Seminaries are revamping their programs to accommodate the wave of baby boomers who are trading their blue or white collars for the ministry's black and white.
Bob Fellows is giving up the holy trinity of entertainment -- Leno, Letterman and Las Vegas -- for the traditional theological version. At 58, he's stepping away from a magician's career that earned him national acclaim to become ordained as a minister.
"I felt that it was something that was tugging at me," he said. "At this stage of my life, it's time to give back."
While he's unique in that he's giving up a glitzy show-biz career, his decision to join the ministry later in life is not at all unusual. From Laura Crosby, who entered the seminary after raising her children; to Jim Anderson, who segued from a successful business career, there's a tidal wave of second-career ministers.
"It's part of the baby-boomer phenomenon," said Leland Eliason, provost and executive director of Bethel Seminary. "Many of these people have had enormous success in their lives, but now they're starting to ask questions about the meaning of life. They want to go from success to significance."
So many second-career students are enrolling in seminaries that the schools have had to adjust their teaching procedures. Traditional day programs are giving way to night school and even online classes that enable students to keep working day jobs to support their families while they're in school.
And the seminary couldn't be happier about accommodating them.
"Our faculty loves these students because they pull real-life questions into the class," Eliason said. "They are a great, great blessing to us."
What the students bring to class is the same thing they bring to their first church assignments: the type of experience you can't find in a textbook.
"A minister in his 20s can do a lot of reading and contemplating as a way of becoming empathetic to others," Fellows said. As older ministers, "we've been through difficult times ourselves, and now we can help some other people through their difficult times. We bring a certain street sense."
Launching a new career at a time of life when many of your contemporaries are starting to focus on retirement is not a decision that people arrive at frivolously. It typically involves a lot of soul searching about everything from the financial implications and lifestyle changes -- "obviously, we're not doing this for the money," Anderson said -- to the nuts-and-bolts issues of going back to school again: Can you still cut it when it comes to keeping up with the homework?
"The first term paper I wrote was titled 'This Is the First Term Paper I've Written in 25 Years,' " said Anderson, 52, who is executive pastor at Westwood Community Church in Excelsior. "I don't think it was exactly what the instructor was looking for, but it certainly reflected what I was feeling. I'd look around the classroom, and there were some other second-career students there. But there were also a lot of students my kids' age. And that gives you pause."
Crosby, 50, said her two daughters teased her about her homework.
"I learned to pick up my homework and study anywhere," said Crosby, who is the director of spiritual formation at the Upper Room, a ministry of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina. "I'd do homework while I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room or helping with the car pool. And my kids would say, 'Mom, if you were a regular student, you'd be called a geek.'"
But they found advantages in being older, too.
"As second-career students, we're more motivated to do homework than the younger students are," Fellows said. "Now we know why we're in school. We're not like college students who are out to get a good liberal-arts background but don't know what they're going to do with it. We can see an immediate use for the information we're getting. We want the information; we need it."
Fellows' journey to the ministry is coming full circle. He entered Harvard Divinity School right out of college but dropped out two-thirds of the way through.
"For one thing, I started having success as a magician," he said. "I was doing magic shows in Boston theaters, and the next thing you know, I was working in Las Vegas and doing TV shows. I was on 'David Letterman' and '[Jay] Leno' and 'Phil Donahue.'"
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