Vocation ministry on the precipice

Vocation ministry on the precipice

By Sr. Amy Hereford C.S.J.

Sisters Regina Gallo (left) and Dina Bato, S.P. process into the church of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods Indiana. The liturgy included Gallo’s final vows ceremony, and Bato’s first vows ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of Providence, St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana.

When I was approached to write on this topic, I was intrigued by the question: How do we do vocation ministry when religious life is on the precipice of collapse? Not on the edge of death—but on the edge of a major reduction in the number of men and women in consecrated life in the U.S.  I explored various writers who have pondered related questions, and I spent a lot of time looking at the flashing cursor on my blank computer screen before I could even begin to form coherent thoughts.

First of all, let’s parse the question: How do we do vocation work on the precipice of collapse? Taking these in reverse order, we could ask:

What is the current context that we describe as demographic shift, transformation, collapse, implosion, breakdown? What is it, and just as importantly, what is it not?

What is the precipice? What does it mean to be on a precipice, in liminal space, in the chaos of breakdown, on the threshold of “God-knows-what?”

What is vocation work? And how has it shifted in the last 50 years?

And finally, how do we do this ministry in this place and in this time? Some are questioning whether or not to do vocation work at all. Is it fair, is it ethical, is it even realistic to do vocation ministry at this time?

Collapse: by the numbers

While at a global level the numbers in religious life are different in different places (growing with the church in the global South and weakening with the church in the global North), the total number of religious men and women in the U.S. is in decline for the fifth straight decade, from its high near 240,000 men and women religious in the U.S. in the 1960s to around 70,000 men and women religious in 2015. Some have noted that these numbers of religious today match the numbers around 100 years ago. However, over that same 100 years, the Catholic population has grown by over 500 percent, and the U.S. population has grown by over 300 percent (U.S. Census, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate).

In addition to sheer numbers, the average age of members of American communities has risen from around 40 years of age in the 1960s to nearly 80 years of age in 2015. Actuarial data indicates that the median age of communities will continue to rise, and on average, communities will lose one third of their current members over the next 10 years (National Religious Retirement Office). For many communities the last large groups have moved out of active full-time ministry in the last 10 years. And in the next 10 years, this group will move from active-elderhood into frail-elderhood and through the paschal mystery; they will hear the final call to join the heavenly banquet: “Well done! Good and faithful servant!”

What this means

This means that after a period of expansion that lasted for nearly two centuries, religious life is in a period of consolidation. No longer opening ministries, communities are divesting and entrusting ministries to capable, dedicated lay persons. In the expansion years, young brothers and sisters could be placed alongside their more experienced brothers and sisters in ministries run by the community. This shared experience of life and of ministry enabled members in their 20s and 30s to absorb the spirit of the community from those in their 40s and 50s. They also apprenticed in ministries, long before they were able to attain the academic credentials we expect today. The communities’ primary energies were dedicated to ministry, and the primary focus was outward as a steady stream of newly professed sisters and brothers continued to renew and strengthen those already out in the harvest-fields.

Ministries were flush with the youth and energy of these dedicated workers in the Gospel vineyard. Parishes, schools, hospitals, social services, and universities manifested the presence of young religious who functioned as the communities’ “social media” of their day. Young people who were inclined to consider a religious vocation or a life of ministry were able to see first-hand what this might look like. Often elder religious, in sharing their vocation story, will tell how the spirit, the joy and the dedication of the religious they knew inspired them to consider religious life. They tell of those brothers or sisters who invited them to consider entering their community. I expect that most over-achievers of that time were singled out for a personal invitation: “Have you considered becoming a Franciscan? Dominican? Brother / Sister of ...?”

Those who responded in the affirmative entered with their peers, sometimes dozens of them. They joined similar numbers of recruits who had entered in the preceding years. For the most part, the communities they entered looked like them, most came from similar ages, social and ethnic backgrounds.

From the standpoint of people entering religious life, with few exceptions, this world has not existed for 50 years. In this time, significantly more people have left through death or dispensation, than have arrived in our formation houses. Some chose to leave religious life, more have completed their life’s journey, and have “entered into the joy of their Master.” Over the past 50 years, our communities have grayed. More significantly, the age difference between those in formation and those in the wider community has broadened. How does a single 20-something imagine building community with 70-somethings? How do we invite men and women to join a community that looks like their grandparents and great-grandparents? And how do these grandparents and great-grandparents make spaces in their communities, in their hearts and houses for these new brothers and sisters? How do we build community together?

