Moving from inquirer to applicant

Moving from inquirer to applicant

What needs to happen to help an individual move through the information-gathering time of vocation discernment to a time of greater discernment and, finally, to the moment of actually entering a formation program? This, it seems, is the million dollar question. How do we help individuals move from a time of inquiry to a readiness to apply for membership? How do we help these individuals to see that the call to religious life either is or is not their calling? And, if it is their calling, how do we help them to move along in their discernment, consider a variety of congregations, and, ultimately, make a choice—a decision? I’m afraid none of us has a fail-proof formula for this. My years in vocation ministry and my conversations with former discerners have taught me a few things, however, about the million-dollar question, and I hope to share them here.

Set up a response system

First, it is important to examine the process we have in place for responding to an inquirer. What do we send in the mail? A brochure, a video, a DVD? Do we send an e-mail or a letter? Is it a form letter or personalized? As I have talked with people who are in the exploration phase, I have discovered that more and more of them are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information they receive from all of our communities. How can we include a personal touch, allowing the person to ask questions about religious life in general and about our communities in particular? We must get information into the hands of inquirers and yet also suggest tools to help them sort through it all.

This time of initial exploration serves also as an initial time for us as vocation ministers to screen potential candidates. Does this person seem to fit us? Or should I direct her or him somewhere else? Are there impediments to proceeding which need to be addressed, such as having children or not being Catholic? If no obstacles are obvious and the person seems to be interested in our community, what can we do to stay in contact with this individual and to offer our assistance to him or her during continued discernment?

It’s important to look for ways to connect…making phone calls, sending e-mails, visiting. A meeting in person can be a very important tool to move someone into more serious discernment or to help move them in a different direction. Always we need to remember to hold these individuals lightly, to encourage them to check out other communities, to read, to view websites, to visit other places, and, most importantly, to be in spiritual direction.

If someone has been discerning awhile or moves beyond the initial stages of discernment, then we can ask what that person needs to help make a good decision. Does she or he need to visit one of our mission houses? Would ministering with community members be of help? Would it be helpful to talk with another member of the community as a mentor?

As we look at moving people from inquirers to applicants, though, it seems that just talking about programs isn’t enough. If it were, then there could be a systematic way of moving people. “Mary” has been in discernment with us for one year; therefore she can enter next year. If only it were so easy! While much of what we do in vocation ministry can gain insights from the world of sales and recruitment, this is the point at which that can’t happen anymore. This is not about closing a sale! It’s not always easy to step back at such times. The pressures on those of us serving in vocation ministry are great. We all want and need new members. Our community members may frequently ask us who’s joining or why more individuals aren’t entering. Within ourselves, even, we may feel such a push and wonder if we’re truly doing a good job if we don’t meet some expected “quota” of new members. But, this is about discernment and about God’s call for an individual. The Spirit is at work, and we need to allow room for the Spirit to work while doing our part to help nudge and guide.

Inviting as Jesus did

So, perhaps we need to look to the model of invitation that Jesus used. In the pastoral plan that emerged from the 2002 North American Congress on Vocations, we find this model delineated into five parts: to sow, to accompany, to educate, to form, and to discern or choose.1

When we look at the Gospels, we see that “Jesus sows the good seed of vocation in each human heart.” We, too, are called to sow abundantly. Timing is crucial. While people may not act on their vocations until they are young adults, the first inclination can usually be traced back to childhood or adolescence. What are the key moments when we can plant the seed? How can we sow in a more prolific way?

Second, “as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus draws near to us, walks beside us, and accompanies us on our journey of faith.” How are we called to accompany others? How do we allow the Spirit to guide this accompaniment? Often the simple sharing of our personal stories gives a concrete example of vocation and God’s call. Can we share the struggles along the way as part of our stories, not glossing over them, yet not focusing totally on the negative aspects of our journeys?

