Herbert Beard has been rooted in his faith for a long time. Back in Bamberg, his great-grandmother raised him in the church, and it stuck. Six years ago, he was licensed to preach under the direction of his pastor.

Beard was in law enforcement, but as his career wound down, he began seminary studies online with Liberty University of Lynchburg, Va.

Today’s older seminary students are enrolling online, on campus or some combination of the two.

The over 50 age group is the fastest growing among those seeking the master’s of divinity degree in schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, says Eliza Smith Brown, its spokeswoman.

Some, but not all of that, can be accounted for by larger numbers in the boomer age group, Brown says.

A 2011 statement from ATS says many of them have been in fields offering early retirement; others have finished paying for homes and educating children; and others are opting work ministry or related work because they’ve concluded it better reflects their values.

Following a call

Beard, Melissa Long and others in Charleston are not hesitating to follow the call, trusting in God to help them meet challenges along the way.

Beard retired as a Charleston County Sheriff’s Office captain in May and received his master’s degree in Christian leadership in June. He is preparing for ordination, which means he can serve without supervision.

“It’s a calling, nothing I chose to do myself,” says Beard, 48, who was in law enforcement with the county for 27 years. That career, he says, was a good fit because it brought him into contact with people in pain and he sometimes had the opportunity to provide spiritual help.

“A lot of people are going through so much and incarceration is not what they need,” he says.

“I never felt pride in going into a person’s home to effect an arrest,” Beard says. “The motivation for me has always been to try to connect with people and show them a better side of life.

“I should be a statistic. I did not have a connection with my father as a young man growing up. My uncles and men in my community filled that void. And I learned from my great-grandmother, Mary Ann Zeigler, to be responsible and to be accountable.”

Beard says he never envisioned a 30-, 40- or 50-year career in law enforcement. So when the time was right, he was ready to move forward and fulfill God’s plan, he says.

“I didn’t take any breaks,” says Beard, who has been executive assistant to Rev. Isaac J. Holt, pastor of Royal Missionary Baptist Church as he pursued his studies.

Beard also is lead singer with the Sensational Traveling Echos of Johns Island, a gospel group that has been around for nearly seven decades.

“I was trying to be a father and husband, preach on Sundays, work full-time and be a full-time student ... Most of my studying took place at night when others were asleep.”

He also paid his own way through school, about $13,000. At the same time, he had a child in college and three others in school.

Sometimes Beard says he had three to five hours of sleep in preparation for an 18- or 19-hour day. He frequently experienced mental fatigue.

“God knew my heart,” Beard says. “I graduated with a 3.5 GPA.”

‘God always provided’

Melissa Long was happy with her family life but felt the urge to be ordained.

She prayed about it with her husband, Grahame, and before too long was enrolled in Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West. She attended classes on campus, online and sometimes in Charleston.

Long, who is chaplain at Odyssey Hospice, received her master’s degree in divinity in May 2012 after three years of study. Long, now 37, was among the 20 percent of women in her class, she says.

“I had to use a lot of time management to make it all happen,” Long says. She studied at night, during breaks at work and on all of her vacation days.

It was helpful having a few women from Charleston in the same program who were mothers and understood what her life was like. They would often carpool to the seminary Friday nights and attend Saturday classes.

“I had a baby in the middle of all of this,” Long says. During her pregnancy she was put on bed rest and hospitalized. But she had papers due for school, so she worked on them while in the hospital. When she graduated, her children were 5 and 1.

While she was in school, gas prices went up. School and work together were causing her to put 35,000 miles a year on her car. She’s thankful to have received a scholarship to help pay for gas, child care and books.

“God always provided,” says Long, a member of First Scots who also works part-time as director of congregational ministry at Palmetto Presbyterian.

“It was hard, but it wasn’t a sacrifice. I don’t think I lost anything and I gained so much.”

Would she like to pastor a church?

“I would if given the chance, but I am fulfilled. I get to be with such amazing people every day. I very much love being part of hospice in the chaplain’s position. I consider it my own little congregation, of course. I am getting to care for people and be part of their lives.”

Long thinks God is calling her to serve in many ways. She doesn’t yet have the specifics, but says she is in prayer about it and listens for direction.

Meanwhile, she continues working towards ordination in the Presbyterian Church. If God’s place for her turns out to be one she never expected, that would be just fine, she says.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.