Candidates looking for the “best deal” in religious life

Candidates looking for the “best deal” in religious life

By c

A few years ago I met with a graduate student who was seriously considering a vocation to religious brotherhood. We met in the university cafeteria over a cup of coffee. I was encouraged by the quality of questions he asked, the depth of his spirituality and prayer, and his familiarity with religious life. I was taken back, therefore, when toward the end of our conversation, he pushed aside his coffee cup, napkin and cafeteria tray, brushed and folded his hands and said, “Well, Brother Paul, it’s like this. I’ve already spoken with a particular community of brothers and they are offering me this.… In addition, I’ve spoken with a second community of brothers and they have decided to offer me this…. So … what is Holy Cross willing to offer me?”

Suddenly I felt like a contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal.” I slowly sipped my coffee, tried to keep my cool, and then proceeded to tell him that my job was not to “close” any deals with him. I was simply there to listen, to tell him about the mission and charism of my religious congregation, and to offer my assistance with his discernment. If we mutually discovered that what he was longing for in religious life was compatible with the Congregation of Holy Cross, then we would talk further. It was not my intention, however, to sway his decision or to win him over with promises of education, career and advancement. I strongly encouraged him to re-evaluate his motivation for his vocational pursuit, for I was more interested in hearing what he could give to religious life than what he could get. I never did hear from him again. Maybe he found a better deal.

Although this experience may be slightly jarring, when we consider the consumer culture and environment in which young adults today have been raised, should we really be surprised by it? While his approach may not the be the norm, it does occur from time to time. After all, today before a young person even looks for a new car, the first thing he or she does is consult Consumer Reports for the most car with best mileage for the best price. Given the proliferation of outlet, warehouse, super- store and Internet shopping availability, we are constantly bombarded with advertisements promoting the best deal for your money. And as we all know, be it air tickets or car rentals, we could eventually get what we’re looking for if we take the time to shop around. Why then are we surprised when we occasionally discover young people whose standards for the discernment of religious life are generalized to meet the same standards of shopping in their local mall? Although I am slightly exaggerating, as vocation directors, we cannot underestimate the powerful, multifaceted influences of a market driven economy on the culture and society in which we do our ministry.

With this in mind, I offer the following reflections to assist us in our understanding and ability to work with candidates who confuse vocation discernment with vocational “comparative shopping.” Since all of the current research indicates that this Millennial Generation strongly identifies with our consumer culture, we can expect to run into these attitudes of vocation discernment in the near future, if we haven’t done so already.

Advertising plays a role

Some of us may choose to attribute this phenomenon to another negative aspect of consumerism that mitigates against rebuilding a culture of vocations within our North American experience. To do so, however, distances us from acknowledging that we, as vocation ministers, have capitalized to a limited extent on the consumer mentality of our potential candidates in our own advertising campaigns for vocations in our religious congregations. This has only been to our advantage. One only needs to peruse the advertisements found in diocesan newspapers or the vocation periodicals available to realize that religious communities have come a long way in the marketing of their congregations. The advertisements are more attractive, more professional, and more focused to a particular targeted audience. Clearly, some religious congregations are hiring skillful marketing firms to assist them in conveying their message that “yes, we are still open for business.”

I am not criticizing the use of professional advertising methods or the engagement of market experts to aid us in the promotion of our life. If anything, judging from where we were 20 years ago regarding advertising and marketing techniques, many of us can be proud of the professional advancement and quality of our printed, promotional materials. In addition, with fewer members in our congregations, first-rate advertising in periodicals and on the Internet has become essential for us, especially with the emergence of the “highway of information” at the click of a mouse. Wider advertising particularly allows smaller, lesser known communities to reach beyond their usual supporters to introduce themselves and their mission to a larger audience. Although each community has its own story to tell about whether or not advertising increases their pool of potential candidates, we cannot deny its public relations benefit.

