Communities that attract and the people who are entering them

Communities that attract and the people who are entering them

By Sr. Mary Bendyna R.S.M.

AN IMPORTANT PART of the NR VC-CARA study is the data it provides about the communities that are receiving new members and those new members themselves. What are these communities like? What are their characteristics? What do new members say attracted them? Who is entering religious communities today?

Before exploring these important questions, however, it is helpful to know the overall state of new membership in religious communities. What is the bigger picture? Some important numbers in assessing the overall state of vocations to religious institutes are as follows. About a third of religious communities have no one in any stage of religious formation. Roughly another third have one or two in formation. And 18 percent of communities have three to five people in formation. Very few communities have large groups (six or more) in formation. In the adjacent column is a more precise breakdown of that data.

What community characteristics attract?

Several characteristics of religious institutes are associated with new membership. The study gained these data by asking new members how much various factors influenced their decision to enter their religious institute. Respondents were most likely to name the community life and the prayer life or prayer styles of their institute as factors that influenced them “very much.” It’s worth noting, too, that newer members (particularly in their 20s and early 30s) prefer a community life that involves living with eight or more members.

When asked about religious life generally, new members report that they are drawn to religious life primarily by a sense of call and a desire for prayer and spiritual growth. More than three-fourths (78 percent) say they were attracted “very much” by the former and almost as many (73 percent) say they were attracted“very much” by the latter. More than anything else, they were attracted to their particular religious institute by the example of its members, especially by their sense of joy, their down-to-earth nature, their commitment and zeal. Eighty-five percent say the example of members attracted them “very much.”


Number of people in initial formation*









1 to 2




3 to 5




6 to 10








*Initial formation includes candidates/postulants, novices, and temporary professed.


To only a slightly lesser degree, most new members also say they were also attracted to religious life by a desire to be of service and a desire to be part of a community and to their particular religious institute by its spirituality, community life and prayer life. It is important to note that although the ministries of the institute are important to most new members, they are less important than spirituality, prayer, community and lifestyle. Questions about ministry, especially the possibility of a variety of ministries, tend to be more important to the male respondents than to the female respondents.

Younger respondents are more likely than older respondents to say they were attracted to religious life by a desire to be more committed to the church and to their particular institute by its fidelity to the church. Many also reported that their decision to enter their institute was influenced by its practice regarding a religious habit.

Young people attracted to habit

Significant generation gaps, especially between the Millennial Generation (born in 1982 or later) and Vatican II Generation (born between 1943 and 1960), are evident throughout the study on questions involving the church and the habit. These gaps also extend to questions of community life and styles and types of prayer.

The responses to the open-ended questions about what attracted them to their religious institute reveal that having a religious habit was an important factor for a significant number of new members. Interviews with vocation directors also suggest that many who are inquiring into religious life are looking for the possibility of wearing a habit, even in those institutes in which few, if any, members regularly do so.

About two-thirds of the new members who responded to our study are in institutes that wear a religious habit. For a little more than half of those new members (55 percent), the habit is required in all or most circumstances, and for another 16 percent it is required only at certain times, such as for ministry or prayer. In the focus group discussions, a few of the participants were either strongly in favor of or strongly opposed to requiring habits, while some discussed the value of wearing a habit or clerical dress in at least some circumstances. Among those who report that the habit is optional, 90 percent of men and 27 percent of women say they wear it at least once in a while, with 14 percent of men and 15 percent of women saying they wear it in all or most circumstances.


How much did these influence your decision to enter your religious institute?



or “very much”

“Very much” only

Community life in the institute



Prayer life / prayer style in the institute



The lifestyle of members



The types of ministry of its members



Its practice regarding a religious habit



Its geographic location(s)



Its internationality, if applicable



The size of the institute



The ages of members



Racial/ethnic background of members




Among those who report that their institute does not have a habit, almost half of the men (48 percent) and almost a quarter of the women (23 percent) say they would wear a habit if they had that option.

The question of religious garb is, indeed, one that can raise a great deal of passionate discussion in some communities. The study clearly shows a connection between habits and new members. Having a habit that is required either in all or most circumstances or at certain times, such as ministry or prayer, is correlated with having new members in formation, as well as with having higher numbers who have entered and stayed since 1990.

Prayer, community life are central

Many new members identify common prayer as something that strongly attracted them to religious life and that most sustains them now. When asked about the importance of various types of communal prayer, respondents are most likely to name daily Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours as the prayer types that are most important to them.

Millennial Generation respondents are much more likely than other respondents—especially those from the Vatican II Generation—to say that daily Eucharist, Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic Adoration, and other devotional prayers are “very” important to them. Compared to younger respondents, older respondents place greater importance on faith-sharing and to a lesser degree on non-liturgical common prayer.

These patterns were reiterated in the open-ended responses, as well as in interviews and focus groups in which many younger members mention Eucharist, Eucharistic Adoration, the Divine Office, and Marian devotion as especially important to them.

When asked about their decision to enter their particular religious institute, new members cite the community life in the institute as the most influential factor in their decision (followed closely by the prayer life or prayer styles in the community). Most new members indicate that they want to live, work, and pray with other members of their religious institute, with the last being especially important to them. Responses to an open-ended question about what most attracted them to their religious institute reinforce the importance new members place on this particular aspect of religious life.


