A Deacon's Tale: Ministry as a Second Career

Jan Naylor Cope at her graduation from seminary

hide captionJan Naylor Cope, 51, graduated from seminary in May, 2007. Her first career was in politics.

David Kidd for NPR

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In a year-long series, NPR follows the new generation of spiritual leaders.

Jan Naylor Cope holds the large Bible in her hands, opens to the Gospel of Luke, and then poses a question to her new boss that he cannot answer, at least from experience.

"When you kiss the Gospel book," she asks, "what do you do about lipstick?"

"Good question," laughs the Rev. Robin Dodge. "It's not necessary to kiss the book. Or you could do a wonderful WASP air-kiss."

Dodge is the rector of St. David's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. On this day, he is helping Cope prepare for her first service as assistant rector.

Cope is 51, a slim, confident woman with short blond hair. She has seen her share of work and politics, of drama and joy, and dark nights of the soul. But this is not just her first service at St. David's. This is her first service in her first job as an ordained member of the Episcopal clergy.

Cope is typical of a growing trend in the clergy. According to the Association of Theological Schools, more than 60 percent of new clerics are older than 30; a third are over 40. Most are men, but women make up an ever-larger share.

A Call to Service

Cope says she heard the faint call of God at Sibley Hospital, just a few blocks from her new church. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was receiving radiation treatments at the hospital. As she sat in the waiting room, wearing her hospital gown and reading her book, she noticed people began to gravitate toward her.

"People started sitting next to me," she recalls, "sharing their fears, their hopes, and just wanting to talk to me about their experiences. I found that so odd, because I didn't know these people. And they would get up, literally, and cross the room and sit and talk to me. And I began praying about that and asking God, 'so what's that about?'"

Cope, who had grown up attending an Episcopal Church, decided to go on a silent retreat during Lent, the season before Easter. "I very much sensed on that retreat that God was saying, 'I have more for you to do.' And over a period of time, I sensed that God was calling me to ordained ministry."

She considers herself fortunate on two counts. First, the doctors caught the cancer early and she's perfectly healthy. And second, she feels lucky to have been "interrupted" by God. That's her definition of a call: "when God interrupts."

A Second Career

Like many of today's seminary graduates, ministry is Cope's second career. In her 20s, she was involved in Texas politics. In 1980, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the National Endowment for the Arts and later became a personnel director in George H.W. Bush's White House. Somewhere in her 30s she met and married John Cope and opened her own executive-recruiting company. That was what she was doing when she felt the tug of ministry.

Rector Robin Dodge says Cope's background was the right fit for his church.

"I wanted someone with the breadth of experience," he says. "Given her own health crisis, Jan can say to people, 'I've faced those issues that you're facing, and I've made it through my faith, and so can you.'"

And Dodge says Cope's previous work experience helps her understand the pressures faced by her parishioners, some of whom are Washington insiders.

On the eve of her first service as an ordained minister, Cope reflects on the similarities between her old jobs and her new one.

"It's about people and relationships," she says, "and in the church, it's about our relationship with God."

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