The collapse means that we cannot support our infrastructure: motherhouses, congregational offices, sponsorship obligations. We must commit to a trajectory of realistic adjustments that will close down our super-sized infrastructure, built for hundreds (or thousands) and reinvent itself for a sleek, trim community of dozens, with running shoes on, ready for the next 50 years.

Members of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal discuss their community and ways to encourage a vocation culture during the Men Religious Moving Forward in Hope program. One result of the program, sponsored in 2014 by NRVC,  is a resource for assessing the vocation culture in a community. It is available at nrvc.net.

What this doesn’t mean

The collapse does not mean failure or defeat. It does mean the end of an epoch, the end of a way of life, the end of a journey. It means that business-as-usual is no longer an option. Much of our communities’ energies are focused internally on elder-care and transitioning sponsorship. For some, energies are focused on tending to the end-of-life of their monastery, province, or congregation. For others, it may mean hospicing a community that is in this final stage, providing “life-support” as the last members live out their days in gentle contemplation and radical discipleship.

Collapse doesn’t mean that our communities have failed, or that religious life itself is at an end. Some have compared phase to the end of a chapter. I think it is more than that. I believe that most communities are writing the last chapter of a book. There may be a sequel; that remains to be seen. If it comes, it will require a radical shift in our way of life. It will be in continuity with what has come before, but it will also be in discontinuity. We are in an epoch of re-foundation, of transformation. Re-foundation is not the work of the many, it is the work of the few. If we look at the foundation stories of our communities, we find that they were founded by a handful of people. Re-foundation will be the same. Much of the rhetoric of our community meetings is about preserving the charism and sustaining the mission. These are important conversations, but they are not transformational. The energy we need is light-footed, agile, joyful. Think of that escape pod, at the end of a movie, the babe left in a basket by the river’s edge when others are slain, the seed that falls to the earth and dies, the small cadre of brothers or sisters who boarded a ship with nothing but the fire in their hearts and the Spirit as guide. Re-foundation is the work of the few. We cannot imagine what it looks like now, it takes the long perspective of history to recognize it. The instincts of the younger cohorts of religious today point to community and spirituality as the keys, and inter-community efforts as the context of this future.


The precipice, then, is the point where we stand on that last tip of solid ground, suspended over the abyss of chaos and disintegration. It is that place where there is “nothing within you, but the will that says to you ‘hold on.’”(Kipling, “If”) It is a place of mystery. It is the womb of hope. It is the invitation to silent surrender.

In Genesis, with the destroying armies bearing down and the Red Sea threatening before them, the Israelites were invited to this precipice: “Be still – you have only to wait and I will show my power” (Ex. 14:13-14). It is a place of radical vulnerability.

In the beginning, the Spirit of God (Ruah Elohim, the Breath of Power), hovered tremulously over the precipice, over the dark and the deep, over the chaos of the waters (Gen. 1:2).

In the agony in the Garden, Jesus prayed at the precipice, Father, let this pass, not my will, but yours.... (Lk. 22:42)

We are living in a time of precipice: we will continue to witness the collapse, the decline, the implosion. We will continue to tend to it with gentleness and understanding. And some of us are called to face this truth, to surrender to its reality, … and to take the leap of faith, of daring and radical trust. Some of us will stop at the cliff’s edge, some of us will leap into the unknown....

Vocation ministry

Vocation ministry is an interesting phenomenon. In the era when our novitiates were flush with new recruits, and we had a steady flow of new members joining us in ministry, we did not do “vocation ministry.” Or if we did, it was simply a matter of connecting the host of interested men and women to the appropriate contact in the community, briefly acquainting them with the process and expectations, and informing them when and where to come to begin their formation. The rigors of religious life and of the formation program weeded out most of the doubtful candidates, and superiors and masters and mistresses of novices guided the rest according to the wisdom of the day. Some of these guides were gifted and wise, others less so. We lived and ministered with brothers and sisters who served to inspire and challenge and to knock off most of our rough edges. These experiences continued the process begun in our formation houses.

