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David J. Wood: A meditation on transitions

As he prepares to return to pastoral ministry after leading the Transition into Ministry program -- his ninth transition in 27 years -- David Wood offers wisdom from his nomadic existence.

June 9, 2009

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was delivered May 7, 2009, in Indianapolis at a gathering of young pastors who are participants in the Transition into Ministry programs.

“It could very well be that my sole purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others.”
Ashleigh Brilliant

There I was sitting at the street café in Paris with my senior pastor having lunch on a late fall afternoon in 1997. By this time, I had been serving in my post as associate pastor of the American Church in Paris for some four months. It had been a glorious few months. It had been a grueling few months. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Our three children, ages 8, 8, and 12, were settling into French public school incredibly well. The church was rich in diversity and possibility. The city was breathtaking. We lived on the church property, on the famed Left Bank, overlooking the Seine, equidistant to the Eiffel Tower, the Hôtel des Invalides, the Musée D’Orsay and the Louvre. I can still see my children rollerblading around I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. I could go on …

But there was a fly in the precious ointment that was running down the contours of our lives. We did weddings. And I mean, we did weddings. I think my record was five in one day. At that time the church was realizing between $350,000 to $400,000 per year from this effort.

 

Engaging the texts:

When he offered these thoughts on transition, the Rev. David Wood followed them with a reading of Scripture. How do these texts speak to issues of transition?

A young Japanese couple, just off their flight from Japan, would pull up to the church in their hired limousine and make their way into the narthex of the church, where I, fully robed and vested, would greet them. They would be dressed perfectly as bride and groom. Always stunning to behold. Typically, they were accompanied only by a driver and a tour guide.

After exchanging formal greetings, we would be seated at a small table where I would proceed to talk them through the wedding vows. All in English, of course. The hope here was that if they spoke them with me, after me, they would sound a bit more confident, even intelligible, in the actual ceremony. There was no possibility of extended conversation of any kind. Even with fluent English, French and Japanese speakers in the room, the capacity for translation from Japanese to English was always minimal. Eventually, I would make my way down the long aisle of the beautiful Gothic sanctuary and take my place in the chancel. The grand pipe organ would reverberate through the empty sanctuary with the traditional wedding march and the couple would process. We would proceed through the brief ceremony with an economy of words more typical of a justice of the peace than an ordained pastor. Just before the recessional, I would present them with a Japanese Bible as a token of the gospel.

Post recessional, the couple would return to the front of the sanctuary for pictures with me. I would then depart -- often just in time to greet the next couple who would be entering the narthex for their wedding.

There were, of course, always videographers on hand to record the entire affair. The video was no small part of the whole occasion. On one occasion, as we prepared for the post-ceremonial photo shoot, the videographer informed us that his battery had run out halfway through the ceremony and so we would have to do it again. I was flabbergasted. The organist, sensing my disbelief, shot me a look that said, “Of course we will.” And so we did.

Now, back to the sidewalk café. This was the day I had determined that I was going to talk candidly with my senior colleague about my growing distress with our wedding business. So I did. I talked of how after these four months I was feeling a profound dis-ease with it all. I felt, to put it bluntly, ashamed and not a little depressed.

Being well-schooled in being a non-anxious presence, he responded jovially, “Hey, don’t worry. I know exactly how you feel. I remember feeling just as you do when I first arrived. You’ll get over it.” I don’t remember much else from the conversation. I do remember thinking, “That’s exactly what I am afraid of.” His words, intended to convey comfort and encouragement, left me feeling more alone and isolated and despondent than ever. That was, as I look back on it, the beginning of my final days in Paris.

Eight months later and two years ahead of schedule, in the summer of 1998, we would leave Paris behind and settle ourselves into our new home in Louisville, Ky., where I would begin my Lilly-related work as the associate director of the Louisville Institute. Needless to say, Louisville was a long way from the city of King Louis.

We spend a lot of time in [Transition into Ministry ] tending to the transition into ministry. And I remain utterly convinced that such attention must be paid and will pay off in countless ways in your lives and in the life of the church for years to come. What looms as large, if not larger, are the transitions in ministry -- those times of discernment that occupy us well beyond our transitions into ministry that have to do with picking up and moving on from one place to another, from one congregation to another, from one ministry to another. For whatever reason, perhaps it is my stage of life, I seem to be surrounded by peers who are in the midst of transitions in ministry. Perhaps I am more alert to such transitions because I am in the thick of one myself. Whatever the reasons, of late I have been struck by the profound significance of transitions in ministry.

One of the great assets of the residency programs that are part of the Transition into Ministry program is that, as residents, you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering you on as you head toward the exit -- which feels like the front door. Enjoy it now. Down the road, in congregational life, if you find yourself getting a “standing O” as you head toward the exit, it will have a very different feeling for all concerned. Most pastors prefer to seek a side or rear exit.

As difficult and demanding as the transition into ministry is, it is the transitions in ministry that will be uniquely daunting, consuming, confusing, exhilarating, perplexing, overwhelming, clarifying, unnerving, disorienting, illuminating, liberating, and even, at times, downright salvific.

