From the Province Vocations Promotion Team…
Over the past month we have brought you insights from the National Religious Vocations Conference (NRVC) with regard to the 2020 Study of Recent Vocations to Religious Life. As a follow up to that series, this week, we begin a new series written by Carol Schuck Scheiber, the editor of HORIZON, the journal of the NRVC.
Best Practices for Encouraging New Membership
Vocation Directors often relish the chance to discuss the ins and outs of their ministry with people who understand it well. Some members (of the congregation) don’t always “get it”. The public frequently doesn’t. And even among practicing Catholics, myths about vocations can abound. Vocation promotion is everyone’s business – ordained, religious and laity. While there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, HORIZON hopes these eight best practices – grounded in data and backed up by experience – provide insights that will help religious communities move forward.
One truism that the 2020 study confirmed is that religious communities in the United States vary substantially: they have unique charisms, distinct financial realities, different ministries, and varied number of active and retired members. Thus, the capacity to act on each of these best practices is different from one religious order to another.
HORIZON begins with the belief that the gift of religious life is worth sharing. The 2020 study confirmed that young people have a desire to grow spiritually, live communally and perform ministry. Young adults – and not-so-young – adults seek their path and want guidance.
1. Decide you want new member
This sounds obvious, but, in reality a community will not attract and retain new members if the existing members don’t want them, even if this sentiment is not expressed overtly. There are many inadvertent ways to communicate lack of interest: members are too busy, no one is willing to stay up late with a young visitor, or few people will take a turn helping with a college retreat.
On the other hand, in the 2020 study, new members repeatedly report that they were attracted to communities that showed genuine interest in them, their welfare and their vocational discernment. Community members invited them to events, made them feel welcome, adapted to their youthful energy, and offered them an attractive experience of religious life. These themes arose many times when newer members talked in focus groups about their experiences in joining religious life.
The best-case scenario for communities that desire new members is to decide communally that they want them, have leaders and members that continuously prioritize that goal, and make ongoing efforts consistent with that goal. Most members need to believe in the community and its future in order for it to have a future.
Be all in: lead, fund, staff, and support
Because vocation ministry is about planting seeds that take time to grow, it can be hard to feel gratified by “results,” and members can sometimes shy away from the ministry. Sometimes members are uncertain how to relate to a younger generation, or they prefer to avoid the possibility of an invitation being rejected by not extending one. Whatever hesitations exist, it is crucial to take the ministry seriously, to be “all in.” For maximum effectiveness vocation ministry needs someone – or some group of committed members – to give it focused, ongoing time and attention. This allows the ministry to be adequately staffed and properly funded to realistically pay for the costs involved. Vocation ministers need training in ethics, communications, assessment, sexuality, etc. – all are topics of professional workshops offered by the NRVC.
These days it often is a sacrifice to dedicate talented members to a ministry that will cost the community the loss of a paycheck or stipend. Still, appointing gifted members to do vocation ministry is a sacrifice that institutes are making for the sake of youth, for the sake of nurturing religious vocations and for the sake of the institute’s future. Vocation directors and leaders need to work closely together to set strategies and goals that make sense for their community and to build the critical internal support for and communication about the ministry.
3. Go out – and invite in
many communities are welcoming middle-aged adults, and those new members are precious parts of their communities. However, the 2018 synod on youth held in Rome clearly showed how much young people want the vocational guidance that is part and parcel of vocation ministry. The NRVC’s 2020 study confirmed that newer members who joined in their 20s and 30s are usually in communities with big age gaps, but they very much want to be in their communities. Newer members report very high satisfaction with their lives as religious.
When newer members met in 13 focus groups around the country, they acknowledged that community life without age peers can be challenging, but the large majority expressed love for their way of life in spite of the difficulties. Thus, there are two strong reasons to go and to young people and invite them in: they want vocational guidance, and communities must keep inviting or they create a limited future for themselves. Going out to the young means learning where they are in one’s corner of the world and building relationships with them.
4. Continuously build relationships
There are no fail-proof techniques for building relationships with your target demographic. The 2009 and 2020 studies both point out that newer members entered communities where they built a relationship with at least one member…and that led them to the next step, and the next step. Vocation ministers and members of their religious communities reached out, stayed connected, kept inviting, and used many means for doing these things: social media, print and online advertising and promotion, special events, email, blogs, campus retreats and others means.