In contrast today’s vocation directors have to go out and tell our story and make contact with those who may be considering religious life. Prospective members may know few if any of our brothers and sisters, and may have only a vague notion of what our life is really all about. With our mobile society, those interested in our communities are generally older, better educated, more experienced and more diverse ethnically, socially and economically than most of our current members. They are one or more generations removed in age, experience and mentality from the majority of our current members. We struggle to find brothers or sisters who are willing and able to do vocation work. Vocation ministers have to reach out to young people who are not merely chronologically younger, not merely younger versions of ourselves. Today’s prospective vocations are from a significantly different culture than that of religious life today. Neuroscientists tell us that today’s young people are neurologically wired differently than we are, due to their immersion, from a very early age, in a digitally mediated culture. This is certainly the case with inquirers in their 20s and 30s. In many cases, this is true even with those in their 40s and 50s, as those who have entered at that age can attest.

Today’s vocation ministers are required to bridge the ever widening gap between their communities and the prospective vocations. They present the ideal of their community, its charism and its radical response to the Gospel. They must also present the reality of a community living its elder years with dignity and grace on our better days, and sometimes struggling to accept our reality of diminishment and collapse and to face its challenges.

Being in touch with young people is critical if religious communities are to forge a future. In addition, vocation ministers frequently  have to serve as a bridge between generations.  Pictured here are students at Rutger’s University Catholic Student Center receiving communion during a retreat.  Photo by Brother Allen Marquez, B.H.

If and how we do vocation work

So now we’re ready for the opening question: How do we do vocation work on the precipice of collapse? Perhaps a prior issue is whether we do vocation work at all. Do we do vocation work in the context as I have laid it out? Are we committed to it? Do we believe that our community is capable of accepting and incorporating new members? This is a question that needs to be asked. It is a serious matter of discernment. We know that there are women and men in the pews, in our churches today, who are seriously considering religious life. A 2012 study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate told us that in the U.S. there are 600,000 never-married Catholic Millennials who have seriously considered vowed and ordained vocations . The women and men are there. The question is if we are ready and willing to bring them into full membership in our communities. Are we ready to incorporate them, to make them full members of our communities? Are we willing to entrust them with the fullness of life in our communities? Are we willing to invite them in? Are we willing to open our hearts and our houses to these men and women? This is a serious discernment issue. If we say yes, then these are the men and women who will write the next chapter of our congregational story; we have to be willing to pass on the torch. We will have to lay down the pen, the next chapter is theirs to write. This calls for a selfless surrender of our precious congregational heritage to another generation. They will do honor to our heritage if we can let them, if we can trust the Spirit alive in them. Yes, we will share our stories with them. Yes, we will marinate them with our love for God and for our vocation. We will tell them who we are, and invite them to discover themselves as our sisters and our brothers. Then we must trust in God and set them free to live and love and bring our congregation into the heart of the 21st century.

If we do not have this energy, or we do not feel called to devote our resources to this task, then it is better to speak this truth and close the doors to new vocations. This is a challenging decision for any community, but if made in honest recognition of our reality, it can be tremendously freeing.

We are not inviting vocations to the collapse; we are inviting them to the precipice. Most of us will not survive the collapse. Those we invite to the precipice will outlive us; they will take our heritage to new and unimagined places. There is a selflessness in this invitation. Think of Moses who leads the people to the promised land, but cannot enter in himself. Think of the seed that falls to the earth and dies. Think of Jesus who commissions the apostles, then ascends to heaven, leaving his mission in the hands of the weak and the vulnerable, of deniers and money-changers, and of fisher-folk.

Are we ready for vocation work on the precipice of collapse? If so, how do we go forward?

Honest invitations

The first requirement of vocation work is honest invitations. Invitations extended to men and women where they are, in language they understand, into communities where their vocation can be shared and nurtured. Those joining us will often be more realistic than we are about the collapse that we are experiencing. It is a fact of life. They will not face the same issues regarding this reality that many of us face. They did not live with the sisters or brothers, they don’t have the lifetime of memories of the motherhouse and of various ministries. They don’t have to imbibe all our history before they can become members. They need enough of this to get them started, to measure their vocation against the yardstick of our history and our stories. And they need the freedom to begin write their own history, and to begin to write the next phase in our common story.

Create formative communities

A second requirement for vocation work is formative communities, ready and willing to make time and space for candidates to get to know our brothers and sisters, and to experience religious life first hand. A community that has lived together for decades will have difficulty welcoming a new member fully into the group, especially one significantly younger in age and religious life. It can be done and requires very intentional efforts. Symbolic actions of renewal are helpful. In one community, everyone moved out of their room and into a new room when the new person moved in. In another community all the pictures came off the walls and we re-decorated, incorporating elements from the new person’s culture. In yet another community another brother moved in at the same time as the candidate. These communities were saying by their actions: “We are a new community, we are ready to build new relationships.” By contrast, some communities speak by their actions: take the guest bedroom, you can put your pictures there; keep your coffee cup in your room because there is no space in the kitchen for it; this is our schedule, you will have to work around it. Our communities must be able to welcome the stranger, and continue to integrate them until they are no longer strangers, but sisters and brothers.

