Retired teacher Michael Dwyer leads the flock at the Pittsford Congregational Church
By LEE J. KAHRS
PITTSFORD — Sometimes the universe has other plans for us and we have to honor those plans, especially when they seem heaven-sent.
That was the case for popular history and English teacher Michael Dwyer, who re- tired from Otter Valley Union High School in 2018 after 30 years on the job. Now, he is the interim pastor at the Pittsford Congregational Church.
BEST LAID PLANS
students in advanced placement English, history and in the American Studies Program at OV. When The Reporter interviewed him two years ago as he bid farewell to teaching, Dwyer had solid retirement plans.
Keenly interested and experienced in genealogical research, in 2016, Dwyer be- came the editor of “Vermont Genealogy,” a journal of the Genealogical Society of Ver- mont. He also wrote a blog
called “Vita Brevis,” a genealogy resource for family his- tory from americanancestors. org.
But perhaps Dwyer’s crown- ing achievement in genealogy happened in 2014, when he was named as one of only 50 living fellows in the American Society of Genealogists.
Dwyer was also looking for- ward to his role as co-editor of the Genealogical Journal of Rhode Island.
The 2018 interview ended with Dwyer saying, “I have no regrets. I followed my vocation to teach. It’s the start of a new chapter.”
The only difference is Dwyer, 61, never expected he’d be realizing the lifelong dream of ministry in retirement.
“All of that did come true, but sometimes things come our way and they’re not what we plan,” he said.
IT’S ALL WHO YOU KNOW
But it’s not so much a leap for Dwyer to the ministry, more like a sidestep. A theological student as a young man, Dwyer originally wanted to be an ordained priest before deciding on a teaching career. In fact, Dwyer and his husband, George Valley, met at seminary. Valley was Spanish teacher for many years at OV and then Mill River High School before retiring. The couple has lived in Pittsford for over two decades.
The Pittsford Congregation- al Church had been without a full-time pastor for a couple of years since the retirement of Pat Jackman.
“George is a very good preacher,” Dwyer said. “A friend gave us his name as a possible replacement at the Pittsford Congregational Church.”
Valley filled in one Sunday and the congregation liked him. It seemed like a good fit.
But then Valley had double knee replacement surgery in June, and when the church called again to ask him to act as interim pastor, he handed the phone to Dwyer.
“I had done some preaching for some churches before, but not to a large extent,” he said. “They asked me if I would do July, and I said, ‘yes.’”
Dwyer did five Sundays, and then he and Valley would go back once a month and alternate at the pulpit, until a friend at the church suggested a more formal relationship. Dwyer and Valley were then approved
as pastors by the Southwest Association of the United Church of Christ in Vermont.
“Neither of us are formal- ly ordained, but you can go through a process where they look at you and your experience and what you’ve done in your life and give you credit for that,” Dwyer said. “We have all the legal authority to act as pastors. We can perform weddings, committal ceremonies, funerals, give communion, etc.”
The association formally licensed Dwyer to serve the Pittsford Congregational Church.
“The way the story has un- folded, wanting to be a priest, but I didn’t think this was the next chapter of my retirement.”
GREEK TO HIM
Dwyer has fallen into a satisfying groove at the church, scheduling his sermon re- search and writing well ahead of each Sunday. Always the academic, Dwyer delights in the fact that he can dive into his New Testament and read them in Greek to help with critical explanation and interpretation.
“It allows for exegesis,” he said. “The ability to hone in on a specific word to help under- stand the true, original mean- ing of the scripture.”
The interview took place on Saturday, and Dwyer dis- cussed the theme for that Sun- day’s sermon, “What does forgiveness mean?”
“So, to get some real mean- ing into what may have been intended in the scripture, I dive into the original text,” he said. “There’s a balance be- tween illuminating the scripture and how it speaks to us to- day. What’s the lesson, what’s the insight?”
Once he established his routine, Dwyer had to preach pandemic-style. He started re- cording video of his sermons and posting them on YouTube and the church Facebook page for his congregation to view each Sunday. In May when churches were allowed to re- open to a limited number of worshippers, Dwyer started doing the service inside the church, and then right before the gospel portion, he turns on his iPad and records the gospel and homily to post online later.
The same church friend then counseled Dwyer to take one Sunday a month off to avoid burning out. But that doesn’t mean Dwyer hangs out at home with Valley or jaunts off
of a day trip. Valley fills in for Dwyer on those Sundays, and Dwyer attends church as a member of the congregation and listens.
“So, it’s a fun, collaborative effort,” Dwyer said.
Valley also leads the church’s Bible Study group.
ASSURING THE CHURCH’S FUTURE
The Pittsford Congrega- tional Church has stood on the hill of Route 7 in the center of town for 236 years, and Dwyer wants to make sure it contin- ues that legacy. But, there are challenges, like Vermont’s ag- ing population.
“Churches like these are the nuts and bolts of the commu- nity,” he said. “And I’m happy to be of service in keeping the organization going.”
Although there is no threat that the Pittsford Church will close, Dwyer said there is a shortage of Congregational Churches in Vermont. The church also doesn’t have the congregation to warrant hiring a full-time, permanent pastor.
“One of the challenges we face in Vermont is demographics,” he said. “The member- ship is aging. When you look down the road, you think, “Will these people be able to continue doing this?’ We need new troops in the trenches. We need new members. We need people to represent those people as they age and no longer can do the heavy lifting.”
That said, Dwyer said the pandemic may result in a population increase as people move to Vermont to escape the cities during the pandemic.
“We have historically had a spike in demographics, such as after 9/11, and I know several people who, if they can get what they want for their house, would move here. Vermont had always been on that precipitous edge of people moving out and people moving in. With great tragedy often comes great renewal.”
LEARNING FROM HIS FLOCK
Dwyer has cared for his elderly mother for several years and she used to live right next door until she broke her hip on Memorial Day. She now lives at The Meadows in Rutland. But Dwyer said he hasn’t kissed or hugged his mom since the pandemic began in March, and he is keenly aware of how the pandemic is affecting his congregation.
“I’m really tuned in to how hard the pandemic has been,” he said. “I think when you experience the same kind pain and heartbreak in a congregation, you are fully empathetic to what people are feeling.”
And they teach him. Dwyer recently visited a dying member of his congregation five days before she passed.
“I went to her house and prayed with her,” he said. “I asked her how she was and she said, ‘Yes, yes, tell me how your mother is.’ Here’s a woman who’s dying and she’s thinking of me. Just as I connected with kids, I become part of people’s lives at key turning points in their lives.”
A BEGINNING AND AN END
Dwyer is enjoying his time as interim pastor immensely, and said he would likely stay on a couple of years if the church agrees.
“’Interim’ means someone will follow,” he said. “In this uncertain time, I can do this for now and enjoy it. With so many uncertainties, I’ll take the future in little chunks.”