How I found my center as a vocation minister

How I found my center as a vocation minister

By Sr. Debbie Drago R.G.S.

I BEGAN VOCATION MINISTRY in September 1997. With a decade of experience, I can now look back and see how I have shifted my approach to this ministry, discovering that by focusing on my community’s core identity and charism, I have become both more effective and more satisfied.

I came to this ministry as a newly graduated social worker, having spent my entire adult life, 17 years at the time, working with adolescent boys and girls with special emotional and behavioral needs. In what I now know was an atypical move, I myself requested to do vocation ministry. I came to religious life in 1985, post Vatican II, when not many women were entering. Although I had experience with the sisters who taught me in elementary and high school, long gone were the days when most young Catholic women thought of entering the convent. In fact I knew of no one contemplating such a vocational choice. The idea, even in my own heart and mind, although exciting and hopeful, also seemed strange and abnormal. Although today uniqueness is appealing to many adolescents and young adults, in my day no one wanted to be considered so different. I believe that the wonderful mentors that God put in my path during my days of discernment are what planted the deep desire within my own heart to help young women come to know and respond to God’s call. How grateful I am to those women religious who encouraged me to follow that deepest place in my heart, which led me to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

Scattered energies

I began vocation ministry with a great deal of passion and enthusiasm, and perhaps a good dose of ignorance. I hadn’t a clue as to what I was supposed to be doing or how to go about doing it. Those first years were what I call less defined and open years—filled with activity, events, travel and a large learning curve. I volunteered for everything, everywhere, any time. I just wanted to be doing something to get the good news out about religious life. I participated in elementary and high school presentations, confirmation retreats, diocesan events, young adult gatherings, collaborative Come and See retreats with other women religious vocation ministers. We had follow-up days to our retreats, short-term volunteer experiences and vocation fairs. Most of these activities were promotional and seminal, with a generic feel to them. Everything I was involved in was wonderful, worthy, helpful and needed, but after several years I found myself getting burned-out. I was trying to be all, for all. I was all over the place, and my community saw very little return on these highly labor-intensive projects. I needed to do something different.

At the same time I was coming to this realization, my vocation team in the New York Province was involved in developing a strategic plan. I began to take a whole new look at vocation ministry from the specific perspective of Good Shepherd mission, philosophy and spirituality. What would be different about this work if I were to approach it like any other Good Shepherd ministry?

What I was beginning to sense in an organic sort of way was confirmed for me in what appeared in Sandra Schneiders book, Selling All: “The necessity for those who feel attracted to religious life to discern the congregation within which they will test that attraction probably suggests that congregations need to do considerably more to present their own life for such discernment.”1

This was the missing link for me. In my desire to be inclusive, collaborative, sensitive to the diversity of my vocation colleagues, politically correct and open, I was approaching my ministry as a vocation director in an all encompassing, vague sort of way without realizing it. I was hesitant to talk specifically about religious life as a Good Shepherd Sister in the presence of members of other communities. I did not want to appear to be promoting my Good Shepherd way of religious life over and against other communities.

Each of us vocation ministers, in our own way, consciously avoided pushing our own agenda—perhaps so much so that it was difficult to distinguish one congregation from another. I often felt that participants in our collaborative Come and See retreats most likely left without really knowing who was who on the retreat team and without experiencing the different communities and charisms we each represented. Schneider’s assertion freed me up. Not only was it OK to talk about religious life from the perspective of Good Shepherd, it was necessary. I felt renewed energy.

A number of things immediately came to mind. What do we as Good Shepherd Sisters explicitly value in our mission and our relationships? How do we specifically approach people and work with people in our ministries? There are a number of core Good Shepherd tenets that expressly shape who we are and how we are with others:

  1. One person is of more value than a world.
  2. Goodness is inherent in the individual.
  3. Within each person is the potential for change and growth.
  4. Through relationships people grow in self-understanding and self-esteem.
  5. People develop best in an atmosphere of kindness and respect.
  6. Respect for the customs and traditions of others is essential in working with diverse cultures.
  7. People do best where there is a partnership, and where there is participation in decision-making.
  8. Each person has the right to self-determination (including us as vocation ministers).
  9. Our loving care follows persons and supports them to be faithful to their truest selves.

Taking the Good Shepherd approach

This was exciting to me. Are these not the criteria needed for good discernment? Would not these same criteria help me deal with difficult situations, situations that all vocation ministers face and often dread, especially inquiries from women and men who are not emotionally or psychologically free to enter into a discernment process? The core tenets of Good Shepherd freed me up to be in relationship the same way I would be in any other Good Shepherd ministry with each person who contacted me via e-mail, phone, letter or retreat. There was nothing to fear. I began to relate to each individual person and her unique situation and life history from the premise that this person is of more value than a world. This person, through an atmosphere of kindness and respect, deserves to know the truth from me, even when it will be disappointing and difficult to hear. This person, if she really seems to be called to Good Shepherd religious life, deserves, through my love and support, to be challenged and encouraged to move in the direction of trying out the life. This is so even when uncertainty and fear are alongside her feelings of hope and enthusiasm. In every situation and relationship, I ask myself: What would our foundress, St. Mary Euphrasia, do? How would Jesus, the Good Shepherd, handle this situation? How can I best articulate who we are as Good Shepherd Sisters to women desiring to know about our way of life? What is in the best interest of the community and this individual? How can I best be of service to both the community and those in discernment? This is what motivates me and replenishes my zeal for vocation ministry. Ultimately this is my best gift to the church, the people of God, my community and those in discernment.

Because of Sandra Schneider’s urging that congregations do considerably more to present their own life to discerners, four annual Good Shepherd Retreats were developed. They are the Good Shepherd Discernment Retreat, held two times a year in two different locations; Good Shepherd Spirit and Mission Retreat; and our One Week A Shepherd Retreat. I love doing these retreats, and I’m convinced that they are of tremendous value to those who participate.

This poem by Claire Blatchford sums up much of what I’ve learned about finding my center as a vocation minister.

Do not come to a standstill at the realization

That you receive guidance.

Follow it, believe it, love it.

Then it can shape you.

It is not simply a matter of your taking it,

But of its taking you.

It is the difference between standing on the shore,

Feeling an occasional wave on your foot,

And going into the ocean.

That way you will be truly shaped anew.2

Don’t  be afraid to plunge into the ocean of your charism as you approach vocation ministry. Let it guide you. Follow it, believe it, love it. It is not so much a matter of your taking it, but of your charism reclaiming you in all that you do as a vocation minister. You will feel the difference between standing on the shore with an occasional wave washing over your foot, and going into the ocean deep to be shaped by the gift of your congregation’s spirituality and mission. By consciously returning to the core of Good Shepherd philosophy, as a rudder directing all of my relationships, program planning and decisions as a vocation minister, the effects of burn-out have been replaced with renewed energy, zeal and hope. As a result I have become more centered, authentic, focused and effective. If we are true to our core, even the most difficult challenges can be borne lightly.

1. Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM. Selling All (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 24.

2. Claire Blatchford. Turning: Words Heard from Within, (Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001), 49.

Debbie Drago, RGS is a Sister of the Good Shepherd, New York Province, living in Wickatunk, NJ. She has been involved in vocation ministry since 1997 and is a former board member of the National Religious Vocation Conference.

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