WHITMAN — A small vanilla jar candle with a label advising the observer to be kind sits next to a bright and cheerful arrangement of silk flowers and a framed photo of his family on the Rev. W. Scott Wasdin’s desk.
A standing fan quietly agitated the cooler, albeit still humid air as he spoke of his journey to Whitman and hopes for his tenure as pastor to the First Congregational Church of Whitman.
COVID and its effects on communities — and his own family — are a frequent reference point as he spoke to the Express this month about his new post.
“For my entire life, even going back to my teen years, growing up in a small-town church — it’s a community,” he says. “That just drives me and serves me and I think that’s what illuminates a light for all of us, in the best of times and the worst of times.”
Like the jar candle, which he lights when he prays with parishioners seeking spiritual guidance, his family lights his life, and is the reason this son of the South is embracing life in a small New England town.
“We moved here in December 2020,” Wasdin said of his family, whom he refers to as his “home team” of his wife of 12 years, Crystal and four children — Josh, Zander, Matthew and Emma — the oldest of which is in “early middle school.”
Born in Bremen, Ga., he majored in religion at Shorter University, a Baptist college in Rome, Ga., and his earned masters from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where he studied educational administration. Most of his career has been in private education or church work.
This is the first opportunity of his adult years to just focus on the congregational part of his vocation, Wasdin says.
“We need to think of ways that literally has us look at our neighbors and say, ‘How can we feed your souls?” he said of his bridge-building mission. “What can we do program-wise and just being a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on to help our community be healed and breathe and live?”
The ultimate goal is for the church to serve as a lighthouse for whatever one’s needs are.
The family, who have lived in communities all through their native South, most recently lived in Virginia for the last seven years, where Wasdin was headmaster of the private school, Southampton Academy, Courtland, Va., and a part-time minister. He and Crystal have lived in Chattanooga, Tenn., as well as communities in Georgia, Virginia and out in Elk Grove, Calif.
“Really part of the draw that drew us up here, aside from the spiritual dynamic and this great community and our love for New England … the harmony and synergy between education and medical just seems to work better for us here,” he said. “Our daughter seems to be far healthier [through] her occupational therapy, and her day-to-day just seems much better.”
They started their nationwide search for a church located in a school district where the children could thrive, narrowing it down to California, Massachusetts, Michigan and Wisconsin before the dialog with First Congregational “built the bridge to lead us here,” he said.
Emma is non-verbal autistic and suffered the effects of remote learning during COVID, he said. While Virginia public schools do a fine job, but when the schools were closed the services they had for their daughter, while fine, were insufficient for her needs.
“Our daughter was in a dangerous, self-injuring free-fall,” Wasdin said. “Everything that we tried to do just wasn’t working.”
That’s when he started communicating with the search committee at First Congregational and let his school know it was time for him to move on.
“All the dots connected together and in the course of about six months of Zooms and dialog as COVID was roaring on, we accepted the call and moved up here just before Christmas in 2020,” he said.
Since moving to Whitman, he stops in for a cup of java and conversation with folks at Restoration Coffee regularly and he and his wife have lunch or dinner at McGuiggan’s or another eatery on a given Monday or Tuesday.
“It’s just getting to know people where they are and what a church should be post-COVID,” Wasdin said, noting that some churches are seeing attendance declines following the pandemic. “We’ve got to be highly strategic in how we care for people, that we connect the dots to their homes, their families, their lives and not be judgmental or sarcastic in terms of where they are.”
Family is what brought him to this church and community, and family is the atmosphere he wants to cultivate for the church.
While he works to introduce himself to his new church and community, Wasdin said he has tremendous respect for the church’s history, adding it was a “little bit of a blank slate” because his predecessor had been away for nearly three years.
“The church had been in interim for many years,” he said. “I had enjoyed the dialog with the interim minister that they had, but in terms of programming, what was intriguing to me was the possibility to do music in a way that would refresh people coming out of COVID and re-engaging with the church.”
The church has also been open to new programs and initiatives, and being a bit entrepreneurial by nature, Wasdin saw it as a good ecclesiastical opportunity.
One such program, on probably the first and fourth Thursday evening each month, a midweek worship service has been added to the church calendar.
The evenings in the fellowship hall feature a very contemporary style of music.
“It’s very casual,” he said. “It’s come as you are.”
The Wasdins prepare a meal and decaffeinated coffee for the service. But if parishioners want to make him feel at home by bringing a baked good or covered dish, there’s no need to brush up on recipes for fried okra or peach cobbler. Anything that someone puts their heart and soul into is appreciated.
“It makes us feel like we’re going back to the roots of the New Testament Church, where everything centered around a meal in terms of the worship,” he said. “But it’s also a way that, we feel, like we’re serving beyond pastoral counseling.”
He hopes to find more ways to connect back to people.
“Coming out of COVID … all of us were battered by the isolation and the inability to have meetings and visit with people and to break bread and have cups of coffee,” Wasdin said. “We’re really trying to visualize as a church [how to do that].”
A regular breakfast with the men’s group is being considered and the women’s group has begun meeting again, having lunches and teas. This fall, he hopes a program for mothers of infants and preschoolers will be ready to start.
“My roots being a Southerner and a cooperative Baptist most of my career, fellowship for me is a time to come together for dialog, for light bites — coffee, lemonade — more of a networking, friendship making and community moment,” he said.
Sunday mornings remain a very traditional service, however, with the church organ taking a primary musical role, but as autumn nears he wants to change up the musical seasoning a bit with the addition of a little praise and worship music.
“I’ve gotten through that first six months of getting to know the church, their likes and dislikes – their tastes and all – so that my vision is being articulated to our church board, our deacon, our leadership, and everyone seems incredibly supportive, but also realistic,” he said.
He also, keeping in mind that Massachusetts is a very Catholic state, looks forward to building some interfaith bridges.
“I also want our vision to be distinctive,” he said. “To say, ‘It doesn’t matter if you were raised Catholic, or Methodist, or Baptist, or any of those … we want our church to be a place where you walk in, that you feel welcome, that you feel relaxed, where you can be yourself.”
He also wants the congregation to have a voice in church. Literally. From singing, to responsive readings, he wants people to feel they are welcome to take part.
With his four children attending Whitman public schools, Wasdin also wants to introduce himself to the schools as a parent interested in school programs as much as someone who welcomes residents into this church.
“Just to let them know that the lights are on, that we’re here and to let them know about programs that we have,” he said, noting he is also interested in volunteering at the schools. “As a private school administrator for most of the last 25 years, most of the time I’ve had a whistle and a basketball in my hand, coaching to some degree.”
His aim is not to proselytize, but to let people know he’s more than a person “locked in an office, writing a sermon.”
“I may speak with a Southern drawl, but we feel very much like we want to be in this community for many years to come,” he said. “Volunteering and finding ways to serve beyond the church just seems very logical.”