GROTON — Leaders in the Groton City United Church of Christ are counting their blessings as they look to their 125th anniversary.
They have 25 members, which is a good number for a small church, says co-pastor, the Rev. Nancy Rehkugler of Cortland.
They are doing good works: organizing spaghetti dinners, donating money to the Groton Food Pantry, funding children who want to go to summer camp — as well as offering an in-person weekly Sunday service at the Groton City Road church, with a Baptist minister one week and a Methodist minister the next.
“We’re doing very well,” said Rehkugler, a retired Methodist minister, who has been alternating Sundays with the Rev. Rich Barron of Berkshire, a retired American Baptist minister.
Parishioners have been meeting in person all along, save for a three-month shutdown in 2020 when churches were ordered to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Probably the only time in history,” said Ron Boyden of Groton, a member and retired farmer of 38 years.
Actually, not true, said Rehkugler, who’s been looking into the church’s history as she prepares her special anniversary sermon. “In 1918, this church missed five Sundays — some because of weather. Some because of the pandemic.”
Groton City United Church of Christ will celebrate its 125th anniversary with two Sunday services, so each pastor can share a special sermon, on Nov. 14 and Nov. 21. Special music is planned. After the Nov. 21 service, a Turkey dinner will be served and more than 100 invitations have been sent to people who’ve been connected to the church.
The church, formed Nov. 19, 1896, used to be a Congregational Church, said Mary Jacobs of McLean, clerk there for 38 years. It became a United Church of Christ in the 1960s, said Phyllis Boyden, a retired language teacher in the Homer School District.
And the church met three years before 1896 in people’s homes, as a society, Jacobs said. “Winters were cold and there was no central heat,” she said.
Shift in society
Phyllis Boyden remembers the days in the ‘60s when vacation Bible school in the summer brought in 100 children.
“We used to have a lot of children that lived in this hamlet,” said Boyden, a Sunday school teacher. Today, getting children to the church is a challenge. Young families are rare along Groton City Road. Before the pandemic there was one family that brought their five children. But they are cautious and have not been coming, said Boyden.
Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor
Phyllis Boyden keeps this project done by Sunday school students from before the pandemic up at Groton City United Church of Christ because it is so cheery.
“I remember our peanut brittle nights. We made a ton and a half of peanut brittle,” Jacobs said. Their last batch, made in 2019, they made 800 pounds.
“Annually, we have a community hay ride sponsored by Fouts Farm,” Ron Boyden said. “And we do hot dogs and s’mores.” And they have an annual summer picnic.
The church started with 25 members in 1896; it remains at 25 members.
Church membership is down in general, in many denominations, said Laurel Harte-Westover, executive director of the Cortland County Council of Churches.
“I think some feel the church has not kept up with the times, our worship services and things like that,” Harte-Westover said. “Fifty years ago, if it was a Sunday morning at 10 or 11 a.m., you were in church. That’s the way it was for 90 percent of Americans.”
“Now it’s different. There are a lot of spiritual avenues,” she said. “If they do come to church, they don’t come every week. I think younger people don’t see church as where they will find answers to their questions and dilemmas in life.”
Working hard for church
A church like Groton City celebrating its 125th anniversary is amazing, Harte-Westover said. “Many of our churches have to work hard to keep the doors open.”
But close-knit communities work hard together, she added. “They know each other well. That’s a long time to be there, every single week.”
Part-time ministers or ministers serving two or three churches is a growing phenomenon.
“Small churches that have 25 or 30 regulars in attendance can’t support a full-time clergy,” Rehkugler said. “You would need 150 in worship to support a full-time clergy.”
“Or 150 people giving,” Barron said. “The church that I am a member of has one full-time clergy. It’s true. It’s a financial burden. But a lot of churches that have full-time pastors have some endowment to fall back on.”
Rehkugler has been at Groton City Church four years after former pastor Doug Deer asked her to fill in because of poor health. Then he died. And Barron, who’s been serving two years in Groton, stepped in when the Rev. Jim Hicks, a retired Presbyterian minister working in Groton, was called to be interim pastor at another church.
Rehkugler said the alternating-week sermons work for her in her retirement. She and Barron work together when funerals and visits to the sick are needed.
“The congregation knows they can call on both of us,” Barron said. “If the church sees a need, it responds.”
Rehkugler said a lot of churches this size don’t have a pianist.
“We have two, a pianist/organist and another pianist who substitutes,” she said. “We have talented quartets.”
Ron Boyden is a Barnstormer, part of a 100-member choral assembly of Christian men that sing all over the Northeast. The Barnstormers sang in Groton before the pandemic.
“In Groton, we had over 90 singers, that was a record,” said Phyllis Boyden, Ron’s wife.
“I think the plaster came off the ceiling,” Ron Boyden said.
Photos by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor
Top Left: Mary Jacobs of McLean is the clerk, a job she’s had for 38 years.
Top Right: The Rev. Rich Barron of Berkshire, a retired American Baptist minister, co-pastor.
Bottom Left: The Rev. Nancy Rehkugler of Cortland, a retired Methodist minister, co-pastor.
Bottom RIight: Phyllis Boyden, one of the Sunday School teachers.
Spaghetti dinners are back
The church had a take-out spaghetti dinner Oct. 9. They served 134 dinners, with 34 dinners specially delivered.
Ron Boyden and Ed Miller made the sauce. Herb Gregory made the spaghetti. Jacobs made the salad, with her celery seed dressing, much requested, and led a crew of cookie bakers.
“We’re famous for that. People enjoy it,” Jacobs said. “We had not done that for a year and a half.”
The funds raised, all by donations, pay the church’s fuel bill, Jacobs said.
“We are extra generous to food pantries,” said Rehkugler. “Financially, to Groton Food Pantry the last couple of years. And camperships for children who want to go to summer camp.”
“This church is unique,” Rehkugler added. “It serves it’s community — all around it. And it tends to be filled with many farmers and farmers’ families.”
Harte-Westover said churches in the future need to find that combination of what it is they stand for and be open to new ideas.
“We really see the need to work with all people and people of other faiths,” she said. “In the old days, church existed to help people be Christian. Now it’s to help people live as the best people they can, with faith in God, the best way they can express that.”