Put the Web to work for vocations

Put the Web to work for vocations

By Kathleen Wayne R.S.M.

VOCATION MINISTRY IS AN EVER CHANGING, ever evolving adventure! Sisters I have lived with tell of how they went to the motherhouse, met Mother Superior, and shortly thereafter joined the community. Even my experience with a vocation minister during college seems archaic in light of the experiences I have witnessed during nine years in this ministry. As a college student, my initial encounter was with a sister who knew me from my campus community. Today the initial encounter with an inquirer often comes electronically from another part of the country. Over the last five years, approximately 50 percent of the women I have worked with in ongoing discernment have been contacts that originated over the Internet. In addition, because of our use of Web sites and chat rooms, we have seen an increased number of initial inquiries from women. Clearly technology and new modes of communication have changed the face of vocation ministry. And while this is an exciting time, it also raises legitimate questions about how to best respond to electronic inquiries and how to best use technology to spread the word that religious life is a viable life choice today.

I share here what I have learned about new forms of technology in an effort to help us in our common ministry of walking with those who desire to respond to God’s call. Let me begin with my own community’s experience. The Sisters of Mercy are currently in our fifth year of providing an Internet site that includes information on discernment, our foundress Catherine McAuley, the vows and frequently asked questions. The site includes a message board that is very active with prayer requests, reflections on Scripture readings and questions our members pose. In addition, we provide a nightly “chat room” where women come together for support and information sharing.

 

TECHNOLOGY TERMS

Blog A Web site with entries made in journal style, often including text, photos and links to other sites. Derived from “Web log.” Blogs often provide commentary or news on a particular subject, such as food, politics, or local news; some function as more personal online diaries.

Chat room A Web site whereby multiple people take part in a typed, real-time discussion. Instant messaging or IMing is a form of real-time communication between two or more people based on typed text sent over the Internet through a software specifically designed for instant messaging.

iPod A leading brand of portable media players. These hand-held devices, used with earbuds, are mostly used for playing music.

Message board A Web-based written discussion on a particular theme that does not take place in real time but is ongoing. Also called an Internet forum, discussion board, discussion group or bulletin board. MySpace.com, Facebook.com Social networking Web sites that offer interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, groups, photos, music and videos.

Podcast An audio file distributed over the Internet.

Text message A written message sent between cell phones. Also known as SMS, or Short Message Service. YouTube.com A popular, free video sharing Web site. Users can upload, view and share video clips. .

 

Many of the women we are in contact with are college students. While a personal encounter is necessary and ideal in this ministry, students may not have the resources or time to physically come together for weekend retreats, book discussions or regular discernment meetings. Online programming is one way we connect inquirers with each other and with Mercy Sisters. Through our nightly “chat room,” we have discussions and sharing around topics of importance on the discernment journey. We have even been known to host an occasional “cyber party”! That is, we come together for a chat with a specific goal to celebrate a specific event in a chatter’s life. Everything from the food to decorations is imagined by the chatters. It is pure creativity and simple fun. We have also used the site to host book discussions. Those participating commit to purchasing a specific book. A manager (one of our vocation team members) calls the group together for discussion on specific chapters at designated times. All are enriched in their own corner of the world.

While the chat room is a viable alternative for faith sharing when people are in different parts of the country, we acknowledge the importance of personally meeting inquirers. The current structure of our Institute-wide vocation initiative allows vocation ministers in different parts of the country to meet the inquirers in their region. This face-to-face meeting also helps those who staff the online ministry, because they are in close communication with the regional representatives and regularly meet with them. Structures are also in place for women from the chat room to meet each other at various events throughout the year. The next new online program we will host is a Busy Person’s Retreat. Blending prayer, chats focused on a theme and evenings for open forum has created a contagious energy in the chat room!

We hope that having this functioning structure in place will provide a vehicle for future creativity with podcasting and other initiatives. We want to tap into the gifts our sisters have in spirituality, ministry and community to share the good news of Mercy life today. Imagine the possibilities of connecting a person in the rural northwest United States with a Mercy in Santiago, Chile. This gives both the new inquirer—who perhaps is seeking anonymity as she asks her first questions—as well as a person in the formal steps of discernment and application an opportunity to be enriched by the community. And that enrichment can happen from the comfort of a familiar space.

With this overview of my own community’s foray into Internet communications, I offer the following ideas about taking advantage of Web technology in any vocation ministry.

 

QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE SETTING UP A CHAT ROOM

• Who is our target audience? What is our purpose?

• Have we considered safety, especially if minors are involved? A diocesan “safe environment program” coordinator can explain guidelines for the safety of minors. (See http://www.usccb.org/ocyp/sepcoord.shtml.)

• Who is available to support this initiative? Who will be the online managers when the chat room is open?

• What server will we use for this room?

• When will the room be open?

• How will we advertise?

• What screening procedures will we use?

• What will we “do” when we are in chat?

• What is the next step after “meeting” someone in chat?

• What plan is there for face-to-face meetings with chat room participants?

• What type of assessment plan do we need?

Don’t be afraid—explore!