The key for us as religious, though, is that as essential and necessary it is for us to meet our publics in the world of media and technology, how do we effectively do so without compromising our traditionally espoused value of being counter cultural in religious life? When do we cross over from being professional in our approach to being slick, and what does that say to potential candidates? How do we maintain the necessary pro-active stance in vocation promotion without becoming overlyaggressive? Do we approach our ministry as though we are selling a commodity or are we striving to promote a way of life rooted in the life of Jesus Christ?

Experts will speak the language of “marketing plans.” Give them your desired number of candidates and they will give you the strategies necessary to help you reach your goal. Vocation discernment, however, is rooted in the complex mystery of God’s call and our human, heartfelt response to that call. The spiritual life is filled with moments of abandonment and of “letting go” to God’s will. How can we control, therefore, the programmed outcome or “product” of our vocational efforts when we are promoting a life that is based on the relinquishment of human control and the development of complete dependence upon God’s grace?

We find here the age old tension between the secular and the spiritual. While we need to use the marketing strategies available to us in promoting our life and our religious congregation, at the same time, we need to maintain the integrity of our religious values and beliefs in both our approach to vocation promotion and in our expectations of its outcome. That is why vocation, advancement, communication and development directors must regularly evaluate the promotional campaigns of their religious congregations in light of their gospel witness, consecrated commitment and mission.

Primary benefits versus secondary gains

Similarly, although we may be perceived as the community salesperson or cheerleader by potential candidates, we must resist the trap of swaying candidates with the “fringe benefits” of joining our particular religious congregation. It is to the advantage of both the vocation director and the candidate to keep the focus on the “primary benefits,” such as the joy of following one’s true, Godgiven call, the rich opportunities for service, the deepening of one’s spirituality within a supportive community, and a structured environment of prayer, ministry and community. In our initial or subsequent interviews with prospective candidates, while it makes sense to discuss what your particular community may offer the candidate, in such discussions it is imperative to give precedence to the primary benefits of religious life as opposed to its secondary gains. For instance, returning to the concerns of my graduate school friend, while I could assure him that my religious congregation supports higher education, it would be imprudent of me to promise him full-time doctoral studies in a particular degree. Conditional promises such as this are risky, since it is usually within the authority of formation personnel to make that recommendation to a leadership team. Likewise, to assure him a future ministry in educational administration when I have not yet determined whether he has the necessary skills or gifts for this ministry is equally poor judgement. In this case, I can only tell him that the community would be open to exploring this possibility with him as part of his continued discernment in the formation program. To make promises with outcomes I cannot guarantee is foolhardy and only serves as a prelude for trouble in the future. Besides, it reeks of “making a deal.”

On the other hand, if my friend had engaged me in a discussion on the virtue of our mission, the giving of himself for the sake of that mission and for the greater common good, I would have had an indication of his passion for ministry, and hopefully, for our respective charism. I also would have learned of his priorities in both his personal and spiritual life. This would then give me an entre to explore further his relationship to the church and to his community. Now that would be exciting and certainly agreeable with what and who we are about in my religious congregation. Although it is necessary to discuss the practicalities that accompany initial incorporation, finances, questions of ministry, etc., all of this needs to be done at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner that does not hint of undue persuasion or bargaining overtones.

Formation as a mutual investment

Having spoken with several religious communities, I find that financial policies for an incoming candidate run the broad spectrum from community to community. Men’s communities, because they tend to have greater assets, seem to be more liberal than women’s communities in their expenditures with incoming candidates. There are some congregations that still require a dowry, while others are willing to assume college loans and minor personal debts. Some communities will require payment of room and board for the duration of the pre-novitiate program, while others absorb all living expenses and will even include a monthly allowance for personal use. Because some congregations sponsor a college or university, they may have access to scholarship funds to pay or to supplement the tuition and fees for new members, which puts those communities without educational institutions at a disadvantage as to what they can offer candidates. On the other hand, there are congregations that sadly do not have the luxury of even deciding what costs they will assume for a candidate’s application process and formation. Their policies are unfortunately determined by the bottom line–with an aging population and fewer working members, the money just is not there.

