Theology as a Second Career

Feeling a mid-life crisis coming on? Don't buy the Camaro just yet. You might like Plan B.

Writing in today's Wall Street Journal, Sarah Pulliam Bailey takes notice of the rising age of those entering seminary.

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Students under 30 still make up the largest age cohort in seminaries, according to the Association of Theological Schools. But older students are growing in representation among 74,000 or so students pursuing a seminary degree from an institution associated with the agency that accredits graduate schools of theology. The percentage of students over 50 enrolled in a seminary rose to about 21% in 2011 from 12% in 1995. The percentage of students under 30 has hovered at around 30% during the same period. 

Why has the percentage of older students increased? It's not entirely clear. Describing 46-year-old Alan Felton, who quit his $90,000 a year job to attend Duke Divinity School, Bailey says: "Like many people who decide to start a second career in middle age, Mr. Felton saw a chance to pursue an interest closer to his heart."

A perceptive WSJ reader, responding to the article on the paper's website, noted that the Journal ran a very similar story just last year.  On May 19, 2013, in an article titled, "For Second Careers, a Leap of Faith," writer Anne Tergesen observed:

Flocks of people in their 50s and 60s are putting aside thoughts of a comfortable retirement and heading to theological school, where they've become the fastest-growing age group in recent years. They're putting in years of study and field work to become chaplains, spiritual counselors, missionaries, and educators and social workers for nonprofits with religious ties. And they're taking that training everywhere from disaster zones to impoverished villages to hospital bedsides.

Why the change? Tergesen notes:

For many older adults, mortgages are paid (or nearly so), children are on their own and first careers are winding down; as such, there's time and freedom to "do good." Equally important, thoughts about one's mortality begin to surface, along with some tough questions: Have I lived my life well? Have I made a difference?

We have little time, a mere breath within the cosmic exhale. Our life is a song that no one else can play. With only one chance to express the unrepeatable music of our being, we must take deliberate care to compose our lives with big questions front and center. Quotidian duties and the demands of survival-based thoughts can distract us from really examining who we are and the kind of lives we want to lead. It is terrifying how long we can go, and how ostensibly happy we can be, and yet never ask, "Am I living my life well?"

Of course, sometimes a person isn't ripe for those inquiries. Sometimes we aren't ready to make drastic changes or accommodate soul-shaping epiphanies. It wasn't until a major injury at 30 years old that St. Ignatius of Loyola reformulated his own life's purpose. St. Augustine needed time, too. The list goes on. Spiritual timelines differ; not everyone needs to apply to Duke Divinity School; not everyone should become a priest or refuse the comforts of the world. 

But the WSJ articles remind me of the importance of Catholic education, of a pedagogy that emphasizes examen and the practices of contemplation that can rescue us from apathy and sorrow.  

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