I have been cleaning out my office and finding many things that spark memories. Old class notes, meeting agendas, lists of volunteers (some of whom have gone on to their reward), computer cables, prayer beads and blessing stones – all the sundry of ministry with you. Some memories led to a giggle, and some to a tear, but all reminded me how much you have helped me grow and mature as a minister and as a Christian over our years together. So I say again, thank you.
So much of my thoughts and heart about leaving, and my deep thanks to you for walking with me for many years, are in my sermon from June 7th. I know that the AV gremlins were wreaking revenge on me for the times I forced them into submission for a forum or class. I imagine them plotting before church, “I’ll get you my little pretty, and your little dog too!” I am sorry for the frustration many of you experienced with the Facebook feed, and that Hal and Dean experienced trying to make it all work. They did the best they could, and in the end our brilliant AV team had a backup, and there is a clean copy of the audio (as well as a printed manuscript) here. I encourage you to read or listen to that, for it covers many things I would otherwise have tried to say in this my last Staff Reflection.
I can now tell you where I’m going and what I’ll be doing there. I will be at First Congregational Church of Rapid City, South Dakota. It is an old historical church, founded during the gold rush as the first Christian church in Rapid City. A medium-sized congregation, they were about 125 in worship prior to the pandemic, and are now doing worship on Facebook Live. The current building was built in 1960 in a modified A-frame style common to many UCC’s of that era (including Plymouth), with a large fellowship hall and an education wing with numerous classrooms. Once considered a fair distance from downtown backing up to the ridge of Dinosaur Park, it is now quite surrounded by the city. They have an enormous 60’ tall white cross that can be seen from the freeway into downtown. The sanctuary has a beautiful pipe organ in the back balcony choir loft, and they employ part time a talented organist, music director and office staff. I am following an ordained husband and wife team who served as pastor and education director, who have been there for 25 years. They gave the church notice of their retirement a year ago, and the church has honored and celebrated their service well. I met them briefly last week and we chatted about their plans to visit children on the west coast and then relocate away from Rapid City. Talented and nice people, whose ministry will be missed.
That is the context my interim ministry for the next two years. They will need some time to mourn, remember, and evaluate their past. Then they will work together to discern their vision and mission for their community. In interim work, we use three key questions: Who are we? Who is our neighbor? What is God now calling us to do? My job is to guide them through this transitional time. (There are different types of interim ministry, and for this sort the term “interim” is falling out of use in favor of the term “transitional ministry”). In this time of Covid, we’ll reevaluate how online worship is and can be improved; with the loss of the education director, we’ll be looking closely at their needs for children and youth formation and explore hiring someone new; they want to explore an ONA process (and are taking a leap and risk in calling me); they are involved in many justice ministries in the community like food banks and homeless shelters; and continue to build their longstanding relationships with the Native American communities both in town and on the reservations. One fascinating ministry they have is the “Woodchucks”: a group of people who split firewood all spring and summer for people whose primary or backup heating is by wood. They deliver the wood to churches on the reservations who then distribute it to people with need. When I was there last week, a half dozen people were working like beavers, adding to the several cords already stacked.
Oh, and I will need to keep all the current wheels moving! Worship and education and justice making and pastoral care and weddings and funerals. One of the things that makes me most nervous is getting back in the flow of preaching Every Single Week (which I did for some 15 years prior to my ministry with you), but let’s just say I’m rusty, so pray for that. I’ll be negotiating a different cultural and very red political context; the church sees itself as “moderate” for their community where the GOP out-registers the Democrats by 2:1. A state both where the governor refused to issue any stay-at-home recommendations, and a community where there have been several Black Lives Matter marches (to considerable, but thankfully peaceful, controversy). As some of you have said to me, “May you live in interesting times.” Interesting times indeed, but with a God who knows what “interesting times” are about.
