What I expect from a vocation minister

What I expect from a vocation minister

WHEN I WAS ASKED to write this article, I was moved to say yes, not just because I am presently in leadership, but because of my many years of vocation ministry. “What do I expect of a vocation minister?” The opportunity to respond to such a question was too good to pass up, especially as I now view it from the perspective of leadership.

In my first attempt to respond I found myself thinking, “Now don’t make this so long and involved and ambitious that all the current vocation ministers would want to resign by sundown, and anyone considering the ministry would quickly conclude, ‘This certainly isn’t for me.’”

Writing this invited me, as a leader, to do some soul searching as well. I was tempted to dig out all sorts of books and articles, including some that I’ve written myself over the years, and start quoting from all kinds of people and sources. I resisted that temptation and tried to allow myself the time and space that any attempt at answering this question deserves.

I concluded that I don’t need to articulate one more time the challenges that are integral to religious life today. I will not take up the space naming them, though there is no denying their impact. I also don’t want to waste another breath trying to decide whose “fault” it might be that these challenges exist, and whose “responsibility” it is to “fix” things. But it did occur to me that to invite someone to be a vocation minister within this community of apostolic women religious in today’s church and world is nothing less than a profound profession of faith.

Releasing someone for full-time vocation ministry has long been the tradition in the Mankato province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Writing this article prompted me to take a closer look at what we as a community are saying when we name someone for this ministry at this point in time. I don’t think that we can take this lightly. As I see it, the community is saying that we believe that this is a life worth living, and we want others to join us. We are saying that we care deeply about the future of our newer and younger members, that we believe in them and we want them to have peers for the long-haul. We are proclaiming that our founding purpose still has relevance in the world today and that we are passionate about mission and our educational vision. We are saying that we believe that our charism needs to be carried into the future by vowed members, as well as by our colleagues and associates. This is indeed an act of faith, inviting someone to participate in a ministry, the sole purpose of which focuses on the future, unknown as that future may be.

With that as the backdrop, what do I expect of a vocation minister? Having been a part of vocation ministry for so many years and having the chance to work with new vocation ministers along the way, another temptation creeps in—to define the ministry and perhaps the minister solely according to roles and responsibilities. And the fact of the matter is there are many hats that a vocation minister is asked to wear. Try out this list. A vocation minister is an assessor, a discerner, an animator, an educator, an awareness raiser, an evangelizer, a mentor, a model, a witness, a companion…to name just a few. And yes, I do expect anyone engaged in vocation ministry to look for ways to address these areas of responsibility.

However, I believe it is of key importance that vocation ministers realize they cannot do it all or be it all. And I find it nearly impossible to comment on what I believe a leader has a right to expect of a vocation minister without noting that we as leaders need to expect something from members as well. Each of us and all of us as community members need to be held accountable for how we help to shape the future life and mission of the congregation. That said, I can appreciate the old adage that “when everyone is responsible, no one is.” While all of us are asked to be a part of this effort, we do need a person with the skills, as well as the responsibility, for particular aspects of vocation ministry.

My list of vocation minister roles addresses the many aspects of the “doing” part of this ministry—and I am, indeed, all for the doing. As much as vocation ministers dislike the question, “How many are coming?” the fact is we do want to welcome new members. On the other hand, it is an effective vocation minister who is willing and able to say “no” to someone for whom the fit would not be good for the person or for the community, even when this means some members will not understand the decision. The role and responsibilities of the vocation minister need to be clearly articulated, understood, carried out and supported. But as I see it, that is only part of the picture.

The development of the interior life of the vocation minister is a critical dimension that needs to go hand-in-hand with the “doing” of this ministry. It doesn’t necessarily answer the question regarding what I expect of a vocation minister, but it certainly describes what my hope would be for anyone in this ministry. I realize that an interior life is critical in any ministry or way of life, but the very nature of vocation ministry positions one to be faced time and again with the very questions and concerns that are front and center for the discerners with whom she is journeying.

