What newer members say about discernment programs

What newer members say about discernment programs

By Sr. Mary Bendyna R.S.M.

A CRITICAL ASPECT of vocation ministry is helping those who are attracted to a religious institute to discern their calling. The NRVC-CARA study asked newer members about their participation in discernment programs or techniques and about which practices were helpful. The responses varied according to gender and age of the newer member, and we present the findings here, starting with what sorts of programs or practices newer members took part in.

Most newer members (almost two-thirds) participated in spiritual direction before they entered their religious institute. A majority of respondents also report that they participated in a “Come and See” experience and/or a discernment retreat. About four in ten participated in regular meetings with a vocation director and/or regular visits to communities, while about a third participated in regular meetings with members and/or a live-in experience.

Gender differences

The men religious were more likely than the women religious to indicate that they participated in diocesan vocation programs (34 percent compared to 18 percent) and in meetings with a vocation director (44 percent compared to 36 percent). Note that the question did not specify “diocesan” or “religious” vocation director.

  • Younger new members were more likely than older new members to have participated in “Come and See” experiences, discernment retreats, and, to a lesser extent, discernment groups.
  • Compared to their younger counterparts, Pre- Vatican II and Vatican II generation respondents were more likely to have participated in a live-in experience.

Helpfulness of promotion and discernment activities

The table on page 12 shows the degree to which respondents of various generations found activities and programs helpful when they were discerning their call to religious life. Note that the table shows the responses of all respondents who answered this set of questions.

Respondents report that meeting with members of the institute and visits to communities were the most helpful activities when they were discerning their call to religious life.

Almost two-thirds of the respondents say they found meeting with members and visits to communities “very” helpful when they were discerning their call. Other activities or programs that were also especially helpful include spiritual direction, meeting with a vocation director, “Come and See” experiences, discernment retreats, and live-in experiences.

Diocesan vocation programs and various types of media were considerably less helpful to most respondents.

Generational differences

The age of the respondent is negatively correlated with the helpfulness of most of these activities or resources. That is, the older the respondent, the less likely he or she is to say that these activities or resources were helpful in the discernment process.

  • Compared to older respondents, Millennial Generation respondents were much more likely to report that Web sites, especially the Web sites of religious institutes, were at least “a little” helpful to them in their discernment.
  • Younger respondents are also more likely to say they found print or online promotional materials and CDs, DVDs, or videos at least “a little” helpful.
  • Younger respondents are considerably more likely to say that discernment retreats were “somewhat” or “very” helpful to them when they were discerning their call to religious life (81 percent of the Millennial Generation, born from 1982 onward, compared to 47 percent of the Pre-Vatican II Generation, born from 1961 to 1981).
  • Younger respondents are also more likely to report that “Come and See” experiences, visits to communities, and, to a lesser extent, meeting with a vocation director were helpful to them.

Comments from newer members

The interview and focus group participants identified many different things that helped them in their discernment process, including each of the programs and resources listed in the table. The most helpful were those that involved spending time with their institute and its members. A few specifically mentioned spending time with older members, while others mentioned having a mentor with whom he or she met during the discernment and/or formation process. Some found Web sites very helpful in learning more about the institute and about religious life.

Discernment retreats were very helpful for me, just having a chance to gather with other guys who were thinking about religious life, so going to numerous ones of those sponsored by the [religious institute]. I think the other big one is having a vocation director who knows who you are, knows your history, knows about your family, your likes and dislikes—a very personal vocation director. It was never just, “OK, this guy is calling me.” He would actually [ask], “How are your classes going? What are you doing this summer?” Those kinds of personal touches.

Having a spiritual director is also very helpful in at least my discernment process.

I think the most important part of my discernment was my mentor…. When we signed up to become a contact, we could also pick and choose our mentor and our community, and one of the requirements is like at least once a month you go and visit the community and talk with your mentor. I think it was a very, very important part of my discernment because I didn’t know him and he doesn’t know me but when we met it was like we knew each other for years…. He was just very, very good with you.

And then once I entered, having a mentor was absolutely key….To be able to go to someone, a wisdom figure like her, when the going got rough was just absolutely invaluable to my continuing the journey and deepening it….

…Something that really helped me discern my vocation to the [religious institute] was spending time with our older sisters. They were just the healthiest, happiest, most loving people I had ever known. And I thought, “If this life can produce this, then it’s worth living.” That was very helpful in my discernment.

I searched the Internet for information about religious life. I found some really good sites, but the [religious institute] Web site was up-to-date, changed on a regular basis, had pictures of the sisters (action shots, group pictures, daily activities). It seemed to speak to me as a scared college student, fearful of the calling, and taking the next “public” step. The Web site was good because I could do my own searching without anyone knowing. I could go at my own pace and make my own decisions without anyone knowing. The Web site addressed the fears I had, as well as the stereotypes. One quote that I was attracted to was, “Just because you don’t pray eight hours a day doesn’t mean you can’t be a nun.” Since it addressed the stereotype and my fear, I felt they understood me. They felt like people I could relate to.

Table with info about discernment options

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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