For Joe Morton, entering the ministry was not a question of if. It was only a question of when.
"I am one of those rare birds who knew from the time I was very young what I was supposed to be doing," he says. "I just decided to wait."
After a career as a claims adjuster at the department of Veterans Affairs in Houston, he changed course.
Now in his mid-30s, he has become a student at a satellite campus of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
In some ways the step was a "scary one," Mr. Morton admits. "You're leaving a certain economic security."
But, he says, "this opportunity presented itself, and it was compatible with what I was doing. Many people my age are doing this because it is now accessible to them."
Perkins spokeswoman Meredith Dickenson agrees. "We used to get divinity students coming straight out of an undergraduate four-year program," she says. "But we know we're going to find our future students in ... the laity."
Morton and others like him are broadening the profile of the American clergy. Entering candidates are now older on average. Many have already had a career in another field. The average age of seminary students has increased significantly to about 40, says David Hein, professor of religion and chair of the department of religion and philosophy at Hood College in Frederick, Md. "The average age at ordination to the priesthood is 44, and the average age of a priest in the Episcopal church is 52," he notes.
But age is not the only change. The growth of women studying theology has been particularly dramatic. The percentage of women entering seminaries in 1972, for instance, was 10.2, according to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) in Pittsburgh. By 1982 that figure had more than doubled to 23.7, and by 1995 it had reached 32.8 percent.
At Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School, for example, 40 percent of the 250 seminary students in 1995 were women, according to Stan Hagadone, director of admissions.
More and more of these are African-American women, according to ATS. Between 1992 and 1994, the number of black women pursuing ministry degrees had risen from 662 to about 1,000. Almost half of the 58 students in the 1996 class at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, N.C., were black women. That's still not many: Fewer than 5 percent of US churches are said to have female African-American pastors.
"Within the mainline denominations, that's much higher - almost 50 percent," says Prof. Rebecca Chopp, dean of the faculty and academic affairs at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
Experts disagree on the impact of changing age and gender on churches. Rolf Memming, a Methodist minister in Vermont who is conducting research on the ministry, wanted to find out why many of those who were ordained left the ministry soon afterward (according to the Ecumenical News Service).
His figures show that of those ordained before 1985, 30 percent to 40 percent from any given year had dropped out of the ministry within 10 years. Mr. Memming suggested that the way parishes treat newly ordained pastors is a significant factor.
The change toward an older pool of ministers and priests has had a profound influence on churches. The young man in his 20s who typified the old model of a seminary student anticipated about 40 years of service to "justify" the investment.
By 1993, however, less than a fifth of those men ordained as United Methodist clergy, were under 30. The older man or woman replacing him, looking for a second career, might expect some 20 years of service.
What Mr. Hein calls "The old way" of hiring a young person who is good with youth and young adults and becomes a seasoned, experienced priest "is becoming a thing of the past," he says.
Why the decline
Chopp blames this trend on the decline of the liberal Protestant establishment since 1960. "When this de facto establishment broke apart in an increasingly secularized and pluralized nation, the ministry became a less-desirable career option," she says. Instead, "top graduates sought positions in medicine, law, business, and the professoriate," she says.
In addition, "conservative evangelical Christians stepped up their involvement" in recruiting young ministers over the years, Professor Hein notes, citing groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, the Navigators, and InterVarsity. "So the liberal Protestant churches lost out on a huge pool of potential talent."
The older candidates are finding they are accepted at divinity schools. Screening committees tend to ask questions about the candidate's spiritual growth that are probably answered more successfully by older applicants.
Some critics assert that the trend of people jumping into the ministry from another career has shortchanged the sermon in favor of the eucharistic celebration.
"A lot of these clergy have not had the time or perhaps the inclination or aptitude to become very good preachers," says David Hein, professor of religion at Hood College.
"When the sermon is lousy, it becomes that much harder for the worshipper to derive meaning from the rest of the liturgy," he says.
Despite the high academic qualifications of candidates in some seminaries, "the ordained ministry is not attracting the same quality of candidates as it did in the '50s and earlier," Hein says.
But Ms. Dickenson sees the growing number of women in the ministry as a help to churches. "Often the most active people in a church are women," she says.
She sees female clergy as more interested than men in "empowering the community" and building connections between people.
"The preaching tends to be more focused on how you live your daily life as a Christian," she says. Women are more concerned with "moral Christianity or practical Christianity as opposed to doctrinal beliefs."
We're seeing the trend across American culture about spirituality, and many of the current writers of spirituality are women."
But are the women students getting placed in churches?
Professor Chopp says, "The glass ceiling is starting to break, and we're beginning to see women pastors at the large prestigious churches without large drops in membership."
Women are also being elected in greater numbers in roles of bishops, Chopp says. In the Methodist Church, elections last summer ordained a number of women bishops.
Even evangelical divinity schools, traditionally considered more conservative than mainstream seminaries, are reflecting the change.
"A lot of evangelical seminaries are now enrolling massive numbers of women," Chopp says. "The same debate [about admitting women] going on in more ... liberal schools 15 years ago is going on in more evangelical schools now."
Not surprisingly, seminaries have discovered that older women have markedly different lifestyles from people just graduating from college. They often have families and jobs, along with other obligations. And they're looking for career changes.
"We're trying to capture those students and bring them into the program," says Dickenson. "They've been a good source for us to recruit."