This is the first of a two-part series exploring pastoral vocation.
WATERLOO, Iowa --- When he was small, he would re-enact Mass.
As a boy of 5, Alan Dietzenbach of St. Lucas asked his parents for a Bible as a gift, and he poured over the stories and pictures.
The Rev. Dietzenbach didn't assume he was destined to be a Roman Catholic priest. He also envisioned himself as an actor, artist, architect and anesthesiologist.
Early interest and involvement in church activities laid the groundwork for the Rev. Jenna Couch's vocation. Still, it wasn't until college that the Sumner native decided to channel her fascination with Martin Luther and theology into a career.
"If you had asked me when I was in high school if I wanted to be a pastor, I would have said, 'You're lying. No way,'" Couch said.
Earlier this year, Dietzenbach and Couch became two of Northeast Iowa's newest --- and youngest --- ordained ministers. They represent what appears to be a renewed openness to ministry and pastoral professions among young adults.
Ordained in June, Dietzenbach, 26, is the youngest priest in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, according to staff. He is an associate pastor at Holy Spirit Parish in Dubuque.
Couch, 27, is sole pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church near La Porte City, formerly Jubilee township, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She arrived in August.
Church authorities are heartened by reports of younger, fresher faces enrolling in seminary.
Even if the uptick isn't significant or definitive enough to reverse decades-old clergy shortage trends where it exists or other ecclesiastical concerns, religious leaders see up-and-coming classes of clergy as an answer to prayers.
"I think it is a sign of hope," said Rev. David Schatz, vocation director for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
Those coming of age and interested in ministry work are part of a generation that is particularly passionate about making their mark on the world, according to Rev. David Glenn-Burns, an ordained United Methodist pastor, 17-year campus minister, and director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Northern Iowa.
"They are feeling like they want to do something of significance," said Glenn-Burns, who also serves on a church committee that helps United Methodist Church clergy candidates with vocational discernment.
He added, "Some people don't want to just get rich and amass large fortunes. What they want to do is do something that makes a difference in the world, that makes the world a better place."
Work for work's sake isn't enough for many young adults, according to Kyle Thomas, 25, a seminary student and a youth minister at Prairie Lakes Church in Cedar Falls.
"We can't unwind our passions from what we do vocationally," Thomas said. "I've seen that over and again with my peers and I've seen that over and again with the college students I've seen, work with, in the ministry."
Several years ago, he studied construction management at UNI and planned to use his building skills to aid overseas missions.
"As I kind of became more aware of my own gifting and passions, I pretty much realized I just liked working with people more than I like working with wood," Thomas said.
A family friend once remarked that Couch would make a great pastor, but she shrugged off the remark. It wasn't until college that she reevaluated her long-time plan to become an English teacher. During a campus visit to Wartburg College in Waverly, she asked to see a list of course requirements for her intended major.
"My heart literally sank," Couch said. "Even the names of the classes just didn't sound that exciting. Something in my gut was telling me this isn't what I wanted to do."
She perked up at class titles like "Jesus and the Gospels" and "Literature of the Old and New Testaments." She focused her undergraduate work in religious studies, emphasizing youth and family ministry. Before graduation, she entered the clergy candidacy track within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Couch earned a full tuition scholarship to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque. Seminary mixed academics with hands-on ministry. She served as a hospital chaplain. During her third year of seminary, she preached monthly, visited church families and officiated a funeral during an internship at a church in Minnesota. Her love for writing came in handy when crafting sermons and being immersed in the worship service brings her joy.
She felt apprehensive about public speaking and reverends seem so, well, in command.
"I'd always respected authority my whole life. I still do. I never viewed myself in that position," Couch said. "My friends will all tell you I'm a goofster. I'm the jokester. I like to have fun."
Dietzenbach discovered assumptions can also come from others.
"People can kind of view you as super-human and they kind of forget I like normal things," he added. "Going to hockey games and basketball games, just going over to friends houses and hanging out."
Couch also believes that ministers are a conduit and just one player in a larger faith community.
"It's not about me. You really have to take that with you," she said. "It's about the people and what God's doing in our lives and in the world. So that helps."
Zion Evangelical Lutheran in rural La Porte City, which celebrated its sesquicentennial last year, hired Couch after completing a profile of the congregation, reviewing four prospects and interviewing two, according to church president and call committee chairman Brad Jesse.
Jesse said church leaders appreciated Couch's rural Iowa roots, a background helpful to understanding congregational dynamics. One-pastor churches also need versatile ministers able to relate to young and seasoned members, he added.
"Age wasn't a huge factor. Being a smaller congregation we probably couldn't have afforded a pastor with a lot of experience," Jesse said. "We were just mostly looking for the right fit."
Dietzenbach began to seriously explore the priesthood in high school by talking to friends and mentors, shadowing a local priest and meeting other prospective clergy. He wasn't afforded a big sign in the sky or lightning bolt from heaven but does believe God prompted him.
"I don't have any sort of fairy tale story," Dietzenbach said. "You say 'yes' and God takes that and works with that and you say 'yes' again, you say 'yes' again, you say 'yes' again."
After majoring in philosophy and Spanish at the St. Pius X Seminary program at Loras College in Dubuque, he completed his priest training at the Pontifical North American Seminary in Rome. His training allowed four years abroad. Dietzenbach studied in Spain and helped at a Mother Teresa-affiliated clinic in Ethiopia. In Italy, he served the elderly and AIDS patients.
In Dubuque, he celebrates Mass with congregations and school children and officiates services and sacraments.
"I'm continuing to learn just by doing it," Dietzenbach said.
In an article for "The Witness," a newspaper of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Dietzenbach wrote about a special spiritual experience during a transitional diaconate ordination service at St. Peter Basilica in Rome last year.
Dietzenbach finds the work of a priest exhilarating and humbling. After a funeral, a parishioner thanked him for answering a nagging question.
"And I don't know what I said or I don't know what it was," Dietzenbach said. "Something spoke to him. So I've just had a lot of those moments. I know God is using me. A lot of times you don't see it immediately. I find it really those fulfilling moments."
Dietzenbach finds it liberating to be available to move and respond to needs of the church and God and to channel his energies to one purpose.
"A lot of people find it difficult to understand and understandably so, and it's so different from what our culture says and it's so counter-cultural," Dietzenbach said. "I guess that's the beauty of the gospel. It always seems different. It always seems out-of-the-norm and extraordinary. It's an amazing blessing to have this sort of freedom."
More than 20 years ago, ELCA leadership noticed a lack of young pastors, said Bishop Steven Ullestad of the Northeastern Iowa Synod-ELCA. Potential clergy were burdened with student debt or discouraged by an apparent lack of jobs.
"Right now, it's a pretty good match. We are not in oversupply and we are not in undersupply," Ullestad said.
In a study of 6,500 students graduating with master's of divinity degrees, 52 percent had yet to be offered a position. The association found churches that won't consider first-time pastors. Likewise, clergy aren't always interested in working for a small, country parish, of which there are many.
Veteran clergy may also put off retirement in a tough economy, leaving fewer positions for young graduates.
However, not all young adults interested in church and missions work and going to seminary are interested in leading a congregation, campus minister Glenn-Burns said.
"I really think we are in a huge, changing time in the church and ministry and so it's kind of exciting and a little overwhelming," he said.
Glenn-Burns advises college students interested in ministry to pursue their desires. They can figure out the details along the way.
"If God is calling someone to do ministry, I encourage students to think about that and then we will figure out where they are supposed to be."