December 5th, 2011
11:00 AM ET

Baby boomers heading back to seminary

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN)– At 51, Vincent Guest could well be the professor at a table filled with 20- and 30-year-olds. He is leading a lunchtime social justice meeting for seminarians at Theological College at Catholic University in Washington.

Forks clink on plates in the basement conference room as Guest opens the November meeting in prayer. "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," he says as he bows his head and clasps his hands.

Guest is not a visiting professor. He is a seminarian, just like the other younger men at the table.

But he is not alone in his age group. 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%.

"I think I was always looking for something else in a lot of ways and always felt the call to do something else," Guest said.

He spent time in government and Pennsylvania politics before settling into a career in law. He had a three-bedroom home near the Jersey Shore with a meaningful job as an attorney helping the poor.

Though successful by any measure with a job that made a difference, he kept looking.

“Helping people with domestic violence, you know suffering from domestic violence or immigrants who were being deported ... I just saw their brokenness. In so many different ways, they were broken. And I know they needed to be touched by the love of God,” he said.

The feeling that something was missing led Guest to Theological College to study to become a parish priest in Camden, New Jersey.

Vincent Guest, right, leads a social justice meeting at Theological College.

“Ministry, whether that be a priest or a minister or a rabbinical student touches people’s lives at the core, where God is where it’s most meaningful. I think people grasp that and are searching for that," he said.

Guest, who never married, was good candidate to become a priest. As a young man, he enrolled in the seminary for a few years to become a priest before leaving to experience life.

It is a journey that has played out similarly for a lot of baby boomers.

“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.

The Methodist seminary, which boasts students from 40 denominations, has also seen a rise in baby boomers in the last decade, making for some interesting classes.

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.

"Everyone has to be able to use online academic tools. ... They've got to be very comfortable with technology," Aldridge said.

The majority of seminarians are still in their 20s and 30s.

"You've got two very different kinds of rich experiences when the baby boomers and the millennials come together in the classroom setting," Aldridge said.

"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.

One benefit, unseen a decade ago when boomers began returning to seminaries, was the impact they would have on shrinking mainline denominations.

“They’ve got a little bit of that financial burden taken off them because of a previous career behind them," Aldridge said. “We’ve got a lot of churches that would not have been able to have a full-time pastor unless these baby boomers are returning to study and are raising their hand and saying, ‘Send me to those churches because I’m ready for something quiet in the country or outside the beltway.’ "

It’s a working retirement plan that skips the beach house.

“Whose got time to lie on the beach? There’s so much going on out there," Leah Daughtry said.

Daughtry, 48, is a former senior staffer for the Democratic National Committee who ran the party's 2008 convention in Denver.

As her secular career was slowing down, she started ramping up a spiritual one, taking the pulpit at House of the Lord Church, a Pentecostal church in Washington.

Leah Daughtry studies at Wesley Theological Seminary library in Washington.

Like many boomers, she kept working a 9-to-5 job during the day and took seminary classes at night to bolster her theological knowledge.

On a bright November afternoon, she was pouring over books in the library for her thesis. She even was mastering paperless photocopying, using a USB thumb drive in combination with a photocopier at Wesley's new library.

She chuckled as she considered when some of her classmates were born. "I'm glad that I came later in life - after I had a chance to experience some things and experience some knocks in the outside world before coming to this sort of secluded space of seminary."

For Daughtry, it's natural for boomers to return to seminaries.

“We came of age at a time of activism and doing something, where you want to roll up your sleeves and be involved in something, somewhere," she said. "I don’t think we’re people who check out, and would be happy sitting on the beach in Florida looking at the sun. There’s something in our ethos that craves involvement with the world around us.”

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- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.