What are the best practices for “Come and See” events?

What are the best practices for “Come and See” events?

By Joel Schorn, c

THIS PAST SUMMER HORIZON ASKED members of the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) to respond to a questionnaire about their discernment events. The survey was prompted in part by the 2009 NRVC-CARA study of recent vocations to religious life, which highlighted the importance of discernment events in attracting new members. A total of 130 vocation ministers completed the survey questions and filled in specific information about their discernment events.

The results presented here reflect what communities are doing and what they find effective or ineffective. At the same time the survey information might challenge vocation ministers to consider other discernment event methods and perhaps raise questions about what they are now doing.

Inviting discerners to discernment events

Almost everyone reported using some kind of personal invitation to discernment events. Other methods a majority of respondents used were: community websites, e-mail and parish bulletins. Fewer than half publicized their events on Facebook or the VISION Vocation Network Events page (a space on the website vocation-network.org where vocation ministers can place free announcements about vocation events). More than two-thirds of respondents did not limit, or only sometimes limited, publicity to specific geographic areas.

Age ranges of discerners

A large majority of communities accepted discernment participants between the ages of 18 and 40, with a significant but somewhat smaller number raising the age threshold to 30 or 35 or the ceiling to 50 or 55. A relatively small number went over 50 or below 18 or reported only a minimum age limit or no age limits.

Screening attendees

By far the most common form of screening those who wanted to attend a discernment event was through direct personal contact between the vocation director and the attendee, either in person, by phone, e-mail or in a couple of cases with Skype. A large number of communities recruited discernment event participants not from the general public but from people they were acquainted with already or who had previously inquired: associate members, students at their community’s sponsored institution, etc. Some also sought referrals and references from parish clergy, and others did standard screening of participant background and interest-level, but almost an equal number (12 percent) did no screening at all. A smaller number evaluated attendees during or immediately after am event.

Scope of discernment events

Almost three quarters of discernment events addressed both general life discernment and discernment to a particular community, but not many focused only on general life discernment. Several events were aimed at helping to discern a vocation to religious life, whether that meant the possibility of joining their community or not.  

Collaboration with other groups

Many communities have engaged in collaborative efforts with others at some point, either within their provinces, with other congregations, or through their NRVC region, though some noted that they regularly collaborate with other communities but not for discernment events. Many also reported working with diocesan vocation offices or otherwise cooperating at the diocesan level on discernment events. Almost as many who did collaborate, however, reported they did not.

Structured around a theme?

Not surprisingly the most common focus for those who organized their discernment events around a theme was the process of discerning a life’s call, a vocation to religious life in a particular community, or both. Almost 70 percent of respondents indicated this focus. Several communities also structured their events around an introduction to community life, the ministries of the community, and prayer and Scripture. Over 40 percent also utilized the liturgical year in organizing event content—especially the seasons of Advent, Lent and Holy Week—or they built the content around professions, jubilees or other events in the community.

Use of formal discernment tools Most communities did not use a formal, existing discernment resource, like a book, pamphlet, or course. A number, however, did and identified that they used one or more of the following:

  • Father Ray Carey’s behavioral assessment tool
  • Vocation ministry resources such as “I Heard God Call My Name” by Sister Timothy McHatten, OP; “God, Give Me a Discerning Heart”; Vocations Anonymous by Sister Kathleen Bryant, RSC; and the Jesus Calls Women DVD
  • Ten Evenings with God by Ilia Delio (Liguori Publications)
  • Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality (Loyola Press) and other books by Margaret Silf
  • Three Key Questions video by Father Michael Himes

A fair number used the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola (in addition to the Silf book above) or another presentation of Ignatian discernment. About the same number utilized existing community discernment resources and someone skilled in using them. Others mentioned practices like spiritual direction, lectio divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, and devotions. One respondent expressed the need for new resources in this area.

“Come and See” quick facts

  • 73 percent of religious institutes offer “Come and See” experiences.
  • 68 percent of new members who took part in “Come and See” events found them “somewhat or very much” helpful, with younger members particularly positive. 

-Source: NRVC-CARA study of new members 

Involving others in the community

Most vocation directors communicated news of an upcoming discernment event by e-mail blasts to members, information in the community’s newsletter, or via the community’s website. Only two reported using Facebook or a blog. Most relied on word-of-mouth and personal communication with others in the community, and in several cases professed members were asked to recruit people to attend the discernment event.

During the events themselves the vocation/formation/ new membership teams naturally played central roles. “Come and See” organizers also drew heavily on the presence of novices and others in formation, seminarians, student brothers, and other candidates. While a number of communities involved retired sisters in the events, many also had newer, younger members be part of the event leadership. Some vocation directors opened participation in the event to anyone in the community, while others invited particular members in order to insure a cross-section of community representation.

They also called on members who were qualified to make presentations on vocation discernment and various aspects of community life. In some cases a community’s associate members or vocation committee that may include lay members were part of planning and staging the event. Some communities also made a point of including congregational leadership, if available, as well as representatives of different community ministries.

One respondent spelled out in detail the way she involves others in her community in discernment events:

  • A letter is written every January to every member of the community reminding them of National Vocation Awareness Week and offering suggestions on how they might continue to be a welcoming and inviting community.
  • Every sister receives brochures throughout the year to distribute to women who might be interested in attending a discernment event, and they are also asked to post them in places where a young woman might pick them up and be interested in more information.
  • In August a list is published of all upcoming community vocation events for the entire year. Also listed are events in which they collaborate with other religious communities as sponsors, for example, Nun Runs and various places where they will have their vocation booth. Members are reminded that every sister is a vocation promoter—that is in their constitutions.
  • All sisters in initial formation and temporary profession are asked to be part of the discernment weekends; they know it is a requirement.
  • Some sisters are engaged during the weekend as panel presenters, and some are invited to be “companions” at a liturgy, a noon meal, and about an hour of one-on-one conversation with the discerner.

