Weybridge church blends spirituality with community
WEYBRIDGE — Some religious leaders describe a “calling” that inspires them to take the pulpit of a church.
The Rev. Daniel Cooperrider’s calling three years ago took him all the way to the top of Snake Mountain in Addison, as part of a hike with members of the Weybridge Congregational Church’s search committee.
“I interviewed at a dozen churches, and this was the most unique interview,” Cooperrider, 32, told the Independent.
Cooperrider descended the mountain with a job offer and has remained committed to taking the small church to new heights through a mixture of innovative spiritual offerings and a by fostering a sense of togetherness.
He took the spiritual reins of the Weybridge Congregational Church on Sept. 2, 2013, when he was 28 years old. While young in years, Cooperrider arrived with a solid foundation in in religious studies and humanitarian outreach.
He earned his A.B. in Philosophy and Religious Studies and his Master of Divinity degrees from the University of Chicago. His blossoming resume includes stints as a teacher and consultant at Capital College in Kathmandu, Nepal; as a seminary intern at the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, Ill.; as a chaplain intern at the church home at Montgomery Place, Ill.; and most recently as a pastoral resident at the Wellesley (Mass.) Congregational Church. The latter position was a highly sought-after, two-year, comprehensive “transition into ministry program” for promising young pastors.
The previous three churches with which Cooperrider had been affiliated all counted congregations of 1,000 or more members. So it was quite a change when the young minister came to the Weybridge church and its flock of approximately 100. The church draws from Weybridge and the nearby communities of Addison, Salisbury, New Haven and Cornwall.
“It is a little bit of a different world here in Weybridge, and a different scale as well,” Cooperrider said with a gentle smile.
And that’s just fine with the folks at the Weybridge church, who are more than holding their own in an era when many other religious institutions are struggling for members. In Vermont, there is the extra challenge of an aging population and the exodus, following high school and college, of many young Vermonters.
Fortunately, the Weybridge Congregational Church has been able to buck that trend.
“We have not seen a decline, but rather slow, small and incremental growth,” Cooperrider said, noting new members have tended to be adults in their 50s or 60s. The pews on Sunday are lined with a mixture of college professors, farmers, carpenters, artisans, retirees and teachers.
“We are seeing more empty-nesters joining churches, particularly in Vermont, rather than the Millennial generation,” Cooperrider said.
He believes there are many other folks in Addison County and beyond who consider themselves religious people, but have not chosen to affiliate with organized religion for their own personal reasons. Some of those believers have found a spiritual home in Weybridge.
“Weybridge is a small town and this is a small church,” Cooperrider said. “Part of what we’re doing is reaffirming and reclaiming smallness as a real blessing and a gift. There are certain things you can do in a church this size that you couldn’t do at a much larger church.”
Smaller congregations tend to foster stronger relationships among parishioners, he noted. Pretty much all members of the Weybridge church know each other by name. And they choose to share friendship and fellowship beyond Sunday services. It’s become customary for parishioners to host dinners and go on outings together.
“There are real blessings in being a small church, in terms of how intimate the relationships can be and how you can care for one another and really focus your mission and ministry in a few key areas,” Cooperrider said.
HONING STRONG POINTS
Humans being imperfect, Cooperrider sees his church as a “star,” and works with his parishioners to figure out the key points — or strengths — of the congregation. Parishioners and church leaders can then hone those star points — which for the Weybridge church include advocacy for the environment and helping those in need.
For example, the Weybridge church has a “green team,” or environmental ministry, that advocates for responsible stewardship of the Earth and its many natural assets. Parishioners, during Sunday service, are invited to offer inspirational poems and/or advice on recycling, reducing one’s carbon footprint or simply about witnessing a wonderful natural vista.
Weybridge Congregational Church leaders last year helped form a new environmental group called the “Addison County Interfaith Climate Action Network,” or ICAN. Members have been meeting regularly to plan events and raise awareness about green energy and the dangers of climate change. The group recently hosted an “Interfaith Climate Revival” at St. Stephen’s Church in Middlebury. It included a local foods potluck meal and a brainstorming session on ways to get the group’s message out.
ICAN, Cooperrider said, wants to site a solar project in the county to help reduce the religious community’s collective carbon footprint. He explained that many church buildings are unfortunately not well-suited for hosting solar panels.
Environmental and nature themes permeate the church’s religious education efforts.
For example, Cooperrider proposed a “birds of the Bible” study series last year focusing on the raven, dove, eagle, vulture, quail and pelican, among others. With help from the Otter Creek Audubon Society, parishioners went on nature walks to spot some of the Biblical birds in their habitat.
Church members last year also marked Advent with an interesting study of darkness.
“We tried to see the sacred in the dark, rather than this (perception) of ‘light is good and dark is bad,’” Cooperrider said. “That culminated in a congregational night walk. We gathered and went on a silent walk in the dark, and then had dinner and reflected on that experience.”
That walk and dinner was held at the home of parishioner Gale Hurd, one of the pillars of the Weybridge community. The former Weybridge selectwoman moved to town 39 years ago. For many years, her work within the Addison County legal field took most of her time, to the extent that she couldn’t join a church. But that changed in 1999, when she was invited to speak to the Weybridge church congregation about the Addison County Court Diversion program.
“I had never been in the church since I had lived here,” Hurd said. “I saw the familiar faces (in the pews). When I was done speaking, the minister said, ‘If you have nothing else to do, you’re welcome to stay.’ I’ve been a member ever since.”
People from many denominations have found a new home under the Weybridge church steeple. Hurd is a former Episcopalian. Other parishioners are former Lutherans and Catholics.
“Everyone is so encouraging and respectful of one another and their individual talents and personalities,” Hurd said. “Everyone gets along and works together.”
Hurd credited Cooperrider with nurturing the positive energy within the church and its congregation.
“He encourages and fosters a deeper and different way of looking at situations and problems that have been around for a long time, whether Biblical or in our personal lives,” Hurd said.
FEEDING THOSE IN NEED
Like most congregations, the folks at the Weybridge church are always looking to help those in need — whether it’s on a local, statewide of even international scale. This past summer, parishioners conducted a pledge drive to help pay for supplies for refugees resettling in Vermont. A few weeks ago, members gathered for worship at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center and then promptly rolled up their sleeves to help process 400 pounds of fresh spinach that had been gleaned for the Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects food shelf.
And Weybridge church members are also part of the Middlebury-area religious community’s free meals for those in need.
“The mission, outreach and generosity of this church is quite stunning for a church its size,” Cooperrider said with pride. “The big thing these days is trying to think about faith not just as a heady type of intellectual endeavor, but experiential and as a whole way of life.”
Cooperrider is constantly touched by the way the parishioners look out for each other.
“We care for one another through the high points and low points, and there is a real sense that we are here particularly to look after those most in need,” he said. “Faith can get as complicated as you want it to get, but it can also be a simple thing — about loving God and loving neighbor; serving one another with love and grace.
“Gratitude and compassion are probably the two most basic religious impulses, and those are very much alive here in the Weybridge church,” he added.
Cooperrider and his spouse, Elizabeth Searcy, plan to stick around Weybridge for a while.
“I thank God every day for this opportunity to be here, to work and live amongst these people,” he said. “I have no plans to leave.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].