What do a final assembly foreman at aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky and a Lutheran minister have in common? One simple answer: they are the same person, Brett Hertzog Betkoski. In February, the Naugatuck native took over as the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Centerbrook, but before deciding on a career in the ministry, he worked at Sikorsky for five years.
The career change came about after Pastor Brett, as the church’s Facebook page calls him, learned that Sikorsky was on a list of the top 10 industries to have profited from the war in Iraq. Still, his call to the ministry was not a decision out of the blue.
“I had been thinking about going to seminary for a while,” Brett admits. “I had some very strong mentors in Naugatuck.”
He graduated from the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia on Jan. 31 of this year and less than a week later, on Feb. 2, assumed his position at Trinity Lutheran. Prior to heading the Centerbrook church, he had served several ministerial internships, in Camden, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and most recently at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. All were larger locations than Centerbrook and Essex, but Brett feels there were more similarities than differences.
“The needs of a smaller community are the same as those of a bigger one,” he says.
Brett describes himself as the product of both his religious training and his generation.
“I am a typical millennial,” he says, a reference to the age cohort generally described as those born from the early l980s to the 2000s. “I believe in justice, compassion, non-violence, the equality of all individuals, and the dignity of all human life, and I hope to bring that spirit to the community.”
And reaching the millennial generation, he points, can be a challenge. It values diversity and communicates electronically—often in a linguistic style foreign to those not born into the world of texting. Brett says many seminaries are becoming increasingly aware of this.
“They are realizing they have to change,” he notes. “We have to learn how to make faith real in that community.”
The new pastor is enthusiastic about the community at Trinity Lutheran and the welcome that the congregation has extended to him.
“Have I been fed! I can’t tell you how many people have taken me out to lunch,” he says.
On a recent visit, however, he had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat on his desk, still uneaten in the middle of the afternoon.
“A busy day and a late breakfast,” he explains.
Brett is particularly eager to make the church’s contingent of young parishioners feel as though the church is a place for them, not just for their parents. At East Greenwich, he led services that included artwork and musical instruments for children.
“Church is place we have the expectation that kids will be quiet and well behaved. We have that expectation nowhere else,” he notes.
The first Sunday he was at First Lutheran in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, for example, he went to the children’s table and got an earful.
“They told me church was for grown-ups and that it was boring,” he recalls.
He is eager to leave a different impression of religious services with the church’s youngsters, working to create at Trinity Lutheran what he calls “sacred space” to make the experience more inviting to the entire congregation.
For his adult congregation, Brett has already created innovative services, like one where everybody wrote their own prayers on pieces of cloth—prayer flags, the minister called them—that were then hung all around the church.
Though at 28 Pastor Brett is younger than many of his congregants, his youth has not been a problem.
“I don’t go in pretending to know all the answers,” he says.
At his first service, some friends came down to hear him preach and sat next to a couple who were visiting to see if they wanted to join the church. His friends later told him the visitors remarked on the new minister’s youth, but his friends spoke enthusiastically about him.
“I guess everything went okay because they are still coming,” he says of the visiting couple.
Brett lives in Westerly, Rhode Island, with his wife Joanna Hertzog, who is a pastor at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Charlestown, Rhode Island. He is undaunted by his commute, saying it is roughly the same as his drive when he served in East Greenwich. And, he adds, he covers the miles economically in a Toyota Prius.
The two ministers met at seminary. She was in her final year; he was in his first. Brett says his wife had vowed never to marry a pastor, a seminarian, or a younger man. She did all three, he notes.
Now the couple sometimes works on sermon ideas together if they are preaching on the same text. One thing they can never do, however much they would like to, is hear each other preach the actual sermon at a Sunday service. On that day, they are at churches some 80 miles apart.
Pastor Brett Betkoski can be reached by email at email@example.com or by telephone at 203-560-0012.