Any financial policy for new members should reflect the religious congregation’s mission, charism and witness to evangelical poverty. While I have no magical formula for what financially works or is rightfully fair for a given community, I do believe religious congregations need to determine fiscal policies before a candidate enters. In addition, whatever policy is in place should be clearly and consistently enforced with all aspirants and candidates. To make haphazard or individualized policies dependent upon a particular candidate’s financial needs or situation is chancy. Such specialized treatment and discrepancy may lead to later dissension among members in formation.

I have encountered some communities that, with good will in their desire to attract candidates or to ease the burden of their transition into a formation program, will err on the side of generosity in their financial investment in incoming candidates. I remember speaking with a young man who was in the process of applying to a religious order, and when I asked him what attracted him to their particular charism, without blinking, he said that “the package” he was offered was “just too hard to refuse.” Since he was coming from a modest background, can you really blame him? Regardless of the virtue found in proper discernment, sometimes for the candidate virtue takes a back seat to the more pressing and immediate concerns of money, education and career. While it’s never easy to sort out our desires for religious life despite our best intentions at proper discernment, promises of education, career and money can further muddy the picture.

Although I would challenge this young man’s motivation for religious life, I would question even more the message communicated to him by the order to which he was applying. If he is aspiring to embrace a life of simplicity and a vow of poverty, what has he learned thus far, even before he has begun his formation program? Did he interpret this “package” as an incentive in making his decision? If he perceives the community as seeing him worth that much before he even begins, what attitudes are being prematurely conveyed and cultivated and how will they later play out in his formation experience? After a period of time, it may be clear to the community that this young man does not belong in religious life. Given the advantages he has received by joining this community, is he really free to discern this truth for himself?

It is important for those in the early stages of incorporation to know that their participation in the formation process is a mutual investment on the part of themselves and on the part of the religious congregation they have joined. If they are in a residential program and are not under vows, some financial commitment on the part of candidates is not an unreasonable request. Such a policy communicates at the onset that they have a personal stake and responsibility in their formation process. Such an approach avoids the appearance of paternalism on the part of the community and avoids an unhealthy, juvenile dependency on the part of the candidate. Likewise, the sponsoring community can demonstrate its confidence in the individual candidate by contributing something, outside of its personnel and moral support, to the formation program. What a community can afford and what it is willing to invest does not necessarily have to be the same thing.

A call for vigilance

Since we minister in an increasingly competitive and consumer-minded society, vocation directors must be prepared to deal with candidates who approach their discernment process with a “shop till you drop” attitude. Because they may look at a community as though they were looking at a store window, this does not necessarily mean they are lacking a vocation. I recall bringing a man almost to the point of requesting an application to my own community, when he rattled off the names of four other congregations to which he was applying. “I figured it was like applying to college,” he told me. “You apply to several, see who accepts you, and then go with the best deal.” And I thought we had discerned well together! After a lengthy discussion with me, he understood the incongruence of his discernment process. He eventually applied to a religious community (other than my own), and from what I could tell, he applied with the right reasons. Once again, we cannot underestimate the power of the culture in which we live and work.

As vocation directors we continually need to be vigilant about educating prospective candidates about the essentials of good, vocation discernment. Likewise, we must be attentive to the style and attitudes with which we exercise this ministry which has been so carefully entrusted to us. Selling a car is far different from selling a lifestyle, especially one that is rooted in a grace-filled call to further union with God. We must exercise our ministry with the utmost respect for the individual charisms of our candidates and communities and resist the temptation of consciously or unconsciously winning them over “with offers that are just too hard to refuse.”

As a wise formation director once said, “We don’t learn a community charism. We are born with it.” I would add that we cannot buy it or bargain for it either. Not to respect that truth is both harmful and unjust to both the community and the individual candidate. And with that deal, everyone loses.

Paul Bednarczyk, CSC is the vocation director for the Congregation of Holy Cross, Eastern Province in New Rochelle, N.Y. He also serves on the Provincial Council of his religious community. In 2000 he was honored by NRVC for his contribution to vocation ministry. He will become executive director of NRVC on July 1, 2002.


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