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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

Filed under: Church • TV-CNN Newsroom

soundoff (653 Responses)
  1. Just an average guy

    I really liked the article and am impressed CNN ran it, but I am certainly not impressed with most of the responses. One of the main reasons our country was founded is because of religious freedom.
    Our country needs more people willing to step up and extend their faith. Yes, there are religious leaders who have faltered, but you better look in the mirror first before judging others.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Louella Williams

      I am one of the baby boomers, still working in the secular world as a CEO, but serving as a Pastor for over 4 years. In my case, I take no salary, no benefits from the church; I work only for God. We are called by God, all throughout all our lives, and now it is time to fulfill our calling. I love serving the Lord. Blessings. Signed: Just an average gal.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  2. hamsta

    having died and came back to life there arent many people on this earth that can tell me anything about god.u can believe what u want to believe but i know what i know.if u think some preacher is gonna save ur soul ur a fool.no mortal man can save ur soul.jesus is real and so is the grim reaper.the christians are the closest to the actual word of god but even they have things mixed up.they tell u the holy trinity is one in the same.theyre not.god commands me to stone a sinner to death.jesus tells me to put the stone down.the church has u worshipping jesus as though he is god.hes gods son but that doesnt make him god.god told u not to put anyone before him.to put a name to the word of god is a sin.he said i am that i am.that means neither he nor his word has a name.and dont forget jesus himself destroyed a church cuz it was about money and not god.if u havent been to the fields of the nepholine then u just have an opinion.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Patriot

      interesting comments, and insight into your belief in the nature of Jesus and separating him from God. God is the absolute and there isn't anything that comes close to His power or presence. Anyways, seemed interesting, and more aligned with the other monotheistic religions that believe in the power of One God (of the Universe)– Judaism and Islam.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Troy

      Hamsta, what you have to say is pretty incredible. But haven't scientists proven that they can simulate the "death, seeing the light" experience by fooling your brain into thinking its dieing? I'm not saying what you experienced wasn't real, just being skeptical, which I think is healthy these days.

      Thanks for sharing!

      December 5, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • John

      I don't know which is sadder; the two of you giving this guy the time of day, or this guy's wannabe-ghetto inability to write a simple sentence.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • AW

      @Troy, Science will find whatever you want it to find. There are plenty of scientists who agree that NDE's are very real and there are plenty of scientists that will argue NDE's are a figment of the imagination. You can always find someone who calls themselves a scientist to supply ammunition to support whatever belief you want supported. Its really a matter of whether or not you want the truth or something to make you feel good. Do you seek out "evidence" that makes you feel good or that leads you closer to the truth?

      December 6, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  3. Hadenufyet

    Why even offer posts to these articles , it's just a magnet for non-believers and critics. Why are you even drawn to the article?
    Your opinion won't sway anyone. Why even bother.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Name Withheld

      When I was in the seminary, several decades ago, I elected to leave because of the constant suggestive actions from priests and brothers at the seminary. I left the Catholic Church twenty years later, just prior to the national uproar regarding priests and young men in their parishes. So, I guess I am a non-believer. The teachings of the Catholic Church follow a belief system created by men, not the teachings of Jesus Christ. I cannot find text within the bible that addresses priests abusing young men.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Hadenufyet

      But is it not written ,"For ALL have sinned , and fall short of the glory of God." Doesn't matter if your a priest or a football coach.
      It's just humans being human. And some can be a really sick lot. Call religion what you will , evil , perverted , lunacy ,..whatever.
      The bottom line is just to treat others with as much respect and forgiveness as you would yourself. If that seems like a foolish endeavor then I guess there's one one direction mankind can go.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  4. gary

    I suppose many of the boomers for god can't find other work. Selling ghost stories is a good paying, safe gig. Too bad it's all BS.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • WDinDallas

      How's that atheism working for ya? Got a good job? Rewarding spirtually and financially?

      December 5, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Troy

      Gary, I kind of felt the same way when I read the article. I was drawn to it because I have read so much about Churches losing members. It was interesting to see this headline that boomers are entering the seminary. The skeptic in me immediately thought it was a scheme to get employed or open your own non-profit Christian organization. They can probably get discounted healthcare as well. Sorry for the skepticism, but "man" has proven to me that I need to be a skeptic.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • kathy

      I said a prayer for you, Gary.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Fr. Robert Ballecer, SJ

      As a full-disclaimer, I'm a Catholic Priest – and I have a slightly different view of the men you seem so willing to discount.

