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Career Shift: At Midlife, Many Women Turn to the Cloth

A growing number are finding a deeper satisfaction in the ministry

By Rona Cherry | June 18, 2013

This article originally appeared on NYCityWoman.com.

Shortly before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, I received a call from a friend who told me to turn on the TV — a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, and one of the towers was in flames. I stared in disbelief at the chilling images of planes hitting buildings, smoke filling the skyline of Lower Manhattan, and thousands of people fleeing dust clouds in the streets.
 
As we relived the horror of that tragic event in the days that followed, I was at a loss about what to do. Like other Americans, I was filled with an overwhelming sadness and disbelief. I did not attend a church, but much to my surprise, one evening I found myself joining a candle-lighting prayer vigil in my Upper West Side neighborhood.
 
We walked to a nearby firehouse, where dozens of people had gathered to say thanks to the men who had given their lives at Ground Zero. We were all struggling to understand what our futures, now tainted with fear, would be like. I stood in the crowd, tears running down my face, and I said quietly, to no one in particular, “I care.”
 
But what did caring mean? Why wasn’t I downtown helping with the rescue efforts? As life continued and the mellowness that had enveloped New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11 evaporated, I still couldn’t get such questions out of my mind. I felt rudderless and wanted to be with others who were yearning to make sense of our new world. I also wanted the tools to help if New Yorkers faced a crisis again.
 
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A Very Different Career Path
  
After much soul-searching, I decided to pursue a spiritual path. When I told friends and colleagues, they were stunned. Most knew that I was not comfortable with organized religion and often declined offers to attend houses of worship. Although I had been a longtime volunteer at a nursing home, the focus of my life had always been publishing. I had built a significant career as a journalist: executive editor of Glamour followed by a vice presidency with the Penthouse empire as editor of Longevity and then as editor in chief of two New York Times–owned magazines, Fitness and Golf Digest Woman.
 
In September 2002, I enrolled in One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York City, which trains interfaith ministers and facilitates spirituality by teaching the wisdom of all religions and our connection to life’s mystical dimension. I was less interested in preparing for the ministry than in experiencing a sense of community and a greater connection to the spiritual dimension of life from an interfaith perspective.
 
But as time went on, I changed my mind. On a sunny June 20, 2004, I walked down the center aisle of the majestic Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in my minister’s robe, proud and excited to begin what I thought would be the next phase of my life. The following week I rushed to the New York City Clerk’s Office to register as a marriage officiant. I then called everyone I knew to tell them I had taken this step.
 
Quickly, though, I found myself questioning the practicality of this path. Social service and hospital chaplaincy positions, for example, came in the form of unpaid internships — which was out of the question for me. I now had the tools to design worship services, officiate at a variety of ceremonies and rites of passage, and counsel those in need. But more important, I had explored my own sense of what matters and what doesn’t, and how I wanted to live in our post-9/11 world.
 
In the end, I kept my day job — writing and serving as a media consultant to nonprofits — and joined Disaster Chaplaincy Services of New York to help out, when I could, as a volunteer in crisis situations.
 
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'A Pull I Couldn’t Ignore'
 
My decision was not idiosyncratic: Growing numbers of baby boomers have decided in recent years to enter the clergy. “I felt a pull I couldn’t ignore,” says the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, the senior minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in Manhattan, a 172-year old Unitarian congregation. A former editor at The New York Times Book Review and author of a memoir, Unafraid of the Dark, Bray McNatt left New York in 1994, when her husband took a job on a Detroit newspaper. She was 46 at the time and decided to take an introductory theology course at a local seminary because she sensed that theology held special meaning for her.
 
When her family moved back to New Jersey, she enrolled in Drew Theological Seminary and received her M.Div. in 1999. She took a job as a consulting minister in Hackettstown, N.J., then was called to the Fourth Universalist Society. She delivered her first sermon two days before 9/11 and continued to minister to those who felt a sense of doom and the complete shaking of their personal foundation.
 