Age categories for newer members

Pre-Vatican II

Born before 1943

Vatican II

Born between 1943-1960

Gen Xer

Born between 1961-1981


Born 1982-onward


Living alone is not attractive

When asked about various living arrangements, most prefer to live in a large (eight or more) or medium-sized (four to seven) community and to live only with other members of their institute. Younger respondents express even stronger preferences for living with members of their institute in large community settings. Findings from the survey of religious institutes suggest that new membership is negatively correlated with the number of members living alone. That is, the higher the number of members who live alone, the less likely an institute is to have new members.

Unity in the mission matters

When asked about various ministry settings, most new members prefer ministry with other members of their institute and ministry sponsored by their institute. Again, these preferences are much stronger among younger new members. Very few would prefer ministry with a non-Catholic or non-religious organization or even one that is Catholic but not sponsored by their institute. Compared to their younger counterparts, older new members are somewhat more willing to minister in a non-Catholic or a non-religious setting.

The attitudes regarding ministry settings also vary somewhat according to gender. Although both male and female newer members would most prefer to work with members of their own institute, the male respondents are a little more likely to say they also prefer working with members of their institute from other provinces.

Retention rate similar for all institutes

The average retention rate is 48 percent; that is, about half of those who entered since 1990 remain. The median and modal retention rates are also 50 percent. Retention rates are somewhat higher in women’s institutes than in men’s. There are no significant differences in retention rates between institutes whose leaders are members of Leadership Conference of Women Religious and institutes whose leaders are members of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women.

Attributes of those who have joined communities in the last 15 years

The NRVC-CARA study revealed some distinct patterns in terms of community characteristics that attract new members.


Assess your community

The NRVC-CARA vocation study tells a great deal about why newer members chose to enter religious life. While the study reveals broad truths about religious life in the U.S. in general, the fact remains that each community is unique and will assess the data differently. Communities are beginning to gather to study the data and evaluate it in light of the particular circumstances of their institute. Following are some possible questions for discussion.

Elements that Attract Young Adults

  • What does your religious institute offer newcomers?
  • Does your community offer what young Catholics are seeking in religious life? (See pages 5-7.) .
  • Is the membership open to and ready to receive the sorts of young Catholics who are inquiring about membership?
  • Does the community have a place—a home with supportive members living there— for those who are entering the institute?


Likewise the study pointed to the type of people that are seeking out religious life today. Every generation has its distinguishing characteristics, and that is as true within the world of religious life as it is elsewhere. The generations of men and women entering religious communities today—the Millennials (ages 26 and younger) and Generation Xers (ages 27 to 48)—are distinct from previous generations. This younger group is distinctive ethnically, spiritually and educationally from previous generations in religious life.

Compared to men and women religious in the last century, many of those entering religious institutes today come with considerable education, as well as with ministry and work experience. The diversity among new members presents a number of challenges for formation as well as for life and ministry in many religious institutes.

Younger ... and not necessarily younger

Looking more closely at the numbers, it becomes clear that, in fact, not all newer members (those who have joined since 1993) are particularly young. When it comes to women’s communities, a sizeable proportion of those entering are over age 40. According to the survey of new members, the average age of entrance is 30 for men (median age 27) and 32 for women (median 29). However, there is a 10-year gap in average and median entrance age between women in institutes belonging to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and women in institutes belonging to the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR). According to the survey of religious institutes, more than half of the women in initial formation in LCWR institutes (56 percent) are age 40 and older, compared to 15 percent in CMSWR institutes.

Ethnicity shifts as church population shifts

Compared to finally professed members, those in initial formation are more likely to come from non-Caucasian/white/ Anglo backgrounds:

  • 21 percent are Hispanic/Latino(a),
  • 14 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, and
  • 6 percent are African or African American.
  • About 58 percent are Caucasian/white, compared to about 94 percent of finally professed members.

The differences in ethnicity and culture present a challenge for religious communities. Since a sizeable proportion of the people coming into religious life are not from European descent families, religious communities must consider whether the community’s internal “culture” (customs, preferences, worship and prayer styles, foods etc.) is flexible enough to welcome someone different. Communities may need to adapt both to distinct ethnic cultures and distinct generational cultures.

Catholic schooling matters

Looking at another aspect of the background of newcomers, the NRVC-CARA survey found that about nine in ten were raised Catholic, and most (73 percent) attended a Catholic school for at least part of their education. About half attended parish-based religious education. One in seven (14 percent) of the new members from the Millennial Generation (born since 1982) was home-schooled for at least some period of time.

Life experience under their belts

Newer members tend to be an educated group. By and large, they are coming to religious communities with at least a bachelor’s degree (70 percent have a four-year degree). They also have solid work and ministry experience. More than nine in ten were employed before entering a community, usually in a full-time position, and about seven in ten were engaged in ministry before entering, one-third on a fulltime basis and about six in ten on a volunteer basis. Many were also involved in various parish ministries and/or other volunteer work.

More than two-thirds (68 percent) of the new members first considered religious life by the time they were 21, with a little more than half (53 percent) doing so by the time they were 18. Female respondents are a little more likely than male respondents to have thought about a religious vocation at a young age, that is, before the age of 14 (27 percent compared to 19 percent). Men were a little more likely to first consider religious life when they were college-age, that is, between the ages of 18 and 21 (28 percent of men compared to 20 percent of women).

These numbers provide the broad brush strokes of the findings from the study. As this edition of HORIZON is being completed, communities are already beginning to study and interpret the data so that they can better adapt their vocation efforts to the current reality.

Sister Mary Bendyna, RSM is a Sister of Mercy of the Americas and executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Mary L. Gautier is a senior research associate at CARA where she edits CARA’s Catholic Ministry Formation Directory and The CARA Report.


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