Grantham woman finds second career as pastor of Dunbarton church
The Rev. Cynthia Bagley, of Grantham, meets with Gerry Williams, a retired artist, in his room at a nursing home in Goffstown, N.H., in December. Williams, who has Parkinson’s disease, was a well-known ceramic artist during the mid-20th century. Bagley, known to her congregation as “Pastor Cindy,” became a minister more than a decade ago after a career in finance and as a consultant. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
Cindy Bagley attends a luncheon with members of Dunbarton Congregational Church. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
The Rev. Cynthia Bagley at her church in Dunbarton, N.H. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
The Rev. Cynthia Bagley working with parishioners at a soup kitchen in Concord, N.H. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
The Rev. Cynthia Bagley prepares to deliver a sermon. (Valley News- Elijah Nouvelage)
The Rev. Cynthia Bagley speaking with soup kitchen coordinator Ole Olson in Concord, N.H. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
Gerry Williams was sitting alone in his room finishing a dinner roll on a recent Tuesday afternoon when Cynthia Bagley sat down, took his hand and asked how he was.
“Everything is going the wrong way,” said Williams, who has Parkinson’s disease.
He feels, he said, like he’s sinking.
“I don’t like to hear that,” Bagley said.
The walls of Williams’s room are decorated with photographs of his late wife, Julie, and images of his artwork. A world-renowned potter, he was New Hampshire’s first artist laureate.
Bagley, 63, asked him about his work. And they talked about India, where he grew up and she had visited as an adult. But the conversation was halting.
“I haven’t got much to say,” Williams said. “I feel like, on the whole, I’m probably spiraling downward.”
“I just wanted to come by and send you my love,” Bagley said. “It’s been a while.”
“That’s kind of you,” he said, eyes fixed on her face.
“Shall we say a prayer?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
Bagley, a self-described “city girl,” never envisioned being a country preacher ministering to a rural congregation in New Hampshire. But now, in her 11th year as “Pastor Cindy” at Dunbarton Congregational Church, the Grantham resident has a deep sense of peace about her role, which is what brought her to Williams’s room at Bel-Air Nursing Home in Goffstown.
“Loving God, we thank you for the blessings of this day, for the blessings of our friendship, the memories that we’ve shared and memories yet to come,” Bagley said, and she asked God to look after Williams and his family.
“I’m sorry I’m not more active,” Williams said.
“That’s fine,” she said, hugging him and kissing his cheek. “You’re my dear friend.”
“That’s good,” he said.
From parishioner to pastor
Bagley, originally from the Boston area, married her high school sweetheart, Michael. In the late 1970s, they relocated to Manchester. He was a successful attorney and she worked in finance, with venture capitalists and economic development organizations. They had three children and a beautiful home.
“We were living the good life,” Bagley said.
But five years after they moved, Michael was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was sick at home for 10 years, the last two in a hospital bed in the living room, receiving round-the-clock care. Eventually, he moved to a nursing home in Boston.
“The minute the word ‘chronic’ came up, he couldn’t get (insurance) coverage,” Bagley said. “We lost everything.”
When the bank took their house, Bagley and the children moved to their summer place in Grantham. Eventually, a friend found them an inexpensive rental in Manchester. It was a desperate time, and Bagley often drove to the beach in the early hours of the morning to watch the sky and pray. One freezing January night, she stood on the shore and asked God what to do.
“You should go to seminary,” came the answer.
“What? Are you, crazy?” she remembers saying. “I have no money.”
Bagley said she’s always been a “church junkie.” Growing up in the Congregational Church in Natick, Mass. – with its focus on social justice and civil rights – was great, she said. And beginning the day with chapel in high school helped center her. Even so, she couldn’t see herself as a pastor.
“The last thing I needed was to become downwardly mobile,” she said, laughing.
Bagley applied to the master’s degree program in divinity at Boston University. To her surprise, BU gave her a merit scholarship covering the entire cost.
As Michael’s illness progressed, he struggled to communicate. But when she told him she was entering the seminary program, he understood.
“Finally,” he said, smiling.
“It was just that one word, and it made it okay,” she said.
The next several years were “a blur,” she said. She was traveling to Boston for classes, taking care of her children, serving on parent-teacher boards and working as a business consultant. Each week, she spent 24 straight hours in the nursing home with Michael. He died in 2000 at age 51. Her father died just a few months later.
It was a devastating period, yet Bagley counts the years she spent in seminary among the most challenging and wonderful times in her life. She discovered what it was like to accept help. Her family received food donations from the church, and a friend came to the house to do laundry, look after the kids and bake cookies.
“It’s easy to love other people,” but it’s hard to learn how to be loved, she said. Receiving so much love and generosity from others, feeling God’s love shining through the people in her life was “a wonderful experience.”
During her last semester, Bagley traveled on a mission trip to India. The experience gave her the idea for an online directory of missions around the world, and she spent two years working on the project. The website didn’t catch on, however, and she was barely getting by as a business consultant. She still wasn’t sold on parish ministry, but she needed a day job.
