In July, 64-year-old Patrice Fike sold her home in Coral Gables, Fla., and her Mercedes, stored most of her furniture and moved into a one-room studio where many of her meals are provided. If she sounds like a retiree relocating to an assisted-living facility, guess again. Fike is living in dormitory housing for the Episcopal Church's General Theological Seminary in New York City, where she will spend three years and $100,000 of her savings and retirement income to prepare for her new career as a priest.
She's not alone. When Fike attended orientation last spring, she was pleasantly surprised to find that many of her classmates were just like her baby boomers embarking on a second or third career by answering a higher calling. "It felt good to see so much gray hair there," says Fike, who retired last summer from her career in pediatric nursing.
Boomers are the fastest-growing demographic at U.S. divinity schools, according to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), an organization of more than 250 theological graduate schools in the U.S. and Canada. The under-30 crowd may still be the largest cohort of students accounting for a third of the total but the 50-or-older group has grown from 12% of students in 1995 to 20% in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.
While some boomers enter the ministry after being downsized or suffering career setbacks, ATS has some other theories about what's driving the increase. Maybe older divinity students no longer saddled with their children's tuition or big mortgages to pay off are motivated by a newfound freedom to pursue their lifelong passions. Or perhaps the trend is yet another reflection of a restless generation that isn't content with simply making money or taking it easy in their golden years.
"I wanted to give back in some way," says the Rev. Bob Fellows, who completed his seminary training three years ago at the age of 58. Fellows, who used to make a living as a magician and public speaker, now leads the 200-plus-member Community Congregational Church in Greenland, N.H. He says he spent two years as a youth minister in the 1970s before deciding he wasn't ready to lead a flock at such a young age. "As an older minister, I have a lot more useful life experience," he says.
Like Fellows, many of the older divinity-school applicants have long been active in their churches but recently decided to step up their involvement. "It's rare that they've had a complete 180-degree life change," says McKennon Shea, director of admissions at Duke Divinity School. "They all seem to have had a calling to the ministry at some point."
"This is what I've wanted since I was 8 years old," says Fike, who came of age during the 1960s a decade before the Episcopal Church's General Convention approved ordination of women to the priesthood in 1976.
Yes, divinity school is expensive. But unlike your average grad student, Fike isn't worried about future employment. Most of her schoolmates find ministerial placements before they graduate. Talk about good news!
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 31, 2011 issue of TIME.