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.”
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.
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.