Membership makes a difference in attracting new members

Membership makes a difference in attracting new members

The 2009 NRVC-CARA study of newer members of religious institutes is a gift to the church and to religious life. If we choose to give this study our full attention, it has the power and potential to put vocation ministry and new membership front and center and to make new membership a priority. Religious communities have the choice to put the results of this study into their current of consciousness. When they do that, things happen!

The study reveals that religious institutes that have made concerted efforts around vocations and in some way have given vocations priority status have been successful in attracting and retaining new members. One section of the study looked at characteristics of communities that have succeeded in attracting and retaining new members and reported this:

Many of these institutes made a decision at some point to do something about vocations and new membership. In some cases, the decision came from a chapter or assembly, and in others it came from leadership. Whatever the case, the institute decided to be proactive and to invest some resources into vocation promotion. This took a number of different forms, including appointing a vocation director and/or team to work on vocation promotion, making financial resources available for vocation promotion, educating leadership and/or membership about vocation promotion, and developing a plan of action.

In a recent article in Human Development, “Refounding Religious Life,” Ted Dunn observes something similar:

“Regardless of the odds, communities at a crossroads stand a better chance if their choices are proactive. The road ahead may be challenging, and the statistics daunting. Each community must decide if it will be among the 75 percent that become extinct or will be among the most courageous and innovative communities risking it all to claim a future full of hope.” The focus on making a choice reminds me of the passage in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I have set before you life and death…choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.”

More than marketing

The NRVC-CARA study also suggests, however, that good intentions, sophisticated marketing campaigns and the investment of resources into vocation promotion alone will not attract new members. It is the “example of members and the community life, prayer life and/or ministries of the institute that most attract new members.”

This is where members come in! Membership makes a difference. A poignant finding from the NRVC-CARA study is that more than anything else, new members were attracted to their particular religious institute by the example of its members, and especially by their sense of joy, their downto- earth-nature, and their commitment and zeal. Some 85 percent of newer members said the example of members attracted them “very much.” This finding reminds us that we, the members, are the greatest asset to our religious institute and its future. We are not only responsible for our own vocation but for attracting and nurturing the future of our institutes in the vocations of those who will come to us.

The role that membership plays in attracting new members was noted by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in its 2002 document, Starting Afresh from Christ: a Renewed Commitment to Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium (17):

Care for vocations is a crucial task for the future of consecrated life. Every community and all its members of the institute are called to take on the tasks of contact with youth, of an evangelical teaching of the following of Christ and of handing on the charism. Young people are searching for others who are able to propose styles of authentic evangelical life and ways of arriving at the great spiritual values of human and Christian life.

Further emphasis on the crucial part that we as membership play comes from the 1996 Vita Consecrata (109):

An impassioned love of Jesus Christ is a powerful attraction for those other young people whom Christ in his goodness is calling to follow him closely and forever. Our contemporaries want to see in consecrated persons the joy which comes from being with the Lord. Consecrated women and men, old and young alike, live faithfully your commitment to God, in mutual edification and mutual support! Despite the difficulties you may occasionally encounter, and despite the lessening of esteem for the consecrated life in certain quarters, you have the task of once more inviting the men and women of our time to lift their eyes, not to let themselves be overwhelmed by everyday things, to let themselves be captivated by the fascination of God and of his Son’s Gospel.

We members are critical to the future of religious life. We are the greatest and the best resource that a congregation has. By tending to the findings of the NRVC-CARA study, there is power, with God’s grace, to renew religious life by rediscovering the unique gift of this form of life. Again, we find a valuable perspective in the 2002 document Starting Afresh from Christ: a Renewed Commitment to Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium (13).

The difficulties and the questioning which religious life is experiencing today can give rise to a new kairos, a time of grace. In these challenges lies hidden an authentic call of the Holy Spirit to rediscover the wealth and potentialities of this form of life.

Questions prompted by the study

Let’s take a look at the findings of the study and see what they might invite us to as members—as the greatest resources that our congregations have for attracting new people. Perhaps you’ll want to take some time to reflect on these questions in light of information that the study revealed.

What was your age at time of entrance? According to the survey of new members, the average age of entrance is 30 for men (with a median of 27) and age 32 for women (with a median age of 29).

What is your race and ethnic background? Compared to finally-professed members, those in initial formation are more likely to come from a background other than white or Anglo: 21 percent are Hispanic or Latino; 14 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, and six percent are African or African American. About 58 percent are white or Anglo, compared to about 94 percent of finally-professed members.

