Person of the Week
A Millennial Minister: Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
When the pandemic closed the sanctuary doors at Guilford’s First Congregational Church, there was a built-in millennial minister to help open quite a few digital windows—the Reverend Jake Miles Joseph. (Photo courtesy of First Congregational Church )
Luckily for Guilford First Congregational Church, when the pandemic closed the sanctuary doors, there was a built-in millennial minister to help open quite a few digital windows—Reverend Jake Miles Joseph.
Jake joined First Church as its minister of faith formation in September 2019. He says he loves collaborating with Lead Minister Reverend Dr. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham and working with First Church’s team of directors of ministries and staff.
“At First Church, they’re interpreting faith formation in a much broader sense, as a connector across the congregation and a deepener,” says Jake of his role. “It’s a good bit of work, but important.”
Jake also shares sermon duties.
“Preaching is not typical for an associate minister, but here, they want there to be a lot of collaboration with our lead, and that works really well for me,” says Jake. “I love working with Ginger, who is a brilliant energy in every sphere she inhabits, and I love working with the entire team.”
Beginning in September, First Church will begin eight weeks of invitation/RSVP in-person Sunday worship for small gatherings (no more than 70), using a format developed by Brasher-Cunningham. Rotating invitations will give all an opportunity to worship in the sanctuary once during the initial eight-week period. Each Sunday worship will also be live-streamed.
First Church’s very first return to in-person worship on Sunday, Sept. 6 will be Jake’s formal installation with the church.
“Ginger has curated a very small group of invitees, and everyone else will receive a virtual [sermon]. Typically an installation, at this stage in the church, is a formality—kind of like the [presidential] conventions going on right now. It’s a fun, celebratory service that affirms your selection,” says Jake. “We were supposed to have an installation in the fall, within a month or two of my arriving, but we had so much going on last fall, we wanted to wait ’til spring.”
Given the fact that the church had to navigate nothing less than a global pandemic in the spring, the opportune time finally arrived about a year after Jake did.
“I’ve been at the church, functionally, since exactly a year ago Sept. 1,” says Jake, who came to Guilford from his first five years as a UCC associate minister with a church in his home state of Colorado.
During Jake’s first year at First Church in Guilford, helping the congregation to function in a world suddenly gone more digital than ever has added an unexpected layer of service—and joy—to his ministry.
“Where we find ourselves during this pandemic moment [is] trying to keep everyone safe, trying to be creative; the facilitation of whatever gifts I bring as a millennial—and we have our baggage as a generation, but we certainly have gifts we bring to organizations—have been able to assist,” says Jake. “We’ll get to the deeper connecting and getting to know each other over the years. But right now, we’re just making sure that everyone is safe and that they are receiving at least electronic [services], and for those without computers, we can print it out and mail it to them. So we’re meeting many needs across many platforms, and that’s what this moment calls for.”
Did Someone Call for a Millennial?
“I think for anyone starting a job late 2019 to early 2020, half the year really has been being the millennial, able and willing to deal with tech,” says Jake. “God brought me here for that right now, and I’m excited to see where we’re going to go. The church is full of energy.”
Jake’s taken on quite a bit. He’s become the producer of a weekly, 30-minute Facebook Live theological discussion and Q & A program Unfiltered co-hosted by “Rev. Ginger and Rev. Jake.” He’s founder, editor, and otherwise curator of a new weekly online newsletter, The Steeple, which he’s set up to send out to congregants via the email. The Steeple is a companion to First Church’s monthly print newsletter, The Landmark.
With assistance from volunteers, Jake’s actively developed content for First Church’s Facebook page (@first.church.guilford) and has also instituted First Church’s first Instagram account (@firstchurchguilford). He’s also been doing all of the church’s video editing of services and setting up Zoom meetings.
In the meantime, he’s been sharing sermon duties, holding “un-office hours,” and enjoying his work to support the “creativity and vision” of Brasher-Cunningham.
There’s no place Jake would rather be. He was thrilled when Brasher-Cunningham called him, on her birthday, to confirm he was the church’s candidate.
“She got a minister for her birthday, and I got to come to here,” says Jake. “First Church just stood out as the congregation where I wanted to be. I wanted to work with Ginger; I love her creativity and vision and I want to support that with whatever I have as a minister.”
Jakes says being selected as a UCC church minister takes place following a matchmaking process.