So what are some elements of that interior life or disposition that I would hope for and look for in a vocation minister? I would name them as following fashion.


I expect to see a manifestation of energy and life from a vocation minister, the kind that can only come from a deeper place than what naïve optimism allows. I would expect a vocation director to have life and to have a life, providing a clear indication that she is striving to be integrated, whole and healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, with an ability to relate to and be at home with a variety of people and situations. To choose life and religious life assumes a deep commitment to the future, as well as to the present.


Without a sense of humor and the ability to laugh and take things less seriously, a vocation minister cannot thrive or maybe even survive. But what is needed goes beyond laughter. It is about deep-seated joy that no external circumstances can diminish or destroy. This quality allows a vocation minister to look in the face of adversity and admit that the ministry is not all about her nor all up to her.


A vocation minister needs to trust herself as well as her skills, so as to initiate and assess a response in others, those who are considering religious life, as well as the members of the community and others with whom she comes in contact. She serves as the conscience of the community at times by reminding members what it is that potential candidates seek in us, from us and with us. I expect a vocation minister to constantly explore ways to connect with members and others, to engage them in the ongoing efforts of vocation ministry, constantly broadening the base of participation and involvement, tapping into the creativity of others.


To hunger for knowledge is a given, but to be open to learning is essential, recognizing that truth and wisdom can be experienced in some unexpected ways and places. It involves facing your limitations, embracing ambiguity and uncertainty, especially when it means helping other people make life-changing decisions about their future. It involves understanding the culture from which today’s candidates are coming and gleaning what it is that they have to teach and share. And it can mean acknowledging mistakes or disappointments and having the willingness to try again.


Unfortunately even with all of the available resources for vocation ministers, there is no manual or blue print that provides you with the answers you most need or want. Vocation ministry involves a leap of faith time and again. Reliance on God, fidelity to prayer and contemplation, ongoing dialogue with others, study and courageous creativity are some of the best tools of the trade and serve as the foundation for risk-taking. But in the end it means moving forward with courage and confidence and inviting others to do the same. It is a matter of stepping out of the boat without knowing if you will sink or not.


Timing is a critical element in making a vocation choice. Vocation ministers at times need to know when to provide a bit of a push, but they also need to know when to wait, to pause, to linger. It means being faithful to the process, the journey, as well as the response of another. Above all it means being respectful of and honest with the persons engaged in discernment. To wait, to be patient, to ponder with another is a great art, especially in the context of a society that expects everything to move quickly to a definitive answer or response.


This is a critical time for religious life as well as for the church as a whole. To promote a way of life that is not understood or appreciated by many is no small challenge. It demands fidelity to the founding charism and purpose of your congregation, as well as to the church. It means being willing to be one with the broken and the imperfect and attempting to stay at the table of dialogue, even when the legs of the table are wobbling or broken. It invites a willingness to accept your own fragility and brokenness, trusting that you are still enough. And at times it means daring to ask the tough questions.


Above all, I expect a vocation minister to be a person of passion and compassion, someone who is consistently in touch with her own younger heart’s desire. If she is truly convinced of God’s love and action in her life, it can fuel the ongoing God-quest for the long haul. In turn, I expect an openness to being transformed, to having her world-view stretched and changed daily. I expect that her awareness and response to the urgent needs of the earth and its people will be the driving force in how she invites others to respond with the one life they’ve been given to share.

“What do I expect of a vocation minister?” To say it simply, my prayer, my hope and, yes, my expectation of a vocation minister would be that she live, laugh, lead, learn, leap, linger, limp and love. Our constitution states, “The congregation of the School Sisters of Notre Dame came to life when God’s call found an answer in the hearts of people strong in faith, farseeing in vision and courageous in action.” That is what was needed then and these are the ingredients that are needed now more than ever, in the hearts of members, as well as our vocation ministers, and certainly in the hearts of those who join us now and in the future.

Catherine Bertrand, SSND is a long-time vocation director, former executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference and currently is provincial leader of the Mankato Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.


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