Have a supportive wider community

These formative communities are built in a wider community. Do we all have to be ready for this radical invitation and openness? No, not everyone. However, we do need the support of the wider community in building formative communities. We have to be ready for communities that look different from those we have now. They may speak different languages, they may eat different foods, they may recreate differently, they may pray differently. The support of the wider community means that these differences are not seen as negatives but as positives.

“What are those young people doing in the living room, laughing it up after 9 o’clock in the evening?” queried one member suspiciously. They are re-creating the community, they are living their vocations, they are living, loving, hoping. They are living justly. They are loving tenderly. They are walking humbly with our God. They are doing honor to the rich heritage of religious life as religious women and men of the 21st century.

We have to be careful of characterizing a mono-generational community of 70-year-olds who live with one new member in his/her 40s as an intergenerational community. A truly intergenerational community is one with members evenly spread between age 20 and 80; it is a gift. Each person, each generation, has a unique way of living religious life, and a unique gift to offer to the community. It takes work, but we should do what we can to build and support these communities.

New members as co-creators

In vocation ministry today, we are not inviting men and women who look like us and think like us to become like us in community. Instead we are reaching out to men and women who are significantly different from us in age, ethnicity, culture, experience, and education. We are inviting them to a space to nurture their vocations and to become co-creators of the next phase of our common story.

Yes, we can and should share our experience of charism, community, spirituality, and mission. But we also have to afford them the space to integrate this experience, and to re-imagine it in terms of their own 21st century sensibilities.

Keep the faith

Vocation ministry today can be a lonely road. We look at our communities, at the reality of collapse and ask if we can realistically invite women and men to join us. If we have someone interested, we may have a very short list of persons and communities to introduce them to as they get to know the community. Our brothers and sisters, or even we ourselves, may value our ministry in terms of how many have entered, or how many have stayed. We expend our time, our energy, our hopes and our dreams, without the results we might have hoped for. It is important to seek out the support we need in this moment and to keep our hope alive in this challenging ministry.

Form a critical mass

It has become common to say that everyone in the community is a promoter of vocations. The old saying though, may ring true: if it is everyone’s job, it is no one’s job. It is important to have a critical mass of individuals who have the time, energy, focus and resources to dedicate to this ministry. In my own community, we recently held a series of discernment days for those interested in vocation and formation ministry. Most of the youngest sisters in the province stepped forward for this ministry, and the community entrusted it to us. This experience has already born fruit in affording us the opportunity to work together and to build cohesion in our group. Our team has committed to working together to live our lives authentically, to share our joy and hope with interested women, and to open our homes and our hearts to those who wish to join us.

Our team is surrounded by a support team of our elder sisters who have committed to be with us in this ministry, to share their time, their passion for religious life and their experience. Leadership and the wider community has given us its blessing and has affirmed our efforts. We pray that this may bear fruits as we strive to do vocation work on the precipice—and with the Spirit!


Related Reading

“If” by Rudyard Kipling,

“From Impasse to Prophetic Hope: Crisis of Memory” by  Sister Constance Fitzgerald, O.C.D.

“Understanding U.S. Catholic Sisters Today,” by Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Ph.D. for Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) nationalcatholicsistersweek.org

 “Religious Life Reimagined,” by Brother Seán Sammon, F.M.S., America,  September 2015.

“Recent vocations to religious life,”  2009 study for the National Religious Vocation Conference by  the  Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, nrvc.net

“A loving gaze at religious life realities,” by Sister Susan Rose  Francois, C.S.J.P., 2013 HORIZON No. 4 Fall, nrvc.net

“Defining an internal culture of vocations,” by Brother John Mark Falkenhain, O.S.B., 2014 HORIZON No. 3 Summer, nrvc.net. 


Sister Amy Hereford, C.S.J. has been in religious life for more than 30 years. A civil and canon lawyer, she serves as a consultant to religious communities. Her website, ahereford.org, contains further information about canon law as it applies to religious communities. Sister Amy is the author of the award-winning book Religious Life at the Crossroads: A School for Mystics and Prophets (Orbis, 2014).

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