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20% of seminarians are over 50. Is this a good thing?

20% of seminarians are over 50. Is this a good thing?

From CNN:


According to a decade-long study of enrollment by the Association of Theological Schools released in 2009, the fastest-growing group of seminarians include those older than 50. In 1995, baby boomers made up 12% of seminarians, while today they are 20%. …

“Many of them felt a call early in life, maybe in their teenage years or college, and set that aside to be the bread winner for the family or do what the family expected them to do,” said the Rev. Chip Aldridge, admissions director at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. …

For many of the boomers who went to college in the analog age, they have to get up to speed in a hurry to learn in the digital era. …

“Yes, the baby boomer may have had a career, two careers, has raised a family, but millenials are coming from these colleges where almost all of them have some overseas studies, almost all of them have been on some kind of volunteer mission; they speak a second language. So in some ways those two sets of life experiences complement each other, and it becomes a very rich conversation,” he said.

If I am hearing anything from inside the church right now–especially among young clergy–it is how sick people are of baby boom leadership. (I say this as a baby boomer.) Is this trend a hopeful thing?

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Ann Fontaine

Since when are young people only attracted to clergy who are their age? I find teens can talk to me about things of importance and meaning quite easily – grandparents and grandchildren are natural allies. Let’s help all those who have a call to ministry – whether lay or ordained. I am much more concerned with those who think the only ministry is being ordained. 99% are not –

I went to seminary at age 50 – after not being allowed until 1974 and after resisting it for years.

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

As one for whom youth is no longer visible in the rear view mirror of the highway of life, I suppose it natural that our current “youth obsession” would “bug me” a bit. I do sympathize with those who did not go through with a clergy career at an earlier age. I “considered it” but in the early 1980s, the prospects for LGBT persons in the church were exceedingly dim. I gave it a miss and, in honesty, knowing how much I have changed over time, it’s probably a good thing that I did. Knowing how many non-theist clergy there are “not” in the church, I suspect I would be “out of a job” at this point.

I was considering, however, what is really behind our “get young people involved” push. Ultimately, there is a deep anxiety/panic at the roots of this. As I have aged, I see more clearly how religion is much more of a journey than a destination. What one needs is not always “free scope” to do what seems best. It is extremely helpful to have those “senior” to us to help guide us in the tasks of life. I fear that we once knew this, but are forgetting it. In an age of rapid technological advances, those of us who do not “keep up” are “dinosaurs” in our 40s. We’re already just “past it,” not persons of experience and with a deepening spirituality. My spiritual life is far more complex and rich than it was when I was younger. We are sadly lacking, unfortunately, in good spiritual directors in the church. Who are my directors? John the Evangelist, Origen, Meister Eckhart, Duns Scottus, Dionysius the Areopagite, Julian of Norwich. Not so much, unfortunately, my local clergy. I am not surprised, of course. If our emphasis is on relevant music, social action, church planting, etc (not that these are necessarily bad), then how can clergy be expected to be spiritual directors? They’re worried about keeping the walls from falling down and the pews filled. Although I honor our youth’s contributions, I do not see myself going to a 20-something priest for advice on my spiritual development in the setting of middle age. They have just not “been there done that.”

In that vein, however, persons who have a “late life” calling may be often people “just like me” who as they have matured and passed beyond the point where “success” is important, wish to dedicate their lives more to something with more “lasting” meaning. Rather than discourage seminary enrollment, we need to consider not only encouraging this but also thinking of other ways to revive the religious life across the spectrum of age. Many “orders” make demands that simply become impossible as we age. Others have age limits for fear of becoming “nursing homes” for persons who become financial burdens. Encouraging youth does not need to come at the expense of disparaging age. We need to focus broadly on the “process” of living a spiritual and religious life across our years, not encourage more splits in the old versus young controversy.

C. Wingate

The phenomenon is more extreme in our church. I did a calculation in 2010 which estimated that nearly 40% of our clergy were over 55 at ordination, and over 70% were over 45. I believe some months later the people at Church Pension did an analysis with similar conclusions. I could certainly see that the Process (always capitalized) was heavily biased for a couple of decades towards people who were older, even if the P-t-B wanted more young people to consider ordination.

Rod Gillis

God is truly a mystery, or at least an enigma. Why is She calling so many people in their fifth and sixth decades to be pastors, while calling so few to the many non-ordained ministries required by The whole people of God?

I’ve been in parish ministry for three and a half decades, and it really makes my heart sing to see young adults in their twenties and thirties responding to a call to full-time ministry. The risks and challenges they face seem, to me, to be so much greater than those that were before my generation at the get go.

By the by, I watched the clip from CNN embedded in the article. I had to watch the vodka commercial to see it. I couldn’t find a single boomer in the vodka ad. ( :

Michael Russell

As I read this and other entries likes it, I just keep laughing and laughing. When I was 23 I was told to go away for a few years and get real world experience, now the church is salivating over 20 somethings. I went and got a MA in Religious Studies anyway and was involved with “Tentmakers” entrepreneurial clergy who were part of the National Association of Self-Supporting Active Ministries. When our church told me there was too many calls and not enough placements, I offered to be an entrepreneurial tentmaker and was told that it being being a “weekend warrior” would make me bitter and that you could not be a priest unless altar centered. My call persisted despite managing to self fund a variety of community organizing jobs over a decade+

Now of course we think the cutting edge will be entrepreneurial clergy working for parishes that cannot afford full time altar centered clergy.

The only consistent thing over the past 40 years has been that the people in charge and their pundits have been exactly wrong at nearly every turn and remain largely clueless at the present moment.

We have been fad jumpers, hopping on bandwagon as one band or another plays its final tune. So when I listen to all the “we need youth” talk or the “entrepreneur” talk or the “bash boomer” talk I am mostly sure that we are once again behind the curve sitting on the lip of another vacated bandwagon.

So hard as it is, here is my prescription:

1) We have a moral obligation to pastor to all those faithful people now living in parishes that can no longer do more than keep the building open. We may need to ordain “sacerdotalists” who only preside over the sacraments for those communities and perhaps offer peer pastoral care. But we have a similar obligation to elders in all congregations everywhere, to not make things so different as to feel completely alien. we can do parallel development of course, but people who are becoming fragile and anxious because of age should know the church will care for them in some recognizable form.

2) We need to stop bashing one age cohort or another. Healthy communities require people of all age cohorts. The growing cohort in my parish are 50-65, people who are spiritually hungry as the nest empties or work becomes a sideline and not a mainstay. We minister to families with kids and attract some young adults and the actuality is that it is the kids who push their parents to come every week.

3) That leads to a third thing: Demographics are the most powerful reality for parishes so no one plan will fit all. Location and demographics are what shapes a parish, unless it’s liturgy or programs are so unusual as to serve as ‘magnets”. But unless you are a magnet parish your shape is that of the community around you.

4) We are terrorized by the possibility of having something fail. So we study and poll and set up committees and flabber jabber till we think success is a slam dunk, only to find we waited too long. We need to worry less about failing and think more about doing. If you can gather a group of people with energy to make something happen, for God’s sake go do it!

5) Somehow we need to dial back the anxiety. We are, as a church, an anxious system and you can just watch it drop here and there. We live in a social milieu of anxiety as well, and there is good reason for it, but blame and recrimination is not the path out, they only stir up defensiveness and resistance.

We have so many wonderful, lovely, compassionate souls with whom we share our faith journey, that it just makes my heart ache to watch us do this dance.

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