How communities are using admissions boards

How communities are using admissions boards

By Carol Schuck Scheiber, c

The matter of whether to allow someone to join your religious community is delicate. The stakes are high because the very course of a person’s life is at hand, and so is the vitality and health of the larger community. Plenty of confidential information must be considered, and one’s intuitive sense of the person seeking admission has to count for something as well.

It’s no wonder that such a highly charged decision is not made by one person alone. The reality is most communities use a team approach in deciding who joins and who does not. Not all communities necessarily call their teams an “admissions board,” but the end result is the same: more than one or two people shape the decision. This article is based on reports from seven vocation ministers (four men and three women) about how their community makes admission decisions.

Of course, before anyone or any group makes a decision about who may enter, a person seeking admission has a whole screening process to get through first. In most congregations, the vocation director determines whether a person even gets to the point of being formally considered. At any point in the discernment process the vocation director can end the process based on early evidence that a person lacks the criteria the community has established. Most communities have clear, written criteria for admittance.

For prospective members who emerge from an initial screening, there are reams of information to collect and many steps to take for a formal application. Here are some of the typical elements in an application:

  • Visits to local communities
  • Attendance at a vocation retreat
  • Interviews with members of the community, including vocation and formation personnel
  • Autobiography
  • Application form
  • Health and dental exams
  • Psychological testing
  • Certificates of baptism and confirmation
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Academic transcripts
  • Reports or recommendations from the interviewers

Once the steps have been taken and the materials collected, the community must decide whether to accept the person into their formation program. Following are some ways various communities structure their approach to decision-making.

Team input; provincial decides

The provincial is the sole decision-maker in this scenario, but he or she has plenty of recommendations to consider in making a judgment. Sometimes an admissions board exists to make a recommendation but not a final decision. In one community, the advisory board is composed of:

  • vocation director
  • senior community member appointed by the council and provincial
  • pre-novitiate formation director
  • novice director

Another community’s advisory board includes:

  • vocation director
  • provincial
  • novice director
  • a brother
  • community member who is a psychologist.

Another streamlined admissions board simply consists of two councilors who give their input to a provincial who decides alone.

Team decision-making

Roughly the same people are involved in team decision-making structures. The difference is that the weight of the final decision is not on the shoulders of the congregational leader alone; the team decides together. It might be a small team. One vocation director says that she and her prioress assembled all the materials on an applicant, discussed her, and decided together. Another community allows the president and two vice presidents to make the decision.

It might be a larger team. One community used to involve the following:

  • vocation director,
  • two members,
  • the congregational leader.

A men’s community has an admission board made up of:

  • the postulancy director,
  • two members,
  • and an outsider who happens to be a woman religious.

(The feminine perspective is sought in another men’s community by having a woman religious interview applicants.)

Advantages and disadvantages

Time and again, the vocation ministers contacted for this article said that the advantage of an admissions board is greater objectivity and broader perspective. “All individuals carry their own biases,” wrote one vocation director. To have one person decide without any recommendation from others can lead to problems and bad decisions.”

Another vocation minister put it this way: “Receiving others’ reactions, comments, and intuition from having spent time with the individual assists in the decision making process.”

Oversight for the vocation minister is another advantage. “A board can help to assure that all the proper paper work and needed material was collected by the vocation director. It can make sure he’s doing his job!”

Only one vocation minister mentioned disadvantages to an admissions board. In his community, having to convene six people for an advisory board means that the timing of the application takes on an artificially critical importance. A person has to be accepted by the late spring meeting, or he won’t enter the formation program which starts in the fall, and he’ll have to until the next fall.

Certainly the existence of an admissions board means that the process cannot be as fast and efficient as it would be with a single decision-maker. It takes time to convene people. It takes time for them to discuss their perspectives. It takes time for them to agree on a course of action. However, it seems that most communities are willing to forego speed and efficiency in favor of what they see as higher quality decisions and a superior process.

The ethics of admissions boards

Father Ray Carey

What are some considerations in choosing people for admissions boards?

My concern is that too often folks are named to admissions boards as a political decision, an attempt to mollify one set of constituents over another. I think that in an ideal world, an admissions board should include:

  1. People who are competent at interviewing, and who have a clear, behaviorally anchored sense of the criteria for which an assessment is undertaken. Unless there is a clear sense of "who are we looking for?" it doesn't much matter who is on the board.
  2. The board ought to be representative of or reflective of the multifaceted ecclesiologies in the constituency. Unless the board fairly represents the community for which the admissions decisions are taken, there will not be much credibility accorded it. Without credibility, the board's work is impossible.
  3. I think whenever possible the board should be comprised of both genders, again assuming competencies are present.
  4. I think as well there should be a limited term of service on the board, and that membership should change on a rotating basis (to keep some continuity).

What information about applicants should board members see?

I think they should have access to whatever information is salient to the decision at hand. As well, they should take care that each interviewer has a roughly assigned area for assessment (e.g., ministry or academics or spiritual readiness for formation or history of relationships or readiness for celibacy) so that not every member is asking sensitive questions about sexual history or family of origin, for example. They should take special efforts to protect the candidates' ethical right to minimal intrusion. At the same time, the board should be seen as the moral extension of the vocation director (who in turn shares the moral authority of the provincial), and therefore board members have a right to know what they legitimately need to know. Additionally, the board should be bound by the same confidentiality requirements as the vocation director.


Carol Schuck Scheiber is editor of HORIZON. She also edits the newsletter, NRVC News and VISION Vocation Discernment Handbook. She has 16 years’ experience in communications with an emphasis in Catholic topics, social justice and nonprofits. She lives in Toledo with her husband and three children.


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