And because of her personal losses, part of her was aching to work with people on a deeper level.
“Once you’ve been through a challenging experience, it’s hard not to want to leverage it into something meaningful,” she said.
Throwing a Hail Mary
The tiny Dunbarton church, where she’d filled in occasionally, offered her an interview.
She figured the experience would be “good practice,” but it was far from where she envisioned herself.
“I was primed for the cathedral,” she said.
Instead, the interview was like “being hit between the eyes.”
Down to about two dozen members, the 225-year-old church had sold its parsonage to pay the bills and was “right on the brink of packing it in,” she said.
Many struggling churches were going to part-time pastors to save money. Instead, the Dunbarton church threw a Hail Mary, opting to hire a full-time pastor. And that’s what captured Bagley’s imagination.
“I was so captivated by their willingness to put everything on the line,” she said. And the entrepreneurial side of her couldn’t resist the opportunity.
“We can completely reinvent ourselves and position ourselves for growth,” she remembers thinking after the interview.
Bagley knew what it was like to face a crisis and emerge battered, but not broken, and she applied her experience to her work. The effort has paid off. Since she became pastor, the church has grown to about 150 active parishioners. It wasn’t easy.
She and the parishioners had some “real knockdown drag-outs,” including one over her contract, which was renegotiated after she took the job, Bagley said. “We handled it. . . . Nobody left in a huff.”
And the church tackled the necessary, if sometimes uncomfortable, task of redefining itself.
Several earlier pastors hadn’t worked out, and the church “didn’t know what it wanted to be,” said Shelley Westenberg, a member of the church’s mission committee and Gerry Williams’s daughter.
Bagley knew that in order to survive, the church would need a clear focus. She also knew that naysayers would poison the process. So she laid down a rule: If you are going to be negative, leave. And some did.
“We both had friends that did have to move on,” said Leslie Hammond, a deacon and Dunbarton native. “It was very hard.”
And yet, he said, the change was necessary. Rather than being “kind of cliquish,” the church is friendlier, he said. “Now, the crowd is around the new person.”
Bagley insists the church will stay true to its roots despite the new growth. Services will never involve a rock band or projector screens.
“We’re not on our way to being a megachurch,” she said. “That’s not even our aspiration.”
Instead, as its mission statement says, the congregation aspires to offer “the best small-church experience anyone can find anywhere.”
“I like to think of small churches as the family everybody wishes they had had,” she said.
Dunbarton Congregational Church’s ministries include prayer shawl knitting and a morning prayer meeting. Once a month, worshipers volunteer at a soup kitchen in Concord. All of the activities depend on volunteers.
The congregation’s most important resource is energy, Bagley said, so rather than risk burnout, members favor short-term projects over permanent programming. Instead of one or two people leading Sunday School, many people share the responsibility, with each teaching a few weeks a year.
When a farm stand run by church members folded, Bagley wasn’t worried.
“You have to be able to live in those in-between spaces,” she said. “There will always be something that comes in to fill that space.”
Bagley describes her office as “comfortable messy,” used more for working with people than tackling paperwork, evidenced recently by a stack of sermons awaiting filing. Asked which day she takes off, she laughed. But she tries to keep a balance.
“I’m pretty good at self-care because that’s really stressed in our training,” said Bagley, who swims, practices yoga and meditates.
She makes a point of staying in touch with her clergy friends and sees a counselor regularly.
“I think when you don’t have that support system, you start to leak out,” she said. “People have such mistrust of the church these days, I want to be that place that’s safe, well-bounded and healthy, so we can take care of people.”
She also asks for help when she needs it. “I don’t have to do it all,” Bagley said.
Dunbarton, a town with about 2,800 residents, has no post office, no coffee shop, no newspaper, “none of those social capital builders,” Bagley said. “Rather than view that as a liability, we said, ‘Why don’t we do that and be that place?’ ”
Under her leadership, the church began opening on Halloween, and a parishioner dressed as Dracula plays the organ. It hosts concerts, brown bag luncheons and monthly coffeehouses to bring together people who otherwise might not see each other, Bagley said. It offers a food pantry and fuel assistance, and Girl Scouts and other organizations meet in the vestry. In 2004, Bagley joined the Dunbarton Police Department as chaplain, offering spiritual support to local families and police officers.
Dan Sklut, Dunbarton police chief since 2012, said Bagley is well-respected by the staff. And even though she doesn’t live in Dunbarton, she is well-known in town.
“She’s a part of the community here,” Sklut said.
After the death this fall of Jim Stone, a beloved Dunbarton resident and church member, Bagley came out to support the police department and Stone’s family, Sklut said.
“A person like that can be very, very comforting to a family when they receive that kind of tragic news, because it’s such a blow to the family unit,” he said. “Just to have the kind of spiritual support doesn’t change the outcome, but it does kind of cushion the message.”