Think of learning and using technology I hit the send button too fast as an adventure that can put you in touch with an audience that is geographically broader and more diverse than you can imagine. Don’t let new machines, language or methods intimidate you.

Explore the Internet and all it contains Don’t be afraid to try different features on your computer. Don’t worry if you make a mistake; some of my most creative moments have come once I attempted to correct things I thought I was doing wrong! I have discovered ways to change fonts, layouts, booklets and even chat rooms. While you might be reluctant to spend time sitting at the computer, seemingly unproductive, remember, the best lessons are taught by practice.

Explore cell phones, iPods, palm pilots and other devices to be familiar with the world of the young people you hope to attract. This familiarity can help you understand how they function in today’s society and how they expect to communicate with others. Spend some time looking at blogs and Web sites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. This will help you to enter into what has become normal daily activity for some. The goal is not simply to collect more gadgets to use in our ministry or car, but rather to come to a new level of understanding of the young people we hope to meet and invite. Some of what seems like pure gadgetry may in fact give us quicker, more effective ways of communicating with them.

Surround yourself with people who know more than you

Talk with other vocation ministers: what works for them? How could new ideas and new technology be incorporated in your programs? Explore Web sites of other communities. Investigate what other people are doing.

Ask young adults for guidance. My motivation for doing more with technology has come from asking young people, “How would you do this ministry if you were me? What should I be doing?” From their responses, my community has developed our chat room, Internet site, blogs, instant messaging and a whole new world of communication! Your presence on the Web is essential for connecting with young adults, so ask them what you can do to keep your site fresh, contemporary and interesting.

Find a kindred spirit (or better yet, a team of them) from your community to share ideas and develop new initiatives. It takes effort to sustain the energy needed to investigate and develop new forms of communication. In addition to being a support in the ministry, a team approach in this area can help you focus on goals and challenge you to explore new initiatives when appropriate. Plus it’s fun to share the excitement with someone.

Make equipment, Web access priorities

Understand that certain equipment is necessary for the ministry. While we religious value sharing our material possessions, it will be important for the ministry that you have a computer available for your use. If you are in a position to purchase a computer, consider a laptop. Not only will this provide flexibility (for instance, you can be online and in the community room at the same time), but if you travel, your files will be accessible. If you find yourself stuck in an airport, a laptop lets you use that time productively.

Access to the Internet is critical! DSL or cable Internet service provide high-speed access without frustrating community members who may need to use the phone while you’re online. Wireless access provides a great deal of flexibility about where you can work on Internet-based tasks. Be clear about what you need to do your ministry effectively. Unlimited Internet access at the office and at home is not a luxury in our ministry.

Set clear goals

Be clear about what you are hoping to accomplish. What are the goals of your ministry? How will technology help you to meet these goals? If you view this ministry in terms of connecting with various people in different areas, sharing information about your community and inviting people to meet your community, you will need to plan how to achieve your goals. As our vocation team planned the goals for our ministry, it was clear that we wanted the majority of our time to be spent meeting and engaging single women. This gave a broad parameter to the “how” of the ministry. The Internet was a viable option in meeting this goal. Creativity and evaluation was key in developing our planned approach.

 

WHAT DISCERNERS SAY ABOUT USING THE INTERNET

“During the time I was discerning, I had difficulty finding other young adults to connect with that were going through the same process as me. The chat room gave me the opportunity to connect daily with others who had similar questions about religious life. It gave me the support I needed to begin the next part in my discernment toward religious life.” —Jenny age 29, Pennsylvania

“The Internet has allowed me to make connections not only with sisters but with others in the discernment process. These connections have allowed me to visit, pray and serve with a regional community hundreds of miles away. The sisters have provided a chat where I can ask questions and learn about community. In addition women in the discernment process have given each other mutual support. This support is critical, as we may not know others in our area asking the same questions. When I first began the discernment process, it helped to acquaint myself with the different religious communities in my area and make initial contact with vocation ministers.” —Renee age 22, Ohio

 

What is your purpose in being online or accessible with cell phone, pager or other devices? Who is your target audience? What are the end results you desire? We were clear that we wanted to get the message out that religious life is still a viable option and that the Sisters of Mercy are continuing to respond to the needs of our world. We wanted to invite young women to “meet the Sisters of Mercy.”

What support do you need to accomplish your goals? Does your community need to recruit personnel or set up systems for face-to-face meetings with inquirers? Do you need to put systems in place for publicizing retreat opportunities, Come and See events or other types of outreach?

A goal-setting, strategizing period might also be a good time to set policies about identity. It’s helpful to clarify how you want to introduce yourself online. A certain amount of anonymity is provided by the Internet. A person can take to maintain the expectations you have for social maturity and relational skills. Be careful not to lose perspective in this important area. The Internet has also changed how personal boundaries are defined by some. Personal information, for some individuals seems easier to share with “cyber friends,” but is not always appropriately shared. As stated earlier, effective ministry must include the opportunity to become personally acquainted with those who are inquiring about your community and to observe their ability to relate with others.

