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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. loathstheright

    They can all they won't, it still isn't going to make GOD any realer....but, hey, maybe being delusional is a happy thing.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  2. Blake

    Instead of going back to seminary and talking about God, then preaching about God–all words–why not just volunteer to help the needy, e.g., Habitat for Humanity, Peace Corps, Americorps, Teach America, soup kitchens, etc. Deeds speak louder than holy words which God doesn't listen to anyways.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Adam

      Habitat For Humanity hands out Bibles a prerequisite for getting help.

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

      there's no money in that stuff.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Martin

      yep...or if they really cared, they could train fighters to overthrow the current plutocracy, instead of dealing more religious opium

      December 5, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  3. Beth

    Lexington Theological Seminary has seen an increase in the "boomer" generation through the Seminary's new limited-residency, online program. It reaches people who feel a call to ministry but want/need to stay within their home communities and churches while they learn to become pastors.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  4. palintwit

    Here comes the next batch of pedos.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  5. Bandonwind

    I would like to see ministers remove all the religious frocks and collars. Just look like the rest of us so that you don't stand out as being special. Nuns had this problem with the long, flowing habit. It made them stand out, which was actually against their vows. That and the inconvenience of the habit is one main reason they stopped wearing them, although some orders wear a simple suit with the headgear (which still defines them as special). To me, a person who truly has a calling doesn't need the physical trappings. I also think being a preacher has lots of perks. Maybe not a huge salary, although so many of the big named loud mouths rake in millions (it ain't goin' to charity), but they are usually provided housing and I can't believe they have to work very hard.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  6. Scott

    It sounds like Vincent Guest was really making a difference in people's lives before. Too bad now he'll just be filling them with guilt and making them feel bad just to deal with his own mortality.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  7. reality

    why the attack on God and Christianity? I wonder what the psychologists would say is the reason? It is my prayer that any and all that are not saved will come to their senses before it is eternally too late.

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

      I'll pray to Buddha for you.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Old Gods

      I pray to Enlil for you...you poor poor soul.

      December 6, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  8. Chad

    I am happy to hear statistics like these, it gives me hope that much of the religious nonsense in this country will die with the baby boomers. Insanity is very hard to fight, lets just hope it dies out on its own.

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

      I strongly suspect when all this "nonsense" dies in this country , so goes the country.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • train_rider

      Chad,
      You are what a believer would call a sorry soul. Since you are not a believer this will mean nothing to you so you have to nothing to fear in this life. Regretfully, you are missing a deep awareness that only human beings comprehend. Good luck with your self absorbed, one dimensional ride thru life.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Stewart

      This nonsense is about all this country has left. And the constant whining about and scapegoating of Baby Boomers. When the Boomers are gone I guess it will be back to hating women and Blacks.

      December 5, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  9. jj

    I would never go into a profession based on belief. What if I lost my faith? What if I couldn't find anyone to share my faith? It really is "selling ghost stories," like the previous post says.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  10. hamsta

    i misspelled the fields of the nepholeme.thats where u go when u die and wait for gods acceptance.ive been there and back.if u havent been there u cant tell me anything.hell is a lie the church came up with to scare u into compliance.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • John

      Forget your fundamental inability to write, but what is it with the word "you" needing to be reduced to "u"? How much more effort does it take to write two more letters? Lazy and illiterate: a lethal combination.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Bandonwind

      U-u-u, it's all about U-u-u......

      Open a dictionary and stop trashing the English language.

      Do YOU get it?

      December 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  11. RS

    One word: pension. These boomers are getting in so that they can get a pension and actually retire. My mother, who is the least moral and godless person I've never known, did it 15 years ago.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • kurtinco

      Don't forget all the tax benefits. Tons of deductions and adjustments for the "clergy".

      December 5, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  12. Cuervo Jones

    "If I get to old to chase women I might go to heaven".....................................................Mo. Ali

    December 5, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  13. arcandciel

    It's absolutely incredible how God masterfully inspired the Bible to be written in such a way that to the real Christians He calls to understand it it is crystal clear, and to all others it is a total mystery, Like for instance, you could argue for a lifetime with the clergy that there is only one big church on planet earth which happens to be sitting on a city in Rome which happens to have seven hills and that it is the bad one as described in Revelation ... But what? As clear as it is, they don't get it! Halleluhia to the great God! .....

    December 5, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  14. LouAZ

    Hey, it's a job, right ? Lots of people do it. Tax free too.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  15. Brian

    Somebody didn't get hugged enough. And I'm talking about the Atheists.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Chuckles

      will you give me a hug?

      December 5, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  16. 60minuteman

    Ernest Angley after his first day working in a mine, "Boys, there has to be an easier way to make a livin than this".

    December 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  17. Livelystone

    Only God and His Son can ordain men and woman for the ministry of the Gospel.

    Ever since seminaries came into existence the church has been run by man instead of God

    For how the truth can return to the church, read "Modern Day Prophet" by Douglas Duncan

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

      I'd rather read the Grimm Brothers, thank you very much.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  18. Hypatia

    That was probably the sickest, most offensive headline I've ever read.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Times of Change

      You just made my point sir. All I offered was an opinion on the matter, backed up with an article that I agreed with. No personal attacks, and yet you respond with an assault on my character. Seems to be in keeping with the whole thesis of the article.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  19. Times of Change

    This just means that the Church will get hit even harder once the baby boomer generation is gone. In a related topic, I suggest you all read this from CNN on baby boomers.

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/09/29/opinion/navarrette-broken-government/index.html?hpt=hp_c1

    It seems a drastic paradigm shift is coming. A good one I think.

    December 5, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Hypatia

      You too will one day pass the age of 50. I hope your crotch droppings treat you with the same contempt.

      December 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  20. billgme

    Thank you to those who choose to try to do something that benefits their fellow man. Baby Boomers over 50 entering the seminary is a gift and I am thankful. They have much life experience to share. The lack of intellectual depth by those attacking the Catholic church makes me wonder if those critics have done anything for anyone or just continued their hateful, unintelligible rants!

    December 5, 2011 at 3:37 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.