December 27, 2002
Ex-Union-Tribune editor explores his spiritual side
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Here in a seminary that is two centuries
old, in a stately brick building known as Price Hall, on a floor
populated with 20-somethings, Jerry Warren sits in his dorm
room surrounded by tomes of Hebrew, church history and New
This is not where one expects to see a man who once ran a
big-city newspaper and served as a top White House spokesman.
A civic leader who was often in the society pages. A regular on
Virginia's equestrian circuit. A 72-year-old grandfather.
But that is where you'll find Warren – five days a week, 32 weeks
a year. Until – Lord willing – he graduates in 2004 with a
master's in theological studies and perhaps a calling as a lay
minister in an Episcopalian parish.
"You get the impression when you're editor of a newspaper that
things somehow revolve around you and that you're the power
center, and you're not," said Warren, who for nearly 20 years
was editor of The San Diego Union and its successor, The San Diego
Union-Tribune. " I needed to get in touch with my spiritual side,
and I needed a quieter place (than San Diego) to do that."
Warren's transformation from newspaperman to man of the
cloth reflects a national trend: Though there was a time when
most seminarians were in their 20s, most are now over 30, a
quarter are over 50, and in the United Church of Christ, the
average age of a new pastor is 54.
"I think we've had people in their 70s before," said Alexandra
Dorr, publications editor at the Virginia Theological Seminary,
where Warren began studying last summer. "It's unusual, but
they do come."
The reaction Warren gets from friends and associates back in San
"I get – 'Wow,' " said Warren, who sits at a semi-cluttered desk in
his dorm room, wearing an aqua pullover sweater and faded blue
jeans. "I get – 'Really? Why?' "
From the other end of the second-floor hall, a young man is
"meowing" like a cat. And then he yells: "If anyone sees them, I'm
looking for two stamped envelopes!"
Says Warren of his dorm buddies: "They came up to me early on
and said, 'If it ever gets too loud, you just tell us.' And I told
them, 'Look, if it ever gets too loud, I'll just take out my hearing
Older seminarians on rise
Church experts first documented the "graying" of seminaries in
"It's fascinating, the world some of these people come from," said
Peg Boyles, a spokeswoman for Milwaukee's Sacred Heart School
of Theology, which specializes in training older priests. "Doctors,
lawyers, FBI agents, farmers, printers, military men, you name
Why would men and women leave established and sometimes
glamorous careers for work that can be low-profile and
Eileen Lindner, editor of the Yearbook of American and
Canadian Churches, sees two reasons: One is when the
achievement of a life goal – reaching the top in business, getting
the kids off to college – leaves one looking for the next
"mountain." Another is when a decisive life event – a death,
divorce, illness – leaves one questioning life's meaning.
Certainly Warren had reached "the top" in his profession. A
Nebraska native who served four years as a Navy pilot, Warren
joined The San Diego Union in 1956 as an editorial trainee, and
worked his way up to reporter, city editor and assistant
managing editor. From 1969 to 1975, he was deputy press
secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He became the
Union's editor in 1975, and editor of the Union-Tribune in 1992
after the morning paper merged with its afternoon sister, the San
He retired in 1995 and moved to Virginia, where he and his wife,
Viviane, bought a home in the Middleburg countryside. After
the couple found a small Episcopalian parish, Warren immersed
himself in Bible studies. In April, his wife suggested he think
"And I said spontaneously, 'I've been thinking about it,' " Warren
recalled. "Well, I didn't know I had been thinking about it until
Warren faces challenges that younger students don't. There's the
stress of hitting the books after half a century of not studying.
Mucking through the math in the Graduate Record Exam.
Learning to write with academic depth, rather than journalistic
brevity. Living an hour's drive from his wife five days a week.
Last summer's mind-boggling Hebrew course.
Midterm exams, Warren said, "went as well as can be expected."
His grades? "Above a gentleman's C," he said. "But below an A."
Benefits to being older
How does he get along with his dorm buddies?
"He's such a damned troublemaker," says one young man of
Warren. "He's up all hours, all nights, making all sorts of noise."
Student John Acee, 24, sets the record straight: "He's always
about three or four steps ahead of everyone else."
Paying $25,000 a year for tuition and board can be tough on
older seminarians, especially those still paying mortgages and
putting kids through college. They often scale back their
lifestyles appreciably, with little prospect of returning to the
luxuries they once enjoyed.
"To be a beginner at anything at 45 or 50 is on the one hand
exhilarating, and on the other a test to the ego," Lindner said.
"How would you like being an assistant pastor to somebody 20
years younger than you?"
Of course, there are benefits to having a few years on your fellow
"They bring the thinking that shaped their former career,"
Lindner said. "If they were lawyers, they bring critical thinking
to Bible study. If they managed budgets, then church
administration is easy for them."
Warren said he does not feel called to seek ordination as an
Episcopal priest. Instead, he has his sights set on some form of
Two of Warren's colleagues in the Nixon administration also
went into ministry. Charles W. Colson, a former Nixon special
counsel who served prison time for Watergate-related crimes,
became a born-again Christian and founded the Prison
Fellowship Ministry. Jeb Magruder, the former Nixon deputy
campaign manager who did time for similar crimes, is a
Presbyterian minister in Kentucky.
"My guess is that they, too, had something missing in their lives,"
Warren said. "And when they looked to find what that was, it
turned them more and more toward religion and ministry.
"I firmly believe there is a divine providence at work that has
kept me relatively safe over my long life. I need to pay some
attention to that. I need to spend some of the time I have left
giving back to the community."