The third step is that “Jesus educates us, drawing out those truths about ourselves that we ourselves did not yet know.” Drawing out someone’s truth is the root of the word, “to educate.” How can we help inquirers see the link between increased self-knowledge and the revelation of God’s call in their lives? How can we assist them to see and accept their strengths, weaknesses and fears? How can we help them through this process so that they can be ready to embrace their true selves, and, therefore, their true callings? In addition, how can we help inquirers to develop their relationship with God so that they encounter a real and heartfelt presence of God, of Jesus? Perhaps we can assist them with prayer, helping them to be in the silence and assisting them in examining their lives in the context of prayer.

The fourth step is that “Jesus forms us along the way, teaching us to recognize him as we reflect on our experience with him on the road.” In the Emmaus story, the disciples’ eyes were opened. Can we be attuned to such “peak,” eye-opening moments for those who have contacted us? Can we notice and help the individuals to discover the truth God is seeking to reveal to them? We must risk noticing these moments as times when we can call a person to make a choice, to commit. Further, we must challenge discerners to act on the gift they have received without being pushy or overbearing.

The final moment as we look at Jesus’ example is that, “in the light of what has been revealed in this discernment, Jesus calls to an explicit and effective choice and sends us on a mission.” How do we help inquirers see that they need to choose… that, at some point, they need to get off the fence. We know there are perpetual discerners. How can we move them? What do they need to make a choice and go with it? Our job is to show discerners that they do have the skills and abilities to make a good choice. We can assure them that choosing to enter community or seminary is not the end of the process but rather the beginning. While it needs to be a serious decision, it’s not a commitment for life right away. We can show them and share with them our own commitments, our own choices in life and be an example for them as they strive to make good choices in their lives.

This leads to the question of how do we, who are religious and priests, witness to the vocation of our lives? What do people see when they observe us? Do they see people who are too busy, frazzled, or overworked? What does that say to them? How would that attract them to inquire into this vocation for themselves?

Or do they see peaceful, joyful, and fulfilled individuals? We do not need to be false and put on a face that’s not true, but we do need to ask ourselves what would encourage someone to join us in our vocation if they do not see us as living a basically joy-filled existence. Young people know that all marriages are not bliss and that not every day of any life, including religious life, is forever happy. But if they only see us as tired, frustrated, and perhaps even angry, why would they want to be like us?

New membership can come down to our being visible so young people know what we do and why and how we do our ministries. But, more importantly, do young adults know who we are, what makes us tick, and, most importantly, what makes us commit our lives?

Since I couldn’t come up with the million-dollar answer to the question of how to move inquirers to applicants, I decided that perhaps it would be most helpful to hear the stories of some women and men who recently made that move. I wanted to learn what helped or hindered them.

When asked what helped them to move from a time of inquiry to application for membership, one person reported that visiting the community and feeling a sense of being “at home” was key. She felt welcomed, yet not pressured to decide to enter. Rather she felt she could allow God to lead the process. She said that she also felt free to ask questions and that no question was too silly to ask.

Another person said that being immersed in the sisters’ lives for a week was very important. It allowed her to see sisters in their “real” life, where she observed that they were down to earth. She also reported that she was encouraged to visit other places and that this gave her a sense of freedom in her choice. She found it important to be able to talk with others who were also discerning. In addition, it was helpful to be connected with sisters other than the “dreaded” vocation director in order to ask questions! Another woman mentioned that meeting with the prioress during weekend visits was helpful. She appreciated the freedom to talk about fears, trepidations, challenges and hopes, and to be who she was while being challenged to grow.

Others commented that discernment took lots of prayer! And that the offer of a retreat at a seminary seemed non-threatening and didn’t require much commitment. One person said that the support of his family was key and that learning about the process to become a priest helped demystify it. This man also found written discernment questions to be of great help. A woman mentioned that when she visited a community she felt genuinely cared for.

Another woman said that the patience of the vocation director was important, as was the community’s efforts to keep in touch. She also found helpful the offer to have a sister visit her when that sister was traveling. In fact, it was this visit that gave her the incentive to make a trip to visit the community.