      I've been a member of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus) since 1994 – ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 2007. Before I entered I owned my own computer consultation business in the SF Bay Area and made a nice living for myself. I'm a network engineer by trade (I've been selected as an engineering team lead for the Interop conference the past 8 years straight) with a BA, a MS and MA, and probably a PhD or two within 5 years. Currently I am the national director of vocation promotion for the US Jesuits who run 28 Colleges and Universities (you probably know a few of them... Georgetown, Boston College, Santa Clara U., Loyola Marymount, Gonzaga, Fordham), 65 high schools and a few dozen parishes, retreat centers and research sites (including the Vatican Observatory.) I had a great job outside of religious life, and I could have a good-paying one again if I so chose... but what I've done and what I could do pales in comparison to the stories of the men with whom I live.

      In just the communities in which I've been assigned in my short life, I've had the privilege of living with Jesuits who have worked on the Large Hadron Collider, cataloged stellar phenomenon, dug irrigation ditches in Haiti, taught young men and women around the world, and otherwise lives fascinating lives.

      I understand the animosity towards religion, especially with so many horrible stories about what has been done "in the name of 'x' ", but you shouldn't delude yourself into thinking that a devoted religious life is a "safe gig" or even a paying job. They don't do it because it's safe (quite the contrary) or because it's a good paying gig (I get $250/month as a stipend for ALL of my living expenses in Washington, DC), but because they believe in something bigger and more meaningful than themselves.

      Call us crazy. Call us delusional. Call us foolish. - There's plenty of evidence to suggest as much.

      However, don't try to tell me that we're only doing it because we can't do anything else. - We're doing it because we believe that anything else isn't as worthwhile.

      Peace,
      Fr. Robert

      December 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Jenkins

      Well said Robert.

      December 5, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  5. Glades2

    It sounds good on the surface, but the motives behind a decision like that make the difference – are they made because the person has a true love for God and wants to devote his or her life to Him – or because they are tired of "working to pay the bills" and want a life free of that burden. Now, I understand completely their wanting to be free of the 9 to 5 grind (ugh), but they better be sure their decision is based on the first, not the second, since others have made that same mistake – and there's nothing worse than someone in ministry who's just doing it to escape a portion of their life they consider no longer acceptable. This is why the Catholic Church has a noviciate period for men and women, since it gives them a long period of time to discern their calling – most are familiar with the Sound of Music and how this benefitted Maria von Trapp, and the same is true for others who are not 100% sure of their decision, or as Mother Superior told Maria on Maria's misguided decision, "These walls were not meant to shut out problems"...

    December 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • steve

      You think being a pastor is not working??? Wow, you need to learn a thing or two. Pastors usually work far more hours than just "9 to 5".

      December 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Glades2

      Yes, you are right, and was one reason I was told the ministry wasn't for me – they have to respond to every terrible thing imaginable and any hour, in order to give last rites to the dying. One night, I was in the ER for something minor, when I heard our parish priest in the next room giving last rites to another patient, while others were standing at the bedside, sobbing, so as you said it is more than a 9 to 5 job and is actually more like 24/7, but the official issue is a person's intent – some do join the Church or ministry for a variety of personal reasons – not always to do with their love of God, and that needs to be sorted out during their period of discernment...

      December 5, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  6. steve

    It is true hatred and cruelty to make comments intended to hurt others and attack things that others hold dear. Very sad.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • R

      That is what religious people do.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • steve

      R- yes, that is wrong, too. Why do you defend it with others?

      December 5, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Daniel in Canada

      Well, if people don't want to be ridiculed and laughed at, they should not hold such ridiculous and laughable beliefs.

      December 5, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Hadenuffyet

      That is what religious people do......that comment verifies what was said.

      December 5, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  7. john

    Hey it beats workin for a livin

    December 5, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  8. Josie

    I give these people props, going into that field is very hard. No matter how you do it. I'm Pagan, not Christian and curently going to a university working on a philosophy/theology degree. My next step is a seminary, now does this mean I will end up in a church somewhere, doubtful. But for me and what I want to do, it's the way to go. Especially since there is no central leading group for Pagans. Plus it gives me a chance to study and learn about other beliefs. I get those weird looks, and no this job is not for everyone, nor should it be. To many have used to it to take advantage of people and all that. But then again didn't Jesus himself warn us of people like that and to avoid them?

    December 5, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • geraldh

      Funny, the atheists don't mock you for having "silly beliefs".

      December 6, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  9. Sharky

    Of course they are. Nobody else is hiring people over 50.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  10. funny

    It's funny how many Christianity "haters" all shop for Christmas and have Christmas parties and even put up a Christmas tree in their homes.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Hey

      Duh because it's a pagan holiday celebrating Winter Solstice NOT Christmas, your Christ wasn't even born in December and all the parts of Christmas are based on pagan rituals.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • jimbo

      What's even funnier is that it bothers you. No Christ in my Christmas just friends, family and fun. Presents, pine trees in living room with lights, cookies and big meals are fun.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • dale

      No more funny than yourself who probably puts up pumpkins and other traditional Halloween decorations, yet you probably are not wiccan or would support witchcraft. Get over yourself and your ownership of you're "Holy" day. It's all fairy tales dummy.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • john

      They are keeping the mas in Christmas.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Dave

      Gift giving = roman tradition (Saturnalia), Trees = pagan tradition, partying in the winter = predates organized religion.
      So what were you wondering?

