, or even if, the near-200-year-old church would survive.
But out of that meeting came a conviction — on both sides — that Alison and the Saugatuck Church were a good fit.
“I was deeply moved by the way everyone handled the fire,” she recalled last week. “One of their prayers included an appeal that this tragedy might open the congregation’s hearts to the suffering of others. That was a key moment for me.”
The committee was equally impressed with Alison’s vision for the church, her commitment to social justice, and her eagerness to be involved in the life of both the congregation and the Westport community.
On Tuesday, Rev. Patton joins the church as its next pastor. Next Sunday (May 6), she will lead her 1st service — at Temple Israel, its temporary home.
Alison comes to Westport from First Church Simsbury. Since 2007, she has served it as associate minister for parish life and outreach. She has been vitally involved in interfaith work, and the town’s homeless shelter. Both are key elements of the Saugatuck Congregational Church’s ministry too.
But Simsbury has a building. Right now — and for months to come — Saugatuck is a church without walls.
That could have driven a way a less intrepid pastor than Alison.
“There’s a lot of rebuilding work ahead,” she admits. “But this is also a key moment. Doors can be opened very creatively. Despite the grief of losing a building, this is a very exciting time for us all.”
When Alison arrives — her family will join her when school ends — she plans to do “plenty of listening.” She laughs, “there are lots of dinners planned. I know I’ll be fed very well!
“I want to immerse myself in routines, and understand from the inside out exactly who this congregation is,” she adds. She hopes to find “ways and places to celebrate together,” and looks forward to “a party or two. Maybe even on the front lawn!”
She is also eager to “know and meet the greater Westport community — the one in which the church lives and breathes.”
As for the church’s bigger vision: “We’ll figure that out together.”
Alison’s style — at least, what those around her would say — is “energetic, creative, and dynamic.” Worship can be quiet, she notes, “but it also needs to move and inspire us.”
She likes collaboration. Some of her best thinking and planning is done in groups.
She is passionate too about “justice, and living a faith that makes a difference in our lives — and others’.”
The move from Simsbury will not be easy. However, Alison says, her husband Craig is a fiction writer who knows that Westport honors the written word. Their sons Tobey (age 9) and Ian (6) have explored the beach, and the great playground behind the parsonage. (They also love Shake Shack.)
“Our entire family has been so warmly welcomed already,” Alison says. “I think this town will be a great fit for us. People in Westport seem committed to their community, and concerned about their environmental footprint.”
But she knows this town thrives on contention. “It strikes me as politically diverse,” she says. “People make their voices known. I look forward to those conversations.”
One aspect of Alison’s new ministry has not come up much: the fact that she’ll be the 1st female senior minister in the 182-year history of the Saugatuck Congregational Church.
“I don’t think about it,” she says. “My mother and godmother were ministers, and other women in my life were also ministers.” (Her father was a minister too.) “I’m just very used to it.”
This week, the church starts getting used to a new minister. One who is very conscious of storied its past, and very excited to lead it into the promising future.