March 01, 2001 (USA Today)

The TV commercials, broadcast during The Rosie O'Donnell Show , Saturday Night Live and the evening news, target Cincinnati-area males in their late teens and early 20s. One features a close-up of a youthful-looking Frank Amberger explaining what made him give up his plans for a career as a wildlife biologist to enter a very old profession: the priesthood.

''I realized I can get out of life what I give, not what I take,'' Amberger, a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, says in the ad, paid for by a corporate donation. ''Giving to Christ, you get more than you imagine. The priesthood is the most awesome gift God has given me.''

The 30-second ads, which began in early January, have generated five phone calls to the archdiocese, says communications director Dan Andriacco. It's too early, he says, to know whether any of those inquiries will have the hoped-for result: new -- and young -- priests.

''In recent years, most of our seminarians have been older -- late 20s, 30s, some in their 40s, some even in their 50s by the time they are ordained,'' Andriacco says. ''These commercials were designed to go after a young demographic.''

A graying ministry is so widespread that the prestigious Alban Institute devotes the entire March/April issue of Congregations Magazine to the subject of young clergy. It reports that while 24% of the clergy in the Presbyterian Church were age 25 and younger in 1975, today only 7% are that age. In the Episcopal Church, the percentage has declined from 19.4% in 1974 to a paltry 3.9% today.

This trend begins early with seminary students. According to the Association of Theological Schools, the average age of divinity students in diverse denominations has risen from the mid-20s in the early 1970s to the mid-30s today. The typical Catholic priest was ordained at 35 in 1998, up from 26 in 1966. Of the 23 students who entered the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past fall, eight were 30 or older. The change is most pronounced in the Methodist church, where the average age of new clergy has risen from 27 to 42 in the past quarter-century.

This is a dramatic shift from when I started out over 35 years ago. When I was competing for my present pulpit as a young rabbi in my late 20s, a friend offered practical advice: ''Impress the members of the search committee that your youth will attract their youth into the synagogue.''

Youth is still a concern today. In fact, many are worried that older clergy will not be able to attract younger people, who are least likely to consider religion important to their lives. A survey by Gallup last year found that only 50% of those 18-29 considered religion very important, compared with 60% of those 30-49 years old, 61% of 50-64 year olds and 75% of those who are at least 65.

Part of the reason for an older clergy is that increased numbers choose the cloth as second careers after secular endeavors. For example, the first priests ordained by New York's Archbishop Edward Egan early in his administration as a bishop were a 44-year-old who had been a minor-league baseball player, a 51-year-old former government official, a 34-year-old with a degree in computer-systems management, and a 32-year-old former science teacher.

Today's clergy also are older because the seminary studies of two newer sources for candidates -- women and immigrants -- often are delayed. The percentage of women in the ministry, for example, almost tripled from 1983 to 1999, but many did not begin until after they married and had families. And, finally, theological schools are recruiting older clergy because they've come to understand the advantages of ministers with life experience.

''Older clergy are taken more seriously by their congregation,'' explains the Rev. DeForrest Wiksten, former admissions director at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. ''When a minister, for example, who was previously an accountant earning $140,000 hears the call and voluntarily works for $40,000, that says something about his sense of religious mission. It's harder to be skeptical about the preaching you hear before you.''

Katarina Schuth, a Franciscan sister and an expert in the scientific study of religion, agrees that when someone is ordained after relinquishing a relatively lengthy career, ''the priesthood tends to stick more, because the way into it has been thoughtful and deliberate.''

But not all are sanguine about this upward chronological climb of the person on the pulpit. Not only are their religious careers much shorter, but those who join later in life often must juggle this new calling with a spouse and children as well. And, as the Rev. Wiksten notes, ''when God calls at that point, it is seldom loud enough that the rest of the family hears.''

Lynn Robinson, a doctoral candidate in the sociology of religion at Princeton and a practicing Episcopalian, regards this ripening of the clergy skeptically. Each age group in a church, he explains, is seeking a ''generational message'' corresponding to its needs: ''for the young, sex; for those in their 30s and 40s, marriage and family; for the elderly, aging.'' An older clergy, he fears, ''will be unable to deliver the message for younger people, who will then not be energized to serve. The church risks becoming essentially a social institution for the elderly to bond.''

These concerns are legitimate, but they won't undermine the future of churches. After all, if religion is taken more seriously as people age, then the young, as they grow older, are likely to regard it more seriously, too. In the meantime, it is the older person on the pulpit whose own life journey will most reflect those most frequently found in the pews.

Relating God and the spirit to such life issues as marriage, divorce, reconstituted families, aging, death and bereavement rings truer when interpreted by a minister whose own years have yielded some of the same issues, rather than a novice learning on the job.

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