Another man, a third year seminarian now, said that it was helpful for him to encounter seminarians and also to go to the seminary to visit, to see the environment within which he might be. He also said that he needed some space, some quiet time to be away from the routines of life in order to reflect and think, so he made some retreats. He found it helpful to be separated from concerns, responsibilities and distractions.

One woman said that the sisters’ interest in meeting her without making her feel “sucked in” as the community’s only hope of survival was very important. She said that she felt a freedom to come because she felt free to go. She said that meeting some other vocation directors and finding them “desperate” was a turn off. Such experiences made her want to run quickly in the other direction!

Another woman said that it was helpful to interact with sisters of a variety of ages. She also said it is helpful for the vocation director to not be overly excited when someone moves into a deeper discernment. … too much excitement can feel like control and pressure. Another woman told me that having our video to show her family and friends was very helpful, as was bringing her family to visit the community. One woman mentioned the help of participating in normal conversations at the dinner table, interacting with a variety of ages, the personal touches in the mail we sent, and our Web site with its daily photo blog.

When asked what hindered them, the replies were as follows: my own fears of whether I could be a good sister, brother, priest. Several mentioned that their families were a hindrance, at least at first. Also, overly eager vocation directors who didn’t want to let go were a major hindrance. One mentioned that it was difficult when she visited a community and could only meet the older sisters--at times she felt that she might be the sole provider for these sisters, and that was scary. At the same time, peers in the community were not the only deciding factor. Other hindrances included hearing sisters complain about other sisters, and misperceptions on the discerner’s part about the life of a priest or religious. A seminarian stated that he was hindered at first by looking at seminary not as continual discernment but as entry into the priesthood. He believed he had to be 100 percent sure before he started seminary.

Another man mentioned the nagging questions in his mind: What if I decide to leave? Would I be okay? Would I be able to start over? This same man said letting go of his current support system was a challenge.

Regarding what could have been more helpful in the process or transition, a suggestion was made that new members check in with the vocation director once a month for awhile after entering the community. This would allow entrants to check whether what they experience is a normal part of the transition. Another suggested that entrants better understand life after the initial year or two. A priest recommended a pastoral year as a time to live and see the life of a parish priest prior to ordination.

On a practical note, one woman said that when communicating initially with so many communities, it would be most helpful to identify a name and e-mail with a community and location. (This involves using an e-mail “signature” so that your name, community and address appear at the bottom of each e-mail. The “help” section of your e-mail software should explain how to do this.) One cannot assume that the individual will remember which vocation director goes with which community. A seminarian suggested presenting more information in non-threatening ways. And a newer member to religious life suggested having family members visit the community prior to entrance.

These are the gleanings from a variety of individuals either in formation or recently ordained. Perhaps their words and experiences can help as we accompany those in discernment, as we try to help them move along in their decision-making.

There is no one answer to the question of how to move someone in this process. Sometimes the approach needs to be gentle and caring. At other times, we might need to be more forceful—kicking someone off the fence or at least nudging the person to move independently. Perhaps what is most needed on our part is patience, prayer and perseverance. The task of helping someone discern requires prayer and discernment on our parts. How can we be like Jesus as we invite men and women to follow this way of life? Most importantly, I believe, is that we not act desperate or clingy or hold people with tightly clenched hands. We have to always remember that discernment isn’t about trying to convince a person to join one congregation over another or telling a person which orders to visit and which ones not to visit. Also, we, as vocation ministers, are not in control of a person’s calling, and we need to walk that fine line that exists between inviting and harassing an individual who is discerning. We need to act with faith, to encourage, to hold lightly, and to allow individuals to hear and respond to God's call, whatever that may be. In the end, it's really up to the Spirit, and then it’s up to us to listen, to discern, to act—all under the guidance of that same Spirit.

1. Conversion, Discernment, Mission: Fostering a Vocation Culture in North America. Pastoral Plan of the Third Continental Congress on Vocations to Ordained Ministry and Consecrated Life in North America. Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Anita Louise Lowe, OSB has served in vocation ministry for her community, the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, IN, since 1997. She has been a member of the NRVC board since 2001 and currently serves on the leadership team of the board.

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