“You have a profile and the churches have a profile. You ask the conference, who’s the matchmaker, to send you a tiny blurb about them, and then you have to request to see their full profile,” says Jake. “And then, as a minister, you kind of send a flare, which is your profile, to them, and they get a pile of profiles and sort through them, and there’s a five- or six-round interview. It’s a process that takes six months to complete.”
For Jake, coming to serve in Connecticut was a bit of a homecoming. He attended school in Colorado and lived there with his mom, but he and his sister spent their summers here with their dad, who lives in Chester.
“I kind of grew up between Connecticut and Colorado. I went to school in Colorado, but my sister and I spent quite a bit of our summers in Connecticut with our extended family...And now, it’s an exciting time for us be here. My spouse, Gerhard, has a job in Darien as a research scientist and we’re living in Milford to split our commutes..”
The couple married in Chester in 2016. Before they moved to Milford, Jake and Gerhard lived at the church parsonage.
“We were in Guilford for the past year and we loved it,” says Jake. “We lived on the green and we spent a lot of time taking social distance walks and runs. We know every street throughout the historic district like the back of our hand!”
Jake and Gerhard met while Jake was attending divinity school at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I went to Grinnell College in Iowa and majored in French literature,” says Jake. At Grinnell, “I worked for the chaplain as her assistant. I loved it, and decided to go to divinity school. I got into Yale, but Emory was doing a lot of amazing work with racial justice and intersection with public health in Atlanta, and so that was really intriguing to me. And also, I never lived in the south, and thought it would be a new challenge and place to learn—which it certainly was! And that’s where I met my husband, he was at the [Centers for Disease Control].”
From Georgia, Jake says they then went to live in “my other hometown, Fort Collins, home of Colorado State.”
“I was associate minister there for five years, at a church sort of similar size to First Church,” Jake says. “We implemented some great things and I was able to serve on about five different boards.
“I really look forward to being invested in this community,” says Jake. “That’s why I’m with Raise the Roof. It’s a shoreline organization, and this where I choose to be on a board.”
Connections and Deepening
In the not too distant future, as the pandemic fades and Jake gets an opportunity to reunite in person with congregants of First Church, he feels that the church will also go forward with many of the new virtual connections. For example, Unfiltered will likely continue as a regular feature, he says.
“Considering our regular worship attendance on Sunday before coronavirus was in the low 300s, when you look at [last week’s] Unfiltered and see that it had well over 400 people viewing it in the first 24 hours...that’s well over more than 100 people on an average, weekly, than in-person. So we’ll keep some of these things.”
Due to the size of its congregation, First Church didn’t hold outdoor or drive-in pandemic services as allowed by the state beginning in the late spring. Jake says Brasher-Cunningham’s decision to continue delivering virtual sermons and “relevant preaching” has been embraced by the congregation and that a blend of in-person and virtual services will likely become another component of First Church offerings going forward.
“I think that we’re in a moment that we know there’s new things happening. We’re trying to meet the moment by the things we’re offering. We’re expanding the portfolio of Facebook Live, the weekly Steeple, relevant preaching online...and when the time comes, Ginger has a plan for [beginning in-person worship], but there’s still going to be an online component,” Jake says. “We’re still going to be filming, for the first time now, and probably forever, a scripture, a sermon, and a piece of music that will be sent out—that will always be done. So how do we move forward? By going back to some of the things that we miss as its base and deemed appropriate, while also doing the things that we’ve learned are working, like a Facebook Live that had, in 24 hours, almost 440 watches of two people sitting out in the rain at a barn, discussing theology.”
As for bringing in new church members—in particular, millennials and the generation that follows, Gen Z—to the church, Jake feels it will need a great assist from social media and other digital platforms.
“We’re putting our hearts into it, and I know people are looking for a church. I don’t know how many in my generation will end up [with a church], and hiring a millennial [minister] is certainly no guarantee of that,” says Jake. “But if we have any chance as millennials, and with the generation after mine that is even more discerning than mine—they’re looking for authenticity, they can spot it a mile away, they can spot it now maybe 1,000 miles away—if we have any chance with them, it has to be through that vulnerability, authenticity, and offerings that are at many touch points throughout the week. Over time, we will find a way, when it’s safe, normal and appropriate, for Sunday morning [in-person worship], which is always going to be a thing with a church like First Church, and we’re finding that these other pieces are adding vibrancy and reach.”