City's oldest congregation gets new pastor
DANBURY -- Pulpits are designed the way they are so that congregations can't see the knocking knees of preachers delivering their first sermon, the Rev. Pat Kriss said.
Kriss, newly installed pastor of the First Congregational Church of Danbury, the city's longest-established congregation, admits to those types of bone-rattling nerves the first time she spoke to the congregation in 2002.
"All I can remember is thinking `OK God, this is your show. You can use me to deliver your words, but I'm checking out,'" Kriss said Monday.
But quickly, once she lost her ecclesiastic stage fright, Kriss came to understand something else. She was meant to be a preacher.
"I realized this is what I was called to, to be a conduit of God's information," she said.
Kriss, 65, has been minister at the First Congregational Church since December, succeeding the Rev. Laura Westby.
Westby, who spoke at Kriss' installation Sunday, said Kriss is a good match for the First Congregational Church's flock.
She's not an unknown quantity there, having stepped in as the church's pastor while Westby was on sabbatical.
But, Westby said, Kriss' creative spirit will bring the congregation new ideas.
"Every time there's a change in leadership in a church, there's a new chapter," Westby said.
Kriss' call to ministering to those in need may have begun as early as her childhood in Syracuse, N.Y.
"I realize now that in school, all the kids who weren't cool would seek me out for help," she said. "Of course, at that stage, I wanted to be one of the cool kids, too."
Kriss married her husband Gary in 1969. She graduated from the College of New Rochelle with a bachelor's degree in fine arts, planning a career as a cartoonist.
"It helps to have a sense of humor when you're a pastor," she said.
Instead, she had a 34-year career working with health-care institutions in Westchester County, doing public affairs and fundraising. She wrote newsletters and realized that, along with a gift as a visual artist, she had a flair for the written word.
Again, Kriss said, she realized that people in the hospitals where she worked sought her out for help.
She and her husband started attending the Second Congregational Church in Greenwich in the 1980s. She became active in church affairs, eventually becoming a Stephen Minister -- a member of the church's laity who takes on some pastoral duties as a counselor and caregiver.
In 2002, the Greenwich church's pastor, the Rev. Robert Naylor, who was pastor of the First Congregational Church in Danbury three decades earlier, urged Kriss to become a lay preacher, giving her another way to help the Greenwich congregation.
"I knew she was a very caring person," Naylor said. Instead, he said, Kriss' Christian faith, her writing and speaking skills, and her passion for spreading the word of God took her life in a new direction. She attended the Yale School of Divinity and was ordained in 2010.
In her first months at the First Congregational Church, Kriss had to attend to six funerals, including those of Lauren Rousseau, a lifelong member of the church who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14, and of Annie Orr, the rock of social consciousness in the city.
Now, she said, the church is moving into a period of renewal.
Kriss said she wants to become deeply involved in ecumenical services throughout Danbury.
"There are many paths to God," she said. "They all lead to the same place."
She also wants to revitalize the First Congregational Church, the roots of which go back to 1696.
Under her direction, the church has started a monthly jazz service with music led by guitarist Doug Hartline.
She hopes to have staff from the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y., come to the church with a wolf to bring home the message that all creatures great and small are part of creation.
"We want to bring people here and make them happy," Kriss said. "That is where God is."