When I was a young seminary student just out of the military, I was befriended by my next-door neighbor in seminary housing. He was in his early 50s with grown children.
After serving as a lay leader in churches for a number of years, he had been ordained to the ministry, called to a small church in east Texas and packed up his wife and moved to Fort Worth to attend seminary. His experience and common sense enriched my life as I embarked on ministry as a life’s work.
I thought of my friend when Steve Guinn at Central Baptist Theological Seminary recently shared an article titled “Holy Enrollers: Why Boomers are Going to Divinity School.” The author cites a report from the Association of Theological Schools that the number of students age 50 or older had grown from 12 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2009 – the last year for which data is available.
This certainly confirms the experience I have had with students both at the Central center in Murfreesboro as well as students at the Shawnee campus. Older students are a significant population in graduate theological institutions today.
Melba Newsome, the author of the article, suggests some reasons for this trend. She suggests, for example, that Boomers want “to give back” in some way. They have always been an idealistic generation and now that their children are grown, they have the freedom to pursue another vocational calling.
I would suggest some other motivations as well. For example, as Boomers have faced the challenges of life – love, loss, success and professional struggles – they have come to see the difference that a faithful walk with God can make in a person’s life. In turn, they want both to deepen their own spiritual experience and to share it with others.
Second, those who enter the ministry later in life have gained some important skills they want to offer to others. They have maturity, patience and – most of all – wisdom. There are some abilities and insights that only come through experience. These cannot be taught in the classroom, but they can be identified, clarified and nurtured for effective ministry.
Third, most mature students bring a strong work ethic to their ministerial preparation. This is not to question the commitment of younger students, but those who have been in the marketplace for a number of years have struggled with balancing work, home and service. If they have survived all of these, they have learned some important time management and organizational skills.
Fourth, they are often ready to accept more responsibility. Although some have had a “Damascus Road” experience, most are continuing a pattern of service they have already embraced through most of their lives.
McKennon Shea, director of admissions at Duke Divinity School, says: “It’s rare that they’ve had a complete 180-degree life change. They all seem to have had a calling to ministry at some point.” They have chosen this time in their lives to step up their commitment to that calling.
Although I spent most of my ministry working with college-age young adults, I have enjoyed the opportunity to interact with these older students who bring so much to the table. May God continue to bless their response to God’s call in their lives.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.