Develop next steps; evaluate

Once you “meet” an inquirer online, what will happen next? My experience says that initially you let the person take the lead in asking questions. At some point, you’ll want to have a face-to-face meeting, so it’s important to have systems in place to allow for that. The Mercy Sisters have ministers in various parts of the nation who meet personally with inquirers. We develop relationships only with women in the United States at this time. If a person from outside the U.S. makes contact, we refer her to the Mercy community in her country.

Online our managers and vocation ministers are careful to document conversations with “chatters.” When an inquirer requests more information or asks specific questions, she is connected with the vocation minister in her area. Specifics are dealt with in a personal encounter. The Internet is used for general questions, conversation and prayer.

Having these structures in place so that inquirers can take the next step is essential, and it is just as important to have a next step for your overall approach to technology use. That means you’ll need to evaluate what you’re doing. Invite a team of people who support vocation ministry to regularly evaluate your use of technology, especially the Internet. Ask young adults in discernment about your Internet use. What was helpful; what could be made better?

Have fun

Enjoy the energy of the new people you will encounter! Many an evening I sit in the living room of my home and laugh out loud (LOL) at the conversation in chat. I think the women I live with would like to participate just for the opportunity to laugh. I have had the good fortune to meet many of our chatters personally and to connect sisters and inquirers throughout the nation. The online members support and encourage each other. We celebrate important moments in creative ways, even fashioning cyber-birthday parties (no calories!).

You can share this excitement with the larger community. We invited the president of one of our regional communities to be a guest speaker in chat. A new candidate who was an active member of our site helped her learn the “how to” of a chat room. Even our Institute president, Sister Mary Waskowiak, RSM, has come online as a guest speaker. I can honestly say she is amazed at the conversation and fresh hope the women shared with her. To encourage our membership to participate—at least in posting messages on the site in response to the inquirers’ questions—we held a chat over the Internet which was projected in the meeting room of one regional community’s assembly. The sisters witnessed the managers “talking” with the young women and were able to ask questions of the young women. We were the highlight of the assembly! The energy for promoting vocations and part in different Web sites without revealing an identity.

Considering the considerable time and energy it takes to participate in various sites, we have opted to always identify ourselves as Sisters of Mercy. It has been our experience that people who are seeking information about religious life appreciate our being up front about our identity. The title “Sister” and the initials “RSM” give others an opening to ask us questions and give us the opportunity to speak specifically as Mercy Sisters.

Set limits

How will you stay connected with people who are inquiring about your community? It has been my experience that once you connect with people electronically, the relationship needs to be nurtured and developed. This takes time and energy and does not always happen during “normal business hours.” As ministers, we need to be clear about boundaries on our time, especially when evening time is required.

Know the amount of time you can spend online or on the phone. And be aware of when your target audience is most available. We have found that setting aside an hour nightly for chat works very well. We can manage the site; and the women who chat know the limits and respect that we sisters have a community life outside of the chat room. As ministers we need to take control of our time. Voicemail, e-mail and away messages on the computer are appropriate ways to help inquirers understand that, while important and valued, they are not the center of your life. At the same time, it is important that we do respond to our messages in a timely manner.

There are important limits when developing chat rooms. They fall into two areas: privacy and safety.

Privacy In order to safeguard against abuses that have become more frequent online, systems need to be in place to safeguard the community as well as the people you invite in to chat. The Sisters of Mercy have chosen to develop a chat room site that is listed on a server but is restricted to registered members. If a person asks to join our group, it is the responsibility of one of the site managers, from our vocation team, to screen the person. We have developed an e-mail message that is sent out to the person. It stipulates clearly the purpose of the room and who is eligible for membership. Once the person is approved, she has access to the message board and the chat room.

Safety To be in compliance with our understanding of safety norms set by the United States bishops, we have committed to have one of the site managers in the chat room whenever it is open. Her purpose is to monitor and guide the conversation. In addition, the managers have developed a system of keeping each other informed if inappropriate behavior occurs. As managers we have the right to ban a person from the site. This tactic is employed after conversation with the individual who is abusing the system. We must not forget the assessment skills that are necessary in this ministry. Being alert to problematic situations and people is extremely important. Keep in mind, too, that Web-based communication has its limits. In some ways it has changed the way people relate to others. It is revealing to discover Internet contacts who speak of “their friends” or “my best friend” in reference to someone that they know only online. Whether online or face-to-face, you’ll want welcoming new members is very high in that community now. The members there are helping the vocation ministers encourage young women to “think Mercy.”

As ministers who desire to use every possible way to meet people interested in religious life, it can be exciting to make good use of Web technology. It is a wonderful gift at this time in our history. But it is a gift that must be used wisely. As with any initiative, we need to honestly evaluate what we are doing and how we are using this tool to better share our story and invite others to join us on the journey. Putting the Web to work for vocations is an ongoing, ever-changing process and a very necessary one in this ministry. Good luck and happy surfing!

Kathleen Wayne, RSM is a full-time vocation minister serving in the evolving New York, Pennsylvania, Pacific West Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. She has served in vocation ministry for nine years.



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