Over its 32 years as an organization, the National Religious Vocations Conference has been key to another type of relationship-building that matters: collaborative relationships among vocation and formation ministers from different communities. Through cooperation, groups of ministers are able to do what they cannot do alone: sponsor intercommunity retreats, nun runs, high school and campus vocation fairs, and many other types of group projects that help people to learn about religious life.
5. Address internal issues
If a religious community is experiencing serious deficits in any major area (e.g. quality of communal life, clear identity) those problems will naturally inhibit people from joining. The 2009 and 2020 vocation studies both point out that new members are attracted to communities where they can grow in their relationship to God, be part of a joyful community with a genuine communal life, and minister to the people of God. Many communities have taken positive steps to enhance the quality of their communal life. New members are attracted to authentic, healthy communities, meaning that institutes that are serious about inviting in the next generation must be attentive to internal concerns.
6. Focus on other-centered ministry
Ideally vocation ministry should be outward-looking and other-centered. A sense of healthy focus and balance in the way that vocation ministry is conducted is a theme that comes through in particular in the focus group reports of the 202 NRVC study. In relating their own vocation journeys, newer members expressed gratitude to those who walked with them, sharing wisdom, allowing them time, understanding that life experience and perspective at age 25 is different from age 45 or 65.
The NRVC study participants – members who joined and stayed – by and large feel they have found their genuine vocation, a process that required time and freedom. The challenge for institutes is to maintain a vision that is both outward (What do young people need to help them uncover God’s call for their lives?” and inward (How can we encourage a healthy community? How can we promote our community so that as young people determine their life path, they can consider life with us?)
There is a mystery to the process of vocation discernment, and each person’s journey is unique. Maintaining a focus on the pastoral needs of those making life decisions keeps institutes grounded.
7. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Both the 2009 and 2020 study clearly show that an essential part of vocation ministry is communication. Religious communities need to communicate to multiple audiences. The general public should know that the community exists and is open to new membership. Young people need to brush shoulders with religious; many have never met a Catholic sister, nun, or brother. Others have never spoken directly to a priest. Vocation ministers (sometimes in tandem with communications directors) must get the word out about who the community is, what it is doing, and what opportunities there are for interacting with the community, such as joining it as a volunteer, associate or lifelong member.
Every community that is welcoming new members needs an attractive, updated website that clearly communicates how to get in touch about becoming a member. Religious institutes need to have visibility in their local community and beyond.
Because social media is a crucial form of contemporary communication, communities that want to invite targeted populations ideally have a presence on social media platforms as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Such communication should steer people toward live contact with the community so that a relationship can be built – advertising community events such as open houses, service opportunities, on-line discussions, and webinars. Such events bring people together and a relationship begins and grows.
8. Build a culture of vocations
This final best practice encompasses the seven previous practices and then goes a step or two beyond. To build a culture of vocations means to maintain a broad vision while working in one’s own corner of the world. The 2020 Study on Recent Vocations confirms that people continue to enter religious orders despite predictions to the contrary. To build a culture of vocations brings to mind the adage “think globally, act locally.”
In the big picture, the church must always undergo renewal, becoming ever more closely aligned with Christ’s vision. From that reenergized church will come forth disciples who want to lay down their lives for the sake of others. A portion of those disciples will be called to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience in consecrated life, but, most will lay down their lives in other forms of life – all of which are seen as “vocation”.
A culture of vocations sees each baptized person as having a calling to a particular state in life. Young people involved in the 2018 synod on youth asked the church to shift toward an understanding that “vocation” is for everyone. When a culture of vocation exists, all members of the church – parents, grandparents, religious, pastors, teachers, campus ministers, – encourage and support the process of discernment that affords each person the time to pray, listen, seek counsel, and choose a path that will give them the most joy and sense of fulfillment.
Religious institutes can help build a “culture of vocations” in the larger church and within their own ranks. In such a culture every member of the community feels responsible for inviting new members, and every member is in ongoing discernment about how best to live his or her calling. When a culture of vocations exists within religious institutes, the is a community-wide prioritization of vocation, and each member gives what he or she can to enrich the community and bring new life.
This larger vision at the local, communal, and global levels spurs us on and also lets us rest – in the knowledge that discipleship and calling is always and ultimately in the hands of God. Religious communities and those they appoint as vocation ministers plant seeds, water, and give praise to the God of the harvest as each generation bears new fruit.
This concludes our series on Encouraging New Membership.