In early April, the Rev. Jaime McGlothlin of Valley Mills First United Methodist Church in Texas started leading a weekly Zoom discussion group with eight other rural pastors seeking counsel in the time of COVID-19. It was "a place where we could be vulnerable," McGlothlin said in a recent interview.
The oldest of the nine pastors was the Rev. Tom Wood, 83, who ministered at First United Methodist Church in the tiny town of Itasca (population 1,726) for 17 years. Wood was new to videoconferencing software, and he sometimes forgot to unmute his microphone, McGlothlin affectionately recalled.
Nevertheless, every week for three months, McGlothlin said, Wood was the first pastor to sign on, always eager to "engage and connect." He was "the most faithful out of all of us" — right up until July, when he participated in his final Zoom call with his young grandson sitting on his lap.
Wood died July 29 of complications related to COVID-19, according to the Rev. Leah Hidde-Gregory, the Central District superintendent for the United Methodist Church's Central Texas Conference.
He is survived by his wife, Cathy, a teacher at the local elementary school, and two daughters, Gwendolyn and Deidre, according to an obituary posted on the church's Facebook page. Hidde-Gregory said he was beloved throughout Hill County, seen by many as a wise elder and spiritual beacon.
"In all my years as a minister, I never knew a man as good," the Rev. Richard Chaffin, a retired pastor, said at Wood's funeral service, according to a blog post by the resident bishop of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.
In their weekly conversations, McGlothlin would often ask her fellow pastors to unburden themselves of the anxieties they were carrying as the coronavirus spread across the country. But when it was Wood's turn to share, he would say he didn't understand the question, McGlothlin recalled with a laugh.
"He would say — and it came from such an authentic place — that his hope was in Christ and resurrection," McGlothlin said. "He said, 'I know, at my age, this virus will probably take my life if I get it.' He was sober about that early on. He was not anxious. He was grounded."
"I think he understood the reality," McGlothlin added. "We could never have imagined that those words would be true."
McGlothlin and Hidde-Gregory both described Wood as a calming presence, a man who seemed entirely at peace with mortality.
In one of his final sermons, delivered virtually and uploaded to YouTube, Wood spoke to his congregation about hardship, grief and "this present craziness."
"It just seems like this would be a good time to talk about bad times," Wood said in front of a large pipe organ in his church.
In a gravelly voice, Wood called on church members to seek out a higher power in times of crisis, medical or otherwise: "Jesus knows you're stuck. He knows that. He wants to help you. He wants to be there. He wants to join with you in this problem."
Wood was born in December 1936 in Detroit. He spent time in Illinois, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, Texas and Nevada — "but Texas always called him back home," the obituary posted on the church's Facebook page attested.
He became a pastor after a career as a salesman and business owner, trading what he described as "a life of success for a life of significance," Hidde-Gregory said.
He was a "very young 83," she added — a devoted and wholehearted "go-getter" who called himself "a salesman for Jesus," she said.
McGlothlin, who saw Wood in person every few months over the last five years, said Wood was conscientious about his spiritual vocation, living his life with "a strong sense of the pulpit and his responsibility to it."
She recalled Wood would sometimes spend as much as five hours alone in the sanctuary on Saturdays, practicing his sermon and praying.
"I mean, that is such discipline," McGlothlin said. "He took his stewardship of this small community in Itasca that seriously."
In his final months, according to Hidde-Gregory, Wood was diligent about social distancing and face-coverings. He could not wait to get back to preaching, she said, adding that so many in his congregation relied on him as a spiritual lifeline.
"He was absolutely passionate about worshipping and bringing people together," she said.