On seminaries: Time ignores the obvious

A decade or two ago, in a previous ecclesiastical lifetime, I was asked to speak at a national gathering of Episcopalians who had been ordained as permanent deacons. In other words, most of them assisted priests in churches, or played other roles in parish life, after going to seminary. Seminary is the key. I was stunned at how many of the people had gray hair. Most were in their 40s and 50s. Many were over 60. Most of the new deacons were second- or third-career folks or had jumped into this ministry after retirement. For many, the call to be a deacon or deaconess followed some kind of life-changing event that made them reassess ultimate things -- such as a heart attack or, in many cases, a divorce.

Thus, to make an obvious point, the hot trend covered in a recent issue of Time magazine has actually been around quite some time, if one has been studying the baby boomers and others who came of age, to one degree or another, in the '60s.

The long, long headline on the story is crucial, in this case, since the magazine still has not posted the full text online: "Holy Enrollers. Baby boomers are the fastest-growing demographic at theological schools in the U.S. and Canada."

You can get a sense of where the story is going from the snippet that online readers can see before hitting the paying-readers-only gate:

In July, 64-year-old Patrice Fike sold her home in Coral Gables, Fla., and her Mercedes, stored most of her furniture and moved into a one-room studio where many of her meals are provided. If she sounds like a retiree relocating to an assisted-living facility, guess again. Fike is living in dormitory housing for the Episcopal Church's General Theological Seminary in New York City, where she will spend three years and $100,000 of her savings and retirement income to prepare for her new career as a priest.

She's not alone. When Fike attended orientation last spring, she was pleasantly surprised to find ...

Now, the key is that this is not a story about a trend in the Episcopal Church or even the world of oldline Protestantism. The heart of the story is a set of new statistics out from Association of Theological Schools, which, as Time tells us, includes more than 250 graduate schools in North America. The whole point is that gray-haired baby boomers are now the fastest growing niche in theological education. As I said, this is really not hot boomer news.

Still, the story notes:

The under-30 crowd may still be the largest cohort of students -- accounting for a third of the total -- but the 50-or-older group has grown from 12% of students in 1995 to 20% in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available. ...

Perhaps the trend is yet another reflection of a restless generation that isn't content with simply making money or taking it easy in their golden years.

Let me stress that this is a good hook for a news story, even if this trend -- especially in pastoral counseling departments -- has been affecting seminary life for a decade or two. No, what I find curious is that the story focuses totally on schools that are linked to the Protestant left. Where are the quotes and information from the nation's larger seminaries? After all, the oldline schools are very small in comparison with their evangelical counterparts.

Meanwhile, I would predict that the percentage of older, late-in-life ordinands is higher the further one heads left on the doctrinal spectrum -- in keeping with church membership statistics in general.

The bottom line: Can we to know that this seminary trend in Time is evenly distributed across the academic board?

Also, it would help to know the overall numbers and demographics at General Theological Seminary -- a school which reported 202 students (134 full-time equivalents) in the same time frame as the Time report. Meanwhile, there were 108 students (62 FTE) up at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

As a point of comparison, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth had 3,042 students (2,068 FTE) that year and, on the various campuses of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there were 2,134 students (1,492 FTE)

I realize that, for a reporter in New York City, General Theological Seminary is just down the block. However, when writing a national story it helps to grab a mouse, or even pick up a telephone, and consider the rest of the national scene. There could be stories hidden in the larger numbers, especially when the story in question is based on a tiny seminary and the reporter has not -- it seems -- even considered that the numbers and the trends may be different on other campuses, especially the larger institutions.

So, how many gray-haired future clergy are there in Fort Worth, Orlando, Louisville and elsewhere? Are evangelical students younger, as a rule? The same as their oldline counterparts? What is the actual composition of the student bodies at schools on the doctrinal left, as opposed to those in the middle on the right? In other words, where's the rest of the national story?

Photo: General Theological Seminary in New York City

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