When Reverend Joshua Bode arrived to take the helm of the Woodstock Reformed Church, he was almost 31, he was taking on his first congregation, and his wife of four years was pregnant with their first child. Now, 10 years later, he is leaving at the end of June to take a post in the Persian Gulf region, along with his wife, Erica, and their three children.
Parishioners and guest pastors will take over the responsibilities of leading services and ceremonies while a long-term replacement is sought, a quest that is expected to take a year or so. A few weeks after preaching his last sermon at the tall-spired church on the town green, Bode reflected on his decade of ministry in Woodstock, the move to Oman, and the future of Christianity.
What is the job you’re taking in Oman?
The Reformed Church has had a ministry in Oman since 1893, since before oil, and in fact it’s been in the whole Gulf area. The church developed, nurtured, and behaved in ways trustworthy to government, so it has a legacy of service to the people of Oman. There’s an interfaith center and a Protestant church that the Reformed were involved in starting, later joined by the Anglicans. There are 60 nationalities in that church because the country has been developing since 1970 and is still using expatriate expertise of all classes — people building highways, people training doctors. I will be the pastor at the Protestant Church in Oman.
What made you decide to take the job?
My wife and I believe in the importance of ourselves and our kids getting a perspective on faith and life that transcends our parochial interests. Our kids are nine, seven, and three. We want them to know what it’s like to be citizens of the world. My wife lived for six months on a farm in Namibia and taught English. We both have sense of the world as big and necessary to connect to.
What I want for my kids, I want for the church. The future of Christianity is in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Reformed Church in America has practitioners on the ground, dealing with our historical privilege and how to use it for service. But do they need us there? What’s the vision for this relationship? In Oman, we’re asking these global questions in a local laboratory. Here’s a setting where Christians are not allowed to proselytize in a Muslim country. We’re pilgrims passing through. What does it look like when you don’t have to win market share by building a congregation? In an interfaith setting, all you have is love God, love neighbor, love self. I’m curious what’s on the frontier. I want to peer over the wall.
What changes have you seen in the local Reformed congregation in the past 10 years?
When I look at the group gathered now, it’s a noticeably different community of people. Part of that is because a lot of folks core to the life of the church have passed away, and some people have moved. There’s been an influx of young families. Two weeks ago, we couldn’t fit all the kids on the pew across the front of the church. We’ve also got new folks who have retired from urban areas. There’s a stream of people who didn’t grow up in the church but are having spiritual experiences, awakenings, questioning.
There’s also been an expansion of sharing the building with community groups, like Meals on Wheels, the food pantry, a meditation group, a rosary group. Hundreds of our neighbors pass through the building each week.
Did anything surprise you about the congregation?
The degree of ideological diversity in the congregation was wider than I expected. I told them a few times, how this church doesn’t blow itself up is a mystery of grace. We’ve done a lot of growing up. How do we show up as the most mature, loving people who can tell the truth to each other and stay in relationship, with love, without shaming? That kind of spiritual formation leads to functional ministry, shared goals and projects, and increases our effectiveness in the community. We’ve been working on that foundational stuff pretty hard and successfully. To their credit, they’ve done a good job.
How have the last 10 years changed you?
I didn’t know what I was doing 10 years ago. This was the first congregation I served. They tolerated some crazy sermons from someone learning the craft. I learned the hard way by blowing it with people, and that raised my skill level, especially for group process, leadership stuff.
Personally, one thing that has emerged for me is growing clarity that the culture around faith communities is changing dramatically and quickly, and faith communities face a choice of how to relate to that. Once choice would be to continue to do stuff we know how to do, just do it harder. The other would be the more difficult work of understanding what’s going on and for a church to learn how to become a thing we’ve never been before. The cultural disestablishment of the church is pretty advanced here. The culture doesn’t care about Christianity. It’s not self-evident why we are of value to human beings.
The inherited forms of the American church are running to the end of their lifespan. We’re out there without a map, and that to me is exciting and challenging. It takes people who have the skills to do hard work together and can learn things together, to figure out what is our mission in our town besides baptism, marriage, and burial. And not just for the Reformed Church but for all faiths.
What have you liked best about the Woodstock community?
This is a community that has a great capacity for adventure, and that sense of adventure has been contagious. I don’t know if Oman would’ve been an obvious thing to do if my family and I hadn’t grown up here for 10 years.
I’m grateful to the Woodstock Reformed Church for letting me explore and develop through my first 10 years. They have allowed me the space to grow and a direction of growth. Now I have a sense of myself.
The Woodstock Reformed Church and the local community are gathering for a farewell party for Reverend Bode and his family at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock, on Saturday, June 2, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Attendees will have light refreshments, share stories, and wish the Bodes well as they begin their new adventure.