As pastoral leaders, we are in a profession that seems to have transition built into its DNA. Here is a predictable exchange to be overheard between pastors when they first meet: “So, where are you in ministry?” Aha. Interesting. “How long have you been there?” Great. “And, how long do you think you’ll be there?”

Now, no pastor I know would find that sequence or line of questioning odd or in any way invasive. It could not be more different than this line of questioning: “Are you married?” Aha. “How long have you been married?” Aha. Interesting. “How long do you think you will be married?” Now that would be awkward. However, the former line of questioning of and by pastors seems entirely fitting. For whatever reason, it makes sense for pastors to talk in such terms.

At 52, I am currently in the midst of my ninth transition in ministry since graduating from seminary in the spring of 1982. That averages out to about one transition every three years. I am beginning to look like a Methodist. Although, in reality, my longest stay was more in the range of eight years. So, if experience counts for anything, I guess I have become somewhat of an expert on transitions in ministry and I would like to share just a few of the pearls of wisdom that have been cultivated in the oyster shell of my nomadic existence.

First, where you think you are going is rarely the place where you end up. This does not mean you have made a mistake. It simply means you made a decision. More often than not, your so-called “discernment process” will succeed in processing only one appendage of the elephant in the room. This means you can rarely measure the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a move by how much (or how little) you discover on site that nobody told you about. This is not a degrading statement about the character of congregations. It is a reality statement about humanity. We always see through a mirror dimly, even when we are face to face. On top of that, let us not forget that there is plenty of evidence that God’s idea of an adventure is almost always found between a rock and a hard place. Yes, there is the parting of the Red Sea . . . which opens into a wilderness. There is the opening of the heavens, a descending dove and a voice from above . . . which is closely followed by a showdown with the devil. There is the Damascus road . . . resulting in blindness and desert dwelling. The list goes on. Perhaps it is best to assume the calling intrinsic to every move is the call to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.” Wherever we land, there we must learn to sing.

This leads to my second pearl: cultivate contentment. Contentment is not a given. It’s not even a gift. Contentment is an achievement -- but once you have it, it feels like a gift. I am less convinced than ever that we end up in the wrong place. I am more convinced than ever that there is plenty of wrong in every place we choose and in many of our reasons for choosing them. The circumstances in which we find ourselves (which includes the misgivings we find in ourselves) are not inevitably conducive to contentment. They require the exercise of the discipline of contentment which entails at the very least the following moves: embracing locality; celebrating domesticity; inhabiting the quotidian; welcoming surprise (both good and bad); and practicing, practicing, practicing the art of improvisation. Don’t let the flies distract you from the preciousness of the ointment.

The story is told of Wynton Marsalis playing one of his signature trumpet solos in a jazz club in New York City. The audience was transfixed and transported as he brought the solo toward its conclusion. Then someone’s cell phone went off. The cell phone violator ran for the door -- whether to take the call or to save his life is not known. About the time the crowd recovered their composure, they noticed that Marsalis, without a pause, had incorporated the cell phone jingle into his solo. And he was going with it. Then, somehow, he found the way from there to where he left off, again without missing a note. The piece was redeemed, and the performance the better for it. The art of improvisation is the footing and the fruit of contentment.

Thirdly, stability is the counter-move. There is an overabundance of literature out there written by and for pastors that seeks to comfort us in our decisions to move on -- which means you are going to have to. The rationale for “moving on” is far more developed and available than the rationale for “staying put.” Mobility trumps stability in the logic of the day. The wonderful exception to this, in terms of literature of and by pastors, is Eugene Peterson’s “Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness.” We need to raise the bar on moving. Reading “Under the Unpredictable Plant” is the best primer on stability I know. Start there.

Fourthly, you cannot do this alone. I continue to be amazed at how many pastors make these life-changing decisions of transition in solitude. To be sure, there is always a shroud of secrecy that necessarily hovers over these occasions of transitions. However, that should never mean we keep these decisions to ourselves or our spouses. You must have friends to find your way through the valley of decision. By friends I mean those who know you in time and space -- those who know the quotidian shape of your life first-hand and not only through your filtered interpretation of it. The internet and the cell phone connect us in time. For our words (and our friendships) to become flesh, we need to share space as well. Friends help us to see what we would otherwise be blind to. Friends are not those who see things the same way we do. Rather, they enable us to see what we are unable or unwilling to see alone. And friends are what we need when we find ourselves in an alien land, without a song, tempted to believe we have gone off the providential map.

At the center of our sense of place in this world is not a mountain or a city or a Mecca -- a place where we have to go to be found. At the center of our sense of place is a table. One could use this fact to bolster the case for mobility. There is, as you know, the much-heralded notion of the “moveable feast.” True enough. But the point of the table is not mobility but ubiquity. It’s not that tables are easy to move from place to place. It’s that there is one to be found in every place. Any old table will do. Got bread, wine, hungry hearts. We have everything we need.