Boomers are gravitating toward church ministry as they wrap up one career and look for a way to make a difference with a second one.
MaryAnne Korsch is still in her first month of classes at United Theological Seminary, but she hardly could be described as a tenderfoot. The retired school principal intends to become a chaplain at a hospital or hospice.
“I wanted to stay active and figure out a way to make a contribution to society,” the Duluth resident said. “I loved being an educator, but it’s time for a new path. I’m not done being productive, I’m not done making a contribution and I’m not done learning myself.”
She’s one of a growing number of baby boomers — from handymen to business executives, from physicians to athletes — who are launching careers as ministers. They’re part of a generation that grew up talking about making a difference in the world, but then got sidetracked by more pragmatic matters like raising children and paying their mortgages.
Now they’ve reached a stage in life where they’re able to refocus their energies.
“I’m a different person with a new life and a new calling,” said Janet Karvonen-Montgomery, a record-setting basketball player who recently started a yearlong internship that will result in her being ordained as a Lutheran minister. “When I was in my 20s, I thought everyone was there to serve me. Now I realize how humbling it is for me to serve others. And how exhilarating. This feels a lot better to me.”
Although many industries are intent on attracting a young workforce, churches have realized the benefits of also recruiting people with real-life seasoning, “The life experience they bring with them is a great advantage to the churches,” said Carrie Carroll, dean of students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
Nearly a third of the students enrolled in local seminaries are considered baby boomers, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964. Not only is that above the national average — which is pegged at 25 percent — but the state has been ahead of the curve of what’s been a relatively recent phenomenon in many places.
“I think it started here 10, if not 15 years ago,” said Glen Herrington-Hall, director of admissions at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton.
The seminaries have reached out to older students with innovative formats. United has a program in which classroom training is concentrated in two back-to-back days a week; there even are motel-like dorms on campus for students who drive in from out of town. At Luther, there’s a program offering intensive training on campus twice a year — January and June — while everything else can be done online.
Nonetheless, the decision to enter the seminary is not made lightly, said Jo Bauman, a Luther graduate who will be ordained Oct. 20 and installed as a pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis a week later.
“I was an architect for 14 years and in sales and marketing for 18 years after that, and I loved both of those jobs,” she said. “At first I didn’t want to do it [enter the seminary]. I was living a nice, happy, comfortable life. People kept saying, ‘God could use someone like you.’ And I kept telling them they were crazy.”
She signed up for one class at Luther as a test run and everything clicked. “I loved it immediately,” she said. “I love pastoring.”
Leading a different team
In the 1970s, the only Minnesotans who followed girls’ basketball were the parents of players. Then along came Janet Karvonen, an athletic phenom with an unstoppable jump shot. She led tiny New York Mills to three straight high school basketball championships, in the process scoring more points than anyone — boy or girl — in the history of state hoops and galvanizing interest in the sport.
After her playing career ended, she parlayed her fame into a career as a motivational speaker and a TV sports analyst. She also launched a highly regarded basketball training program. As an intern pastor, she has stepped back from those activities, including bringing in her son, Dave Montgomery, the girls’ basketball coach at Mounds View High School, to help run the camps. She doesn’t have enough time, she said, adding with a laugh: “Or the vertical [jump].”
In retrospect, she thinks the groundwork for her becoming a minister was there all along.
“My father was a funeral director, and I grew up in a house attached to the funeral home,” she said. “In many ways, being a funeral director and being a pastor are the same: You’re caring for the community, you’re caring for families, you’re helping people in need. I think it’s in my DNA.”
Claudia Welty retired as chief administrative officer of Minnesota Power & Light in Duluth.
“All the time I was doing corporate work, I felt that I was called at a deeper level to something more,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘Someday, when I have the time.’ Well, now is my time.”
Dr. Anne Palma has spent three decades healing bodies. Now she wants to start healing souls. An internist who lives in Idaho and enrolled in Luther through its online program, she plans to retire from medicine when she’s ordained.
“This feels absolutely right to me,” she said. “I feel called to do this. I’m ready to trade my stethoscope for a [ministerial] stole.”
Learning from life
Older students face some different challenges than do younger ones, Herrington-Hall said, including needing to “learn how to learn again.” But they also have advantages.
Much of pastoring involves dealing with life issues. “These are things that a 22-year-old coming straight out of undergraduate school has only read about,” he said. “These people have lived them.”
Sometimes the students need a little help seeing how their particular background can help them serve, Carroll said.
“Some students will say, ‘My experience doesn’t translate to the church,’ ” she said. “That’s not true. Everybody’s does; you just have to find the right fit.”
She likes to tell new students a story about a former handyman who graduated a few years ago and got a job at a church in a small Iowa farming town. The close-knit community was slow to embrace strangers.
“Some of the men wouldn’t come to church because he was there,” she said. “Then he started going out to the farms and helping hang drywall. It created an incredible connection. Everybody’s gifts are valuable.”
Not that there aren’t things that the boomers have to work around. During her chaplaincy training, Palma had to fight against her instinctive actions in a hospital room.
“Doctors scan the monitors” that are connected to patients, she said. “But I learned that when chaplains look at the monitors, everyone in the room looks at them, too, and assumes that something is wrong.”
Bauman had her own run-in with confusion when she was thinking about enrolling in the seminary. Wanting to offer familial support, her daughter, 23, accompanied her to an open house at the school.
“Everyone thought she was the candidate and I was the mother just tagging along,” Bauman said with a laugh. “I had to keep saying, ‘No, I’m the one.’ ”
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392