Ray Williams doesn't recommend singing country songs in bars as a prerequisite for ministry, but it worked for him.
"It led me to change my life," he says. "Everybody was saying you ought to be preaching."
The fact that he became an alcoholic and nearly died of alcohol poisoning was also a factor, Williams says.
Today, he is the pastor of One Accord Community Church, a now-thriving congregation in Red Bank that he planted in 2004. Williams, 50, is one a growing number of baby boomers who are making ministry a second career.
A decade-long study of enrollment by the Association of Theological Schools, released in 2009, indicated the fastest-growing group of seminarians were people older than 50. In 1995, according to the study, baby boomers made up 12 percent of seminarians, while today they are 20 percent. Similarly, nearly one-third of students enrolled in Minneapolis-area seminaries are baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Jimmy Fowler, 57, pastor of Alpine Baptist Church in Red Bank, felt called to the ministry at age 19 but didn't answer the call for nearly two decades. In between, he worked for, among other places, YMCA's Camp Ocoee and the then-UTC Arena in addition to wandering "from the church for a number of years."
"It was not an immediate thing," says Fowler, who has been a pastor for about 15 years. "It was a process -- of me needing to be where I needed to be" in order to be a pastor.
The Rev. Susan Butler, 59, who has been rector at Grace Episcopal Church for less than five years, was a homemaker who was "getting bored with being at home" when she experienced "a deeply spiritual dynamic" and "felt truly called" into ministry.
"My [Episcopal] church started ordaining women," she says, "and I was beginning to have first-hand experience with women in the priesthood."
NOT FOR ALL
Seminary was part of the shift into ministry for Fowler and Butler but not for Williams.
"I got a good education with New Orleans Theological Seminary," says Fowler, who was enrolled during part of the seven-plus years he served as youth minister at Ooltewah Baptist Church. "It taught me a lot of the theological things I needed to know. And it put me in contact with people in youth ministry."
Butler says she "loved seminary" because it gave her "the ability to think theologically and do ethical reflection. That is important for being a pastor" and in "trying to have some kind of prophetic voice."
Williams, who also had managed businesses, grocery stores and a skating rink, says seminary was not the right route for him.
"I was 33 when I started pastoring," he says. "It takes everything you've got."
SCHOOL OF LIFE
Life experience has proved invaluable for second-career ministers.
"As I look back," says Williams, "I was blessed. I make friends easily. With business, that helped when I planted [the] church. I had to promote it. I had to invite people to come because we basically started with nothing. All those things that I did prepared me."
Butler says her work as a legal assistant during seminary provided organizational and administrative experience and computer skills, attributes she has needed as a rector.
"It's a little like running a small business," she says. "A lot of pastors know that but are in denial about it."
Butler's experience as a homemaker, she says, helped with the pastoral side of her duties as rector.
"I was big as a homemaker in creating a sense of order and beauty and balance as I was financially able," she says. "That was a real easy transfer. In Christian ministry, table fellowship is at the heart of what we do. It's becoming a lost art [in homes], but when I was raising my kids, it wasn't."
Fowler says "beyond the shadow of a doubt" his nonclergy jobs -- especially those dealing with people and large events -- allowed him to develop "an ability to see lots of pieces of the puzzle -- how they come together, how they could come together."
Events he helped coordinate at the UTC Arena such as the Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Tournament, circuses and ice shows train "you to look at certain things, to do certain things" in the same way a pastor coordinates the spiritual aspects of worship.
Of course, Fowler says, "when you deal with volunteers, it's different than dealing with paid staff. You can't fire the people in the pews."
Shifting into ministry later in life has its downsides, pastors say, but the upsides heavily outweigh them.
Fowler says a lack of experience when accepting a first call to ministry is both good and bad. A seminary may have provided training, but it's not always on-the-job training. On the other hand, he says, churches may be willing "to cut you some slack," to "give you the freedom and flexibility that younger ones don't have."
"People are less likely to question someone 37 with two kids of his own," he says. "The average stay of a youth minister is three-ish years. [My age] allowed me to stay longer."
Age, Fowler says, also gave him freedom from falling into the "this-is-the-way-it's-got-to-be-done" trap.
"You learn to look at things from a different angle, how to come at a problem," he says. "You think laterally. You have a different approach -- not good, not bad, just different. It frees you up."
For Butler, attending seminary caused her to focus more on her studies than she did as an undergraduate.
"I knew why I was there," she says. "I knew what I wanted to get out of it. But it shook up my family."
Indeed, enrolling in seminary eventually resulted in Butler getting a divorce and finding a job.
"It's a very common outcome," she says of second-career ministers. "It's almost a cliched outcome for women."
Fowler says he has seen statistics showing that half of young seminary graduates are out of the ministry within five years. And the same thing can happened with second-career ministers, he says. But it doesn't have to.
"There are ministers who have been chewed up and spit out who have not had as positive an experience as I have," he says. "But every day is not a bright and sunny day. If you don't find a balance, you do get ground up."
Fowler says he made a commitment early in his ministry that he "would not sacrifice my family on the altar of the church. I don't mind saying no." Fortunately, he says, his congregation is respectful of his family and his family time.
"Some churches are not that thoughtful," he says. "You've got to learn to say no, to set boundaries."
While seminary is important, says Butler "most of what we do is on the job."
"The practice of it, like in a medical practice, is figuring out what you're doing," she says. "It wasn't until I had three or four years under my belt that I began to feel at ease in the role. Those first years are fraught with anxiety, with second guessing. It was a critical milestone."
For Williams, his second-career ministry has proved to be a chance to turn his old life on its head.
"Whatever you were doing for wrong," he says, paraphrasing Joseph's words in Genesis, "God can make something good out of it."
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...
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