      December 5, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • jimbo

      Christmas started with "fly agaric" mushrooms that grow under pine trees in northern Europe. These hallucinogenic mushrooms were brought as gifts by shaman, leading to the culture of bright lights, flying raindeer, the red and white colors of christmas and presents under the trees.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Jenn

      It's funny how christians think christmas is their holiday.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • SWcommen1

      Maybe you should do a little research before spouting off. There is a traditional reason for Xmas on Dec. 25 – it was tradition to assign a birthdate (when unknown) as being the same date as the death date. Jesus was crucified around Passover, estimated to be ~Mar.25. The Incarnation (Jesus' "true" birthday) actually occurs with Jesus' conception; add 9 mo, and viola, Dec.25. Calling out the pagan shibboleth simply exposes your pre-conceived notions.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  11. DaveL404

    Call it a career change, post lay off, unemployment. I guess it beats going to prison for 3 square meals a day. Certainly a better life than the guy sleeping under the bridge in my town. Just how do you look at the suckers with a straight face?

    “And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them” 2nd Kings2:23-24 Oh how special.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  12. jimbo

    They're probably realizing they didn't save enough money and their pension plans and social security aren't going to provide for them.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  13. mike

    those baby boomers are gonna mess everything up! i tought we were getting rid of religion little by little... but it looks like we are going backwards! religion is like jedi mind tricks they only work on the weak minded.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Michael

      I wouldn't worry they have too much belief or even interest in religion per se, it's just a job in hard times.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  14. Richard Head

    The reason that the Baby Boomers are going into Religion is that thay have a lot of rocky road trips that they can share with others. They are trying to have a positive influence on others so that they don't have the mistakes, or understand that they are not alone in their addiction, denial, or deviance. I think that it is a good effort, but Religion has nothing to do with counselling.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  15. BobZemko

    "Grab a brew. Don't cost nothin'." (Bluto, 1978)

    December 5, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  16. michael smith

    Really? Malle Baby Boomers are going back to preach the Bible and to "fill a void." Sounds like gay men that are unable or unwilling to establish meaningful relationsihps within the Gay Community. Not that this is a bad thing, I personally think Gay men would make wonderful priests, but, how will the Church reconcille with this? Has the Church done any background screening or is the Church so desperate for priests that they are allowing Gay men to serve in the Church?

    December 5, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • SheilaKA

      By Church do you mean Roman Catholic? There ARE gay Roman Catholic priests and I expect every denomination has some gay clergy. I know a few who are wonderful priests. It's not a sin to BE gay. They take the same vow of celibacy that any priest takes. And yes, while many years ago there were few background checks, they are routine in the Catholic Church now.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  17. Dennis

    Vincent could of helped more by being staying an attorney, now he is just spinning BS at people

    December 5, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • jwk

      "could of helped"

      What does it mean? Could of...

      December 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  18. Sunflower

    It's called being disillusioned with modern life as it is..... things are not like they were... they are also not like they should be. When regular life no longer offers the peace and serenity that you had hoped for, many turn to something new.... Actually this doesn't say much for how our society has evolved. We're now going backwards.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  19. Adam

    "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones." (Psalms 137:9, KJV)

    December 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • David in Corpus

      Don't forget to burn their innards in a particular fashion as it makes a pleasant odor unto the Lord (Levitacus, all of it)

      December 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Little Adolf

      Awesome! Me next!

      December 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  20. Jason

    "If you want to see what is most Sacred, see what is most profaned" The mystical Truth of the Catholic faith is not unwound or contradicted by those who have committed horrible things while entrusted to its flock. The lack of intellect conducive to Catholic bashing is astounding. The Church is the bride of Jesus Christ, an entrusted to Peter our first pope – even he was greatly flawed. This is not the point, the fall of those who are selfish is a smokescreen. Remove your anger, separate the person from the potential of Truth and you can be in the position to possibly learn something new.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Adam

      Read a science book you might learn something, they are better than 1st century babbling.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Sunflower

      Mystical Truth??? Bride of Jesus Christ? Potential Truth? Do you hear yourself????

      December 5, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • David in Corpus

      You do realize how stupid that all sounded. I read it twice just to make sure I didn't miss any key points that would bring it all together. Sadly, I will never get that time back.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • strongbelief2

      Amen

      December 5, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
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About this blog

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.