So I am excited. I am nervous. Sometimes I am downright terrified – God is calling me to do what? But I go into this with your many kind, encouraging and beautiful words buttressing my soul. Some of you have revived the lost art of card writing, some have sent emails and Facebook messages, and many of you have spoken to me in our Zoom party last week, by phone, or even a few in physically distanced personal encounters. It has been heartening and humbling. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for walking with me. I love you. And more important: God loves you --- Go live accordingly.
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Mark served from 2009-2020 as our Director of Christian Formation for Adults. He is now Interim Pastor elect for First Congregational Church of Rapid City, South Dakota. His life-partner Ivan Loy will continue to live and work the ranch north of Fort Collins, and Mark will come to visit on a regular basis especially during goat birthing season. He will also continue to have adventures in lgbtq advocacy, overseas pilgrimage, and learning to fly fish. You may reach Mark with non-church or ministry related news via his personal email revmarkblee at gmail dot com. Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
I had no idea what to expect. I have never said goodbye to 700 best friends before.
This morning I was asked what I thought of last night’s going away celebration and blessing. My response was to say, that, “I never dreamed that I could ever experience anything remotely like that in my lifetime.” So different from other mile markers in life like birthdays, weddings, or graduations—leaving a congregation as a minister is a truly person-focused event with a great deal of sadness and reflection. I thought slideshows and speeches of that quality and scope happened only at funerals! What a gift it is to see yourself through others’ eyes while still very much alive. I never thought I would have that opportunity in my life, and it will stay with me always.
Ministry for me, as I often have said, is about seeing God’s workings in you The People and affirming it and nurturing it. I never take any credit for the ministries that have happened on my watch. That just feels wrong when you all do the work. I describe this work as being a cheerleader of the awe of the Holy Spirit on a playing field of wonder of the capacity of the Holy. Even today, I cannot believe that I have had the privilege to accompany and creatively enable your ministries of love and activism. Thank you, as I heard you say last night, for offering me a small stake in claiming those ministries as my own. I am Deeply Humbled.
I am blessed that my first time of closure to a ministry (this time of leaving Plymouth) has been so well marked with clarity of calling, celebration of mutual gifts, and deep and lasting love. Thank you for the greatest gift of all—a healthy and whole time of sending and leaving! There is no way to put a value on that gift of graciousness and kindness.
Since the vast majority of the financial gifts offered to me, which totaled a VERY generous sum combined, were channeled through the church into one check, I won’t ever know who contributed or how much. This is a blessing because I received that gift of sending with gratitude to everyone equally: the whole congregation.
It does mean that I won’t be able to write my usual hand written thank you notes to each person who gave! I will have to let that go. Do know how profound my gratitude is today for your generosity.
Additionally, in the midst of moving, I might miss a thank you note or two in these times. I might not have the chance to tell each and every one of you how deep my gratitude is for you and what you have shared with me over these years. I might not be able to say in person how much I have loved you and your gifts shared with our community. I might not have that opportunity to tell you thank you before leaving for Connecticut.
Even today, as I pack my office and home into cardboard boxes, I still have no idea what to expect. I have never said goodbye to 700 best friends before. It will be a process, but I am so grateful for our shared ministries and mutual gratitude that transcends the need for even handwritten thank you notes. :)
Speaking of handwritten… I am going to ask that if you choose to stay in contact with me (as we are making a special allowance for Plymouth as my home church) that you consider doing so primarily through handwritten correspondence. First, as a millennial who will be busy with a new call and large congregation, emails get lost and feel like work. Facebook emails are perhaps even worse! The secret is out: millennials hate long narrative emails. Secondly, I love writing handwritten letters.
I cannot write to each of you right now as I wish I could (I did consider writing a note to everyone in the directory, but then my spouse thought that wouldn’t be wise… he was right). Send a postcard of the mountains once in a while and know that Plymouth will always be in my prayers.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
122 Broad Street
Guilford, CT 06437
Adieu, Plymouth! Thank you for the opportunity to dream with you and to serve your mission and witness these past nearly five years. It has truly been the gift of a lifetime.
Sincerely in Gratitude,
The Rev. Jake Joseph
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake") came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. As of August 2019, he serves First Congregational Church of Guilford, Connecticut.