Today, 10 years later Bray McNatt is still helping people find meaning in their lives. “I write sermons and I love preaching,” she says. “I love engaging with the congregation and reframing things to help people change their minds and their hearts.”

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'Corporate Law Wasn’t for Me'
 
Many women who enter the clergy later in life have long been involved in their churches or temples but weren’t ready to make a commitment. “I was in the youth choir, youth ministry and youth group leadership,” says Nichelle Jenkins, 42, a recent graduate of New York City's Union Theological Seminary — one of the oldest and most highly regarded seminaries in the country. “But in college I had to choose between my studies at Iowa State University and church or my studies and basketball," she says. "I chose my studies and basketball.”
 
When she graduated, Jenkins went to law school and later worked as a prosecutor and at several firms, including the prestigious Proskauer Rose LLP. But she never felt like she was doing her life’s work. “I enjoyed the counseling of ministry and making a difference and fighting for justice — and it wasn’t being a corporate attorney,” she says.

Yet she stayed in the job until she was laid off at 38 in the 2007 recession. Instead of seeking another legal position, encouraged by her pastor, she applied to Union Theological Seminary. Although the school cost a steep $22,000 a year for the three-year M.Div. program, she says the grants she received made it “an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
 
Today, Jenkins calls herself “a lapsed lawyer” and works as Union’s director of admissions and financial aid. She is also seeking ordination from the American Baptist Church. While she would consider a pastoral call in the future, right now she says: “I feel called to the ministry of educational administration. It’s a ministry of service — service to the school, service to the students.”
 
'A Rabbi’s Kid'
 
Like Jenkins, a number of women turn to the cloth after being downsized or stalled in their careers. Cantor Suzanne Volkman Skloot, now in her 60s, grew up in Scranton, Pa., and Charleston, W.Va., in a family with 13 generations of rabbis, including her father. The self-described rabbi’s kid loved being in “the belly of the Jewish community.”

She studied Hebrew and felt a deep connection to Judaism, but during her youth there were no female rabbis to emulate. Eventually she moved to Manhattan and pursued an acting career, performing Off-Broadway, doing summer stock in the Berkshires and singing in cabarets.
 
But actors rarely get steady work, so Volkman Skloot was delighted when members of her local synagogue invited her to become the cantor at the annual Friday night all-women’s service. She learned the liturgy and familiarized herself with the music for the service. “Suddenly I felt myself fully complete, whole and integrated,” she says.
 
To earn more money, she took a job as a photo editor. But as computer technology evolved, she worried that she could soon be downsized. When her husband suggested that she investigate cantorial school, Volkman Skloot entered the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale in 1998; she also studied music at Mannes College in Manhattan and commuted to Washington, D.C., to take care of her aging parents.
 
In 2006 she was ordained as a cantor. “I’ve led high holiday services, married and buried many folks, cared for the sick and those who needed consolation and trained many young people for their bar or bat mitzvah,” she says. In 2008 her husband was invited to teach at Duke University in Durham, N.C. She is now serving as Jewish chaplain at the Duke Medical Center, leading workshops in interfaith relationships at the new Jewish Community Center and working with the local Jewish Family Services.
 
While many women struggle to balance the demands of a new and deep training program and their personal lives (which later in life often involves a cast of thousands), most who complete their seminary training find a way to make it work — in no small part because their next step isn’t just a job but a calling.
 
“No one walks through our doors with illusions of grandeur,” says Union's president, the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones. “Many new ministers find their chosen career requires a great deal of self-sacrifice for not a lot of material gain. But they find a way to pay their bills and do the rest for what they love.” 

Rona Cherry was the editor-in-chief of several national magazines, including Fitness and Longevity, and she was the executive editor for Glamour. She now writes for NYCityWoman.com and is an editorial consultant with regional publications and nonprofits.

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