A sea of black-robed seminarians is crammed into a basement chapel at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It's early May --- graduation day for Wesley Theological Seminary. The graduates are giddy and godly, more women than men. Some are just out of college, but most are launching their second careers. They fiddle with their caps, anxious to begin their journey.
Chris and Katie Bishop are among the youthful minority. They are members of a generation that came of age at the turn of the century with an inclination toward altruistic work. Over the next year, NPR will follow the Bishops and several other young religious leaders, from a spectrum of faiths, as they begin ministering to an increasingly diverse population of Americans.
The Bishops met on the first day of seminary, when Chris threw a Frisbee that broke the nose of Katie's roommate. The mishap yielded a marriage rather than a lawsuit. Katie is 23, a small brunette. Chris, 25, is a strapping guy with a stubbly red beard. They are expecting their first child in a few months.
As they prepared to walk down the majestic aisle of the National Cathedral, Chris said he was "chomping at the bit" to leave seminary behind and begin full-time ministry.
Katie said simply, "I'm ready." She paused. "We'll find out."
Hearing the Call
Ministry has a mysterious job qualification: a "call" to serve God, adopt a life of low pay and help others — without expecting anything in return.
Katie remembers when she received her call. She was in fifth grade, and the minister at her Presbyterian church asked her to preach on Youth Sunday.
"On the way to church that morning, I was all ready to preach and I was very excited," she recalls. "My mother turned to me at a stoplight... and said, 'Katie, are you nervous?' And I said, 'No Mom, this is what God is calling me to do.'
"I know we sat through two or three turns of the light," she adds, "because we both realized that was not something that I had said, but it was something that the Holy Spirit was saying through me."
For Chris, it was more gradual. He had little epiphanies while on mission trips or playing sports with his youth group. He says God even spoke to him while he was working as a kayaking instructor. The message: "I have more in store for you than just going down a river," Chris says. "You're going to share your faith...even when you're teaching people how to kayak."
Chris recalls his spiritual mentor, John, testing his resolve:
"He said, 'Chris, if I can convince you to do anything else with your life, that's what I'm going to do.'"
Now, Chris says, there's nothing else he'd rather do than spend Friday nights at a bake sale or hanging out with his church youth group — or organizing a yard sale in 95-degree heat.
Long Hours, Low Pay
A month after graduation, Chris is at Middletown United Methodist Church, in rural Maryland. He and about a dozen high school students are sorting through donations for the next day's fundraiser: toys, CD players, karate pads and mountains of clothing. The high school students give Chris the highest compliment – he's "a regular guy, not as uptight as other ministers," says one.
Chris knows these children. He grew up in the relatively wealthy, 1,200 member church. He was recruited by the pastor to be second in command, preaching and working with the youth. Katie has been assigned to two small churches nearby.
Ministers work notoriously long hours, evenings and weekends, for small sums. The Bishops will each make $33,000 a year, plus a housing allowance.
"I know we could make a lot more money doing other things," Katie observes. "I just don't think we'd be happy."
She acknowledges it will be tough to raise their children on two pastors' salaries. But she believes "we'll get to show our children something that's worth more...than a big house of our own."
Chris agrees. Having never had a first career, he and Katie don't know what it's like to have a big paycheck.
And the Bishops are part of a lucky minority: They have no debt – a problem that has driven some newly minted pastors out of the ministry, or discouraged talented young people from choosing ministry at all.
Katie and Chris are fortunate in another way. Unlike many other denominations, the United Methodist Church places two-clergy couples in the same vicinity. Katie is serving at two rural churches tucked away on "the mountain," as the locals call it. As the assistant pastor, she preaches at one church one week, then switches with the senior pastor the next.
Winning Over One's Elders
For Katie, who grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., moving to a place where people actually make hay, and where milk is delivered to your doorstep in bottles, has been a bit of a culture shock.
Driving to church one Sunday morning in late June, Katie points out a flock of turkeys. "I almost ran over those turkeys last week," she reports. "What are turkeys doing on the road, anyway?"
At the red brick church, next to the potato farm, Katie greets 50 or so people streaming into the lobby. Most are elderly, some of them farmers; all are distantly related to each other. At 23, Katie could be the granddaughter of most of the flock she's leading. She recently counseled a young couple on "God's plan for marriage;" at the time, she had been married less than six months.
"I get a lot of people calling me girlie," she laughed. "'That's a good sermon, Girlie.' Or, 'I couldn't hear you this morning, Girlie.'"
Katie adjusted quickly — but the congregation wasn't so fast.
"Most people didn't take well to a female minister," said church member John King. "There are a lot of older people, so they have that mindset. But once they get turned around, which they have, it's completely different. They just love you."
Katie remembers one Sunday shortly after she arrived: "I was here, greeting people, and someone came in and didn't know it was me and not Pastor Randy who was preaching. She turned around and left."
"That was very shocking for me," Katie continues. "But several months later, I went to go visit this person, and she said, 'After getting to know you, I realized that you are called to be a pastor.'"
Katie presides and preaches with the sureness of a veteran. She has memorized virtually all of the communion service, a testament to her memory — and to the fact that she's been preaching since the fifth grade.
A Future of Uncertainties
So, what terrifies Chris and Katie the most about the year to come?
"I don't know. I'm kind of nervous about being a dad," Chris answers. "The ministry stuff doesn't worry me so much."
The baby, due in October, figures into Katie's worries, too:
"The first day I wore maternity pants to church, they fell down in the middle of the sermon," she says, cringing at the memory. "Fortunately, I was wearing a robe. But I get nervous about those little things happening. Like my water breaking when I'm preaching. My church wants to put a tarp down on the altar area. I think it's a joke."
The year ahead already has its broad outlines for the Bishops: negotiating marriage as a two-career couple, serving God and, soon, a more demanding taskmaster: their baby girl. That much is known. The rest, Chris says, is not.
"I think I've found that, whenever I think I've got it figured out, or I know what's going to happen, God has just the opposite in store," Chris says.