WESTMINSTER -- A three-year pastoral partnership at the Westminster United Methodist Church is coming to an end.
The church isn't in trouble, nor are the pastors -- the Rev. Robert Zimmerli and the Rev. Chris Wood -- being run out of town. In fact, the congregation is stronger than it has been in the past few years.
It's just time to move on.
"We've worked as a team, and it seemed best in the church's life for a new team to come on," said Wood, who will take over the LaVale United Methodist Church in Allegany County July 1. "There's a sense of Christian unity and fellowship. We've been getting comments from new members that the church is warm and friendly, and that's not always been the case."
Zimmerli, who is retiring after six years at Westminster and 40 years in the ministry, agreed.
"The church is at a turning point of renovation and expansion, not only in facilities but in activities and worship as well," he said. "It is a thrilling time to be part of this congregation. If I were 15 years younger, I'd stay."
The teaming of a 27-year-old associate pastor fresh from seminary and a 66-year-old ministerial veteran has worked well for the Westminster congregation. Although Zimmerli as senior pastor is technically in charge, the pair divided jobs relatively evenly.
"I tried not to do the 'senior pastor/lackey' stuff, but the buck does stop with me," Zimmerli said with a laugh. "We share the pastoral visits and I do most of the administrative, while Chris does the program side.
Both ministers describe their decision to enter the ministry as "the gentle nudging of God."
Wood, the son of a United Methodist minister, said he fought the urge to enter the ordained clergy because of his father's occupation. But the desire to help others combined with the attraction of the church's unique message and divine authority drew him in.
So, he entered the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary outside Chicago in 1987 after graduating with a bachelor's in sociology from West Virginia Wesleyan College.
"I had a strong desire to do something that improved people's condition," Wood said, adding that he considered careers in social work, law and politics before deciding on the ministry. "Of all institutions, the church is best suited to help people at the different stages of their life.
On the other hand Zimmerli, a drummer with several orchestras and jazz bands before and after World War II, turned to the ministry after witnessing wartime devastation as a sonar operator on a mine sweeper.
"I saw a lot of death and destruction, man's inhumanity to man, hunger and disease," he said. "I decided there had to be a better way to deal with man's problems."
A graduate of American University in Washington, Zimmerli received his pastoral training at the Cambridge School of Theology in Atlanta and his doctorate in deaf ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
Being unable to hear for 2 1/2 years of his young life helped foster Zimmerli's desire to minister to the deaf.
"They didn't have the miracle drugs they do now when I was young," Zimmerli said. "I had a series of ear operations, and after 27 of them, the audio system just shut down. Finally, they did one more operation and my hearing came back."
Westminster does provide sign language interpretation for the hearing-impaired in the congregation, but the pastor doesn't sign during the service, he said.
In fact, his skills were called into service more when he served as superintendent of the Baltimore/Washington conference's Baltimore East district, Zimmerli recalled.
A United Methodist district superintendent is a "pastor to the pastors" and reports to the conference's bishop, he explained.
"At the time, I was the only one in the district that was able to sign, so it was very helpful," he said.
Zimmerli said he and his wife, Mary Jo, plan to take an extended vacation when his retirement is official. But what they look forward to most is living in the same house again.
"My wife is the district superintendent for Baltimore North, and we've been living in separate parsonages for the past 12 years," he said.
And as Zimmerli leaves the ministry, Wood says he looks forward to shepherding a parish on his own. He and his wife, Lisa -- a recently certified school teacher -- will travel to Allegany County the week of June 22.
"We are generally excited about the prospects of a new location," Wood said. "But we are genuinely sad to leave Westminster. We have come to know and love a lot of people here."