About half her time is spent working with people who have no connection to the church, Bagley said. “If there’s a person in the hospital who needs care, you just show up. I never ask, ‘What church do you go to?’ ”
They may pray together, but the visit need not focus on scripture.
“It is called the ministry of presence. Really it is just being the one who shows up, as we say, when the casseroles stop coming,” she said. “All of that goes away, and you are left with your grief.”
In return, the community supports the church. On a recent Sunday, the worship hall was decorated with baskets of dried flowers in browns and reds donated by the Dunbarton Garden Club as a fundraiser. A neighbor who does not belong to the church lends his grader for plowing, and a local “angel,” also not a church member, has helped them close budget gaps in the thousands of dollars.
‘My spiritual evolution’
In 2006, Bagley married a man she had known for years. But in 2009, that relationship suddenly ended, and once again, she moved from Manchester to Grantham.
“I was so low at that point,” leaving her neighbors and friends, her community of 30 years, she said. Under the financial strain of the divorce, heating her home was a struggle. Plumbing problems had left her with half a kitchen, and for 18 months she washed dishes in the bathroom sink. But Bagley’s troubles brought her and the congregation even closer.
During the divorce, she invited a counselor to talk with the congregation about their fears and concerns. In turn, he gave Bagley an assignment: Ask for help. She did, and parishioners signed up for shifts to move her belongings. Under her new circumstances, she couldn’t afford to keep working for the same money, but the church voted her a $12,000 raise.
“I am convinced when you are faced with adversity . . . but you’re still standing, somehow whatever you need shows up,” she said. “Your life gets better.”
These days, she feels at ease with her new life.
“When you are the recipient of that much grace, you can’t but be peaceful,” she said. “That’s been my spiritual evolution, being up here in Grantham.”
The past few years have been busy – all three of her children were married within a 13-month period, and she’s hardly had time to process the divorce, she said.
This summer, however, she’ll have three months to catch her breath. Thanks to a competitive clergy renewal grant, Bagley will visit with her family in Colorado and England, and travel in Scotland and southeast Asia. The $45,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program will cover the cost of hiring a seminary student and pay for some fun activities for the congregation. During the sabbatical, Bagley and the church will also explore connections between Buddhism and Christianity.
She has hard days, Bagley said, but she’s never regretted becoming a pastor.
“My bank account has regretted it,” she said, laughing. “But it’s only money.”
Her most lucrative year working in business, Bagley made $70,000. As a first-year preacher, her salary was $40,000. To make up the difference, she worked a second job.
Bagley has a long list of things she enjoys about the ministry work. One is the diversity – a day might include reading theology, visits to parishioners and dealing with finances. With no paid staff, it’s also a “great management challenge,” she said. “Everything has to be about inspiring and motivating someone to want to give their time.”
She also likes working closely with the same people year after year.
“Digging down into people’s lives, you have incredible access. It’s such an honor to be able to do that,” she said. “You can stay with a family for 10 years and watch the kids grow and be a part of that. You wouldn’t get that in a big church.”
And then there is the “mysterious part” that she “loves.”
There have been times during sermons when she’s not even sure what she’s saying, Bagley said, laughing. But afterward, someone has told her it was “just what I needed to hear.”
“You can’t plan how your preaching will impact people,” she said.
The services include “a lot of ritual,” which is generally “not a UCC thing to do,” she said. The church held a reaffirmation of baptism that brought tears streaming down worshipers’ faces. They do a laying of hands with new members and encourage people to pray for one another.
“You don’t have to water down your faith to be contemporary,” Bagley said. “What a lot of people are looking for is that context.”
That’s true for parishioner Anne Zeller.
“She relates scriptures, which I’m not real big on, to everyday life, like children, life, politics,” said Zeller, who was a Unitarian until Bagley persuaded her that “maybe there was a little more.”
‘Your pastor and your friend’
Parishioners said Bagley has a knack for meeting people where they are. It isn’t easy.
“Sometimes I feel so helpless,” she said, after the visit with Gerry Williams at the Bel-Air Nursing Home. “I wonder if it helps, but I know it does.”
She’s known Williams and his family since she joined the church. That history, full of memories, is one of the things that makes it “doable.”
“When I see Gerry today, I think of the Gerry I’ve known all these years,” Bagley said. “I can still see him in the studio.”
Unlike her mother, who was church organist for 50 years, Williams wasn’t much of a churchgoer, Westenberg said. But after Julie’s death, he became a regular.
“Cindy really gets him and ministers to him in the way that he needs,” she said.
Bagley has also helped the family through other painful times.
When Westenberg’s mother died, Bagley came to the house in her pajamas and spent the night, Westenberg said. And when her sister, Leslie Williams, was dying from cancer, Bagley traveled once a month to New York City to see her. “She got her organized for her passing.”
The work Bagley has done with their family is a very good example of her ministry, Westenberg said. “She’s excellent at being your pastor and your friend.”