Students follow a divine calling at midlife
Published Friday, July 22, 2011 4:02PM PDT
For the past three years, Dona Lethbridge has been working on a master's degree in divinity at the Vancouver School of Theology. The baby boomer student returned to school after an accomplished career in nursing to follow a mature calling to serve God.
Like many from her generation, Dona is not ready to retire. She feels young and healthy in her 60s, and is no longer concerned about paying her children's school tuition or a big mortgage. The graduate student wants to spread her faith through Christian ministry and she is not alone in this divine journey.
Students under age 30 amount for the largest demographic at U.S. and Canadian divinity schools, but boomers are registering in greater numbers now than a decade ago. Enrollment of middle-aged students has grown considerably, from 12 per cent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2009, according to the Association of Theological Schools.
Sixty per cent of students at the Vancouver School of Theology are older than 40, and mostly women.
Boomers come to theology school not only to study ministry, but also to find a higher meaning to their lives. School representatives say that spirituality grows with age and many mature students are attempting to discern a bigger purpose to the lives they have created while supporting their communities.
"I don't think people coming in their midlife are changing careers, but rather it is a vocational redirection," the school's dean Wendy Fletcher said.
"It is a reorientation of a whole life to something that has a different set of values and purposes attached to it that will require a great amount of self-sacrifice and not a lot of material gain."
Lethbridge got the "bug" to pursue a career in ministry after discovering that church was the centrepiece of many rural communities with limited health access. As a nurse, she provided physical and emotional support to the ill for over 30 years. She believes that nurses are often under-appreciated and the profession can be taxing. But she always found comfort in the church.
"If I had continued with my career, it was going to be more of the same. I love the Bible to pieces, and I knew I needed an evolution after many years teaching nursing," Lethbridge said.
Mature students enjoy a greater flexibility in theology schools than their younger counterparts since many come after retiring, free from the responsibilities of raising a family once children have grown and with fewer economic burdens.
But theology studies can be more emotionally demanding for the older crowd, and at times, even traumatizing.
Students start an education in ministry with a primitive understanding of theology and they are soon forced to reformulate their views of the world. The older population at divinity schools struggle with the challenge of unmaking a view of God that had held them through many years, Fletcher explains.
"They get into a theology school and find out that some of the things they believed for over 50 years had no real historical basis, and that is a pretty traumatic project."
Distressed students count on the support of spiritual directors and counselling at the Vancouver School of Theology, something that has been proven successful for many dealing with a holy crisis, the dean said.
"I went to see the spiritual director and realized that what I was going through was not unique. It happens to all of us in school," Lethbridge said.
As the economic base of the church's population declines, fewer economic resources to support traditional ministry work are accessible, officials say. But spirited students are exploring a new identity at midlife in spite of the current world recession, limping over the risks of losing economic status and an old sense of self.
But theology school is not cheap. A full-time master's student pays around $20,000 over two years of education in Canada. However, unlike most master's students, divinity school graduates find ministerial placements before they complete the program.
As people live longer, many boomers want to contribute to society beyond their retirement age and age hasn't deterred Dona's desire to spread her faith in more active ways. She will be soon ordained by the United Church of Canada, and plans to look after a congregation in B.C.
"I know there are many more like me out there, and I want them to know that you are not too old for this," she said. "You are so not too old."