Lincoln pastor brought love and humor to 38 years of service
LINCOLN — The Rev. Dave Wood, the long-time pastor of the United Church of Lincoln, found his life’s calling on a canoe trip.
“It had been an amazing day,” said Wood, who was then in his early 20s and leading youth group activities in upstate New York.
“We had climbed up to the top of Mount Ampersand, and the kids were just marveling at everything that was around them. And when we got back to the campfire, they were asking all these questions about life, about faith. And what they were getting at was, ‘Jeepers, Why are we here? What’s this about? Is this all there is?’ They were asking the questions that people have been asking for thousands and thousands of years.”
His response to those teens, Wood said, was just to share his own feelings and journey, not to try and convert anybody. And that’s when he had his aha! moment.
“There was a certainty. This feels right. And I thought, ‘Well, if it means becoming a minister, OK. That’s what I’m going to do.’”
For close to four decades “Pastor Dave” has led the United Church of Lincoln. He began July 1, 1979. Age 28. His first job in the ministry. He’ll deliver his last sermon as pastor this coming Sunday, June 25.
He and his wife, Donna, a retired schoolteacher and the church’s longtime choir director, have served the community for 38 years.
“When Dave and Donna came, they were very young. I think I was about 15,” said Lincoln General Store owner Vaneasa Stearns. “They took on the youth group, and they were so energetic. They took us all to Florida to Disney. And there were all kinds of shenanigans and fun times. That’s my earliest memory of Dave and Donna — just how energetic and full of life they were and bringing that to the community.”
Stearns continued: “It’s going to be sad to see them go. They’ve touched a lot of different families.”
Wood grew up in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in a devout family. In high school, even if he’d worked till 3 a.m. at his job at the drive-in movie theater, he was expected to be in the pews Sunday morning. In college he tried computer science, then switched to sociology and psychology. He got his bachelor’s from the State University of New York at Potsdam in 1973.
Soon after graduation, he and Donna married.
Just out of college, he still didn’t know what he wanted to do. His dad, a successful insurance salesman who was “very good at getting people to do things,” talked him into taking on a series of youth group assignments in the Adirondacks. That led to his aha! moment on Saranac Lake.
Wood recalled that for Donna, a farmer’s daughter, one of the most challenging aspects of his chosen calling was that they might have to move around a lot, as that’s what most ministers did.
Instead, Wood found that as a seminarian he preferred working in rural communities. So when he saw a hand-written letter from the Lincoln church that also mentioned, “if you like a church with a sense of humor,” he knew he had found the right spot.
“I still have that letter,” Wood said. “I came here and stayed here because I just fell in love with the people.”
Under Wood’s leadership, the church saw a close to doubling in attendance.
And it faced some tough challenges.
On April 17, 1981 — Good Friday — the church’s 1863 worship space burned to the ground.
Wood vividly remembers being woken suddenly just after 4 a.m. and running toward the church and watching the windows blow out.
A piece of electrical wiring had broken and then arced, igniting the propane furnace.
“The church burned in two hours,” said Wood.
After the fire, church elders figured that he’d take his young family (the couple by then had three children) and move on to a bigger parish and bigger salary.
Instead, he stayed. The congregation also owned the former Methodist building just up the road. They restored it, and in 1982 moved it to their present worship space at the town crossroads. The church began reaching even deeper into the community, initiating such projects as the Weathervane housing for Lincoln’s seniors.
WIRED AND RUSHED
Wood said that after he retires, he plans to do interim work at churches in New York and Vermont. He said that he and Donna haven’t planned any next big adventure, but instead are looking forward to “taking a breath.”
As he looks forward to his own time to pause and reflect, Wood worries that today’s hectic pace, overscheduling and 24/7-electronics lifestyles, is fragmenting community — even in a place like Lincoln.
“I think we’ve lost something sacred, a sense of community, a sense of something more,” said Wood. “We don’t have time to think about things, we’re rushing so fast. It’s not a put down on anybody, but it’s a recognition that this is what is happening.”
Wood observes that families are spending less time doing simple thing like eating together, and that people overall are spending less time just hanging out together and interacting across generations.
“I think a lot is lost personally when we live more on the surface, and we don’t take the time to see anything deeper or ask questions about deeper matters, about meaning.”
In recent years, said Wood, teens around the campfire now stay glued to their cellphones instead of looking up at the stars.
But if you stick with it long enough, he added, those cellphones do get put away.
“Those distractions get old,” said Wood. “And if you’re around a campfire long enough, you start looking up. You start thinking about the constellations, the way the wind’s blowing. And all of a sudden it gets a little bit deeper.”
That faith in people, is perhaps what has distinguished Wood’s service most of all.
Said longtime parishioner Bill Finger: “Dave and Donna Wood brought Lincoln their unshakable faith in God and the infinite opportunity and possibility for all people. Their open minds, hearts and arms always find time for everyone, without regard to age, gender, religion, denomination, philosophy, politics, orientation or any of the multitudinous distractions that fracture our world.
“Dave and Donna have shown Lincoln true community not by preaching, rather by loving, accepting and believing that the best is yet to come.”
Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].
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