At the time of entrance, what was your experience in education, life, ministry and work? Seventy percent of new members had at least a bachelor’s degree before they entered. More than nine in 10 were employed, usually in a full-time position, and about seven in 10 were engaged in ministry, onethird on a full-time basis and about six in 10 on a volunteer basis. Many were also involved in various parish ministries and/or other volunteer work.

Compared to men and women religious in the last century, those coming to religious life today are much more diverse in terms of their age, racial and ethnic background, and life experience. Many come with considerable education, as well as ministry and work experience.

Challenges and action possibilities for members

The diversity among new members presents a number of challenges for formation as well as for life and ministry in many religious institutes. How will we meet these new members? How will we make ourselves visible to them? Will we reach out to invite them? Will we make room for them in our communities so that they feel welcome and feel that they belong? Will we make room for them so that their gifts and talents can be reverenced and used? Will we show that we care to know about them and what interests them? How are we willing to bridge the gap (in age, ecclesiology, etc.) between new membership and current membership?

Were you raised Catholic? Did you receive a Catholic education or attend a parish-based religious education program? The survey of new members found that about nine in 10 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.

Challenges and action possibilities for members

Since the study shows that Catholic education has made an impact on many of those discerning a vocation, how can and do we members connect and collaborate in Catholic environments, be they schools, campus ministry programs, volunteer programs, youth and young adult opportunities, etc.? These are opportunities to make our presence known and valued as consecrated religious men and women.

When did you first consider religious life? 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 versus 20 percent of women).

Was there a particular person from your congregation or an experience that you had with the congregation that attracted you? New members 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, new members were attracted to their particular religious institute by the example of its members, and especially by their sense of joy, their down-toearth nature and their commitment and zeal. Some 85 percent of newer members say the example of members attracted them “very much.”

What part did spirituality, community life and prayer play in your attraction to religious life and in particular to your religious institute? To only a slightly lesser degree, most new members also say they were attracted to religious life by a desire to be of service and a desire to be part of a community. They were attracted to their particular religious institute by its spirituality, community life and prayer life. Although the ministries of the institute are also 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 men than to women among new members.

Challenges and action possibilities for members

Members are attracted, often at a young age, by the example of members. What opportunities or occasions do we have to actively participate in promoting vocation awareness? How do we give witness to the fact that we are happy and fulfilled in our lives as consecrated religious? Do we recognize and engage each encounter with someone as an opportunity to offer a positive image and witness to religious life?

Given the significance of prayer to those who participated in the study, when and how do young adults see our contemplative side, our prayer life? Do we connect with them on these levels, and do we provide prayer and contemplation opportunities as ways for them to come to know us? Do our current communal lives of prayer sustain us, let alone our new members?

Community life holds great significance for newer members. How are we willing to accommodate healthy community experiences for them? How can we be creative in passing on our charism, spirituality, mission and tradition of prayer in new and engaging ways to new members?

How did you first come to meet your religious institute? How many religious men or women did you know or were you aware of when you entered religious life? The study showed that newer members in religious life first became acquainted with their religious institutes in many different ways. The most common form of first contact was through an institution, such as a school where the members served (36 percent). Other relatively common ways of connecting were through the recommendation of a friend or advisor (28 percent), through working with a member of the institute (19 percent), through a friend in the institute (16 percent) and through print or online promotional materials (17 percent).

Men were more likely than women to report that they first encountered their religious institute in a school or other institution where the members served. Women are more likely than men to indicate that they learned about their institute through the recommendation of a friend or advisor.

Older respondents were somewhat more likely than younger respondents to have met the institute more directly, that is, through working with a member or through a friend in the institute. Younger respondents, especially those in the Millennial generation, were more likely to have first heard about the institute through the recommendation of a friend or advisor or through print or online promotional materials.

Some younger members did not know a man or woman religious before they sensed a call to religious life. They acquired direct experience with the institute and its members through “Come and See” experiences, discernment retreats and other opportunities to spend time with members. Direct experiences were especially important for younger members.

Challenges and action possibilities for members

Where do we minister and volunteer our time, talent and treasure? Where are we present so that young adults might meet us and come to know us? Do we make time to be available? Where can we be proactive in making our mission, charism and presence clear, visible and identifiable? How are we visible and identifiable to young adults? Are we willing to be seen and known as consecrated religious? Are we comfortable being known as father, sister or brother?

What have been your living situations since you entered religious life? What have been your ministry experiences? 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 community prayer being especially important to them. Responses to an open-ended question about what most attracted them to their religious institute reinforce the importance placed on communal life.