On this last point, several communities had professed members act as partners/companions/mentors for each discerner throughout the event.

Kinds of activities at discernment events

The chart above shows the fairly even distribution of the main activities taking place during “Come and See” events. “Other” included the following, presumably in addition to some or all of the things mentioned in the chart:

  • One-on-one meetings with the vocation director
  • Opportunity to meet retired sisters
  • Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
  • Theological reflection
  • Spiritual counseling
  • Immersion in community life
  • Service opportunities or other exposure to ministries
  • Liturgy with the community or at a local parish
  • Free time
  • Emmaus walks
  • Singing
  • Introduction to formation process
  • Overview of ministries
  • Art
  • Facility tours
  • Visits with associate members, oblates, etc.
  • Sightseeing

Charging discerners for the event?

A large majority of communities, 75 percent, did not charge discerners for attending a discernment event. Of those who do, amounts ranged from $10-$50, especially if an overnight stay and meals were involved. Many also asked for or left open the possibility of a free-will offering. A significant number, though not most, provided subsidies, in particular for travel.

Follow-up

Vocation directors overwhelmingly used phone calls and e-mail to follow-up with discerners who have attended a discernment event. Almost as many also extended an invitation to a future community event—longer discernment retreats, meals, service opportunities, vow ceremonies, spiritual direction, and others. A smaller but substantial number also wrote letters or cards or had face-to-face meetings. A handful used the event evaluation as a springboard for further contact, enlisted a mentor from the community to contact the discerner, and/or put the attendee on a newsletter mailing list. A few had no follow-up at all or were unstructured about it.

New media did a little better in this category than others, with more respondents mentioning using Facebook as a follow-up tool as well as connecting via blogs, text messaging and chat rooms.

Most and least effective practices

The approaches and activities reported to be the most and least effective show many of the tensions those in vocation ministry face; what worked for some didn’t for others. Still, some fairly clear patterns emerged regarding what communities found to be more successful.

Many respondents talked about the importance of balancing the communal and personal aspects of the discernment event. Most said the best things about an event were, on the one hand, personal contact and one-on-one time with the discerner and, on the other hand, the value of the discerner meeting the community and getting involved in community life. One respondent reported that what discerners want to know about most is what it is like to live in a particular community day-in and day-out.

A large number said it was important to have the discerners participate in community prayer, meals, recreation and celebrations, but at the same time they should have time for personal prayer, reflection and contemplation—what one respondent called “processing time.” The challenge was to find the balance between talking and quiet.

There was also a lot of support for having discerners meet members of the community in formation. Other practices communities recommended: inviting discerners with whom the community is already acquainted; allowing time for personal sharing; offering question-and-answer sessions; having a member of the community companion or “shadow” a discerner for the duration of the event; and cooperating with other congregations and dioceses in organizing discernment events.

When it came to least effective practices, in one case a respondent noted difficulties with getting pastors to publicize the discernment event. Another cautioned those conducting the event to really listen to participants, rather than talking too much about their own experiences of vocation and religious life.

Group dynamics among the discerners was also an issue. Some respondents said it was important to cultivate the participants as a group—to have them connect with one another. At the same time it was noted that one difficult or out-of-place discerner can negatively affect the experience for the others. Having a good mix of discerners was important—a result screening of participants could bring about.

One area of differing responses involved just what to present to discerners. While many agreed it was good to avoid lengthy presentations and lectures during which the discerners merely sit and listen, some saw the need to provide information on the nature of religious life in general—because discerners know so little about it and may be familiar with it through only one community—while others thought getting too in-depth about religious life was overwhelming for discerners.

To address these issues, some communities said they were moving or had already moved to events that begin with a general life discernment model, possibly going on from there to discernment in the context of religious life and their community in particular.

A second area of difference had to do with scheduling. Some communities used short events, while others favored longer ones to give participants a better sense of the community. Larger questions, however, arose about whether to schedule discernment events at the same time each year; whether to repeat the same content and format for every event; the difficulty of scheduling around the busy lives of young people; and how to get discerners to commit to attending and actually showing up.

Another less effective practice some respondents mentioned: having the event off-site away from the community’s actual residence (but, some said not to bore the discerners with facility tours!). Some noted the problem of discerners receiving a negative image of the community during their visit and stressed the importance of providing a welcoming and hospitable atmosphere, while at the same time not “putting on a show” that inaccurately reflects daily community life.

_________________

It’s my hope that by showing what communities are and are not doing with their discernment events, the results of the survey will provide a kind of clearinghouse of recommended discernment event ideas. They also offer communities a mirror to hold up to their own events in order to see what they might do differently. “Come and See” events seem to be here to stay as a useful way to give discerners a taste of religious life and a time to reflect on their individual calling.

Joel Schorn is a member of the NRVC editorial board and serves as managing editor of the VISION Catholic Religious Vocation Discernment Guide. He is also the author of Holy Simplicity: The Little Way of Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and Thérèse of Lisieux and God’s Doorkeepers: Padre Pio, Solanus Casey, and André Bessette, both from Servant Books.

 



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