October 28, 2013 in Features

Boomers refocus careers, energies on ministry

Jeff Strickler McClatchy-Tribune
 

As a basketball star in the 1970s, Janet Karvonen led tiny New York Mills to three straight state championships. Now Karvonen-Montgomery, pictured Sept. 30, is serving a one-year internship at Living Waters Lutheran Church in Lino Lakes, Minn., that will end in her ordination as a Lutheran minister.
(Full-size photo)

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, Minn.

Nearly a third of the students enrolled in Minneapolis-area 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, Minn.

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 was to 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.”

In retrospect, Karvonen-Montgomery said 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.”

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.”

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