When asked about various living arrangements, most new members prefer to live in a large community (eight or more) or medium-sized (four to seven) 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. Young men and women considering religious life today are not interested in living alone. In fact 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.

When asked about various ministry settings, most new members indicate a relatively strong preference for 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 new members, especially in the youngest age cohorts, prefer ministry with a non-Catholic or non-religious organization or even one that is Catholic but not sponsored by their institute.

Challenges and action possibilities for members

Young adults want to give their lives to something bigger, greater and significantly worth their whole life. They want a life that offers them something and expects something of them. What is the quality of our life together? Do we actively live together and share in the joys and sorrows of one another’s lives? In terms of ministry, will we listen to them and what they desire for fruitful ministry? In order to choose life we will need to let go of what no longer gives life. Are we willing to let go of places, ministries and relationships to which we were once called but now are no longer life giving?

What kind of support (from parents, family, friends, priests, etc.) did you have when you entered religious life? Many new members did not experience a great deal of encouragement from parents, siblings or other family members when they were first considering a vocation to religious life. Many also did not receive much encouragement from diocesan priests, people in their parish, or people in their school or workplace. Many report that their parents are now much more supportive.

Most new members report that they received a great deal of encouragement from members of their institute during their discernment process and that members of their institute continue to be their greatest source of encouragement and support in religious life. Most also report high levels of encouragement from those with or to whom they minister.

Compared to older new members, younger new members are more likely to report that they were encouraged by diocesan priests when first considering religious life. They are also more likely to report receiving encouragement from diocesan priests in their life and ministry now. Among other respondents, diocesan priests are least likely to be cited as a source of “very much” encouragement.

Challenges and action possibilities for members

Support of newer members is critical. How do you reach out to newer members? How do they make a way in our community? Friendships, vacation plans, leisure and recreational activities are often already established within a community. New members need to be welcomed with openness and a hospitable outreach that acknowledges that it makes a difference that they are among us. When they enter in fewer numbers or alone, how can they experience the richness of community and ministry?

It is clear that a new and unique generation stands before us, and we have a choice to meet them where they are and to invite them to enrich our communities. They, like us, are coming to pray, minister, live a life in community and unite themselves to Jesus through the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Isn’t that why you came? Hopefully it’s also why you stay. I know that it is why I came, and it is my challenge and prayer every day to live this life authentically and with passion and joy. At this moment, we are being invited to grow in understanding, appreciation and reverence for contemporary vocations. These newcomers may look different to us, but at the heart they may be experiencing very genuine calls. Will we meet those who are called where they are? And moreover, will they find us attractive?

In one of my favorite poems, “The Summer Day,” poet Mary Oliver asks the question, “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?” There is no doubt in my mind that young people today are asking this question, and in response some are even discerning consecrated religious life. With what we have come to know through this study, what are we willing to do as members of religious institutes to help young adults live their one wild and precious life within our institutes so that they feel a sense of welcome, belonging, identity, diversity, support, life-giving and fruitful ministry and community—so that they, too, can live the dream that God dreams in them? If we want new membership, it just may cost us everything!

We stand in a graced moment, a moment in which God beckons us to grasp the grace that is being offered and prosper. Vita Consecrata (64) describes this moment:

Some might ask: Have we lost the capacity to attract new members? I think we must have confidence in Jesus who continues to call men and women to follow him. We must entrust ourselves to the Holy Spirit, who inspires and bestows the charisms of the consecrated life. We must also pray unceasingly to the Lord of the harvest. In addition to prayer, a primary responsibility of all consecrated men and women is to propose with courage, by word and example, the ideal of the following of Christ, and then to support the response to the Spirit’s action in the heart of those who are called.

When we live the gift of consecrated life with authentic witness, passion and joy, the fidelity and wisdom of current membership can unite with the energy, enthusiasm and optimism of new membership, and we might know the truth of the Gospel where Jesus says, “I came to light a fire on the earth, and how I wish it were ablaze.” Let us go forth renewed and committed to the gift of our vocation and to the future of religious life.


NRVC-CARA study of new members
In August, 2009, the results of a study of new membership to U.S. religious institutes were released. The study was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and was commissioned by the National Religious Vocation Conference. The research had four components: a survey of roughly 1,000 religious institutes, a survey of approximately 4,000 members in initial formation or who had been in final vows since 1993, focus groups chosen from the same 4,000 members, and an examination of religious institutes that have experienced some success in attracting new members. The survey results can be found online at


Sister Charlene Diorka, SSJ is associate director of the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) and a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She was a vocation minister for her community for six years and a sister-resident in Elizabeth House for several years prior to joining the NRVC staff.


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