Feed your spirit: What are you really doing?

Feed your spirit: What are you really doing?

By Sr. Melannie Svoboda S.N.D.

YOU ARE A VOCATION DIRECTOR. You have been entrusted with a ministry that is unique, important and challenging. Sometimes your work is immensely rewarding; other times it is ambiguous or even discouraging. That is why it is good to step back from your ministry periodically and reflect on these two questions: As a vocation director, what are you really doing? Where can you find help to sustain yourself in your work?

Foundations of vocation ministry

The apostle Philip provides guidance to an Ethiopian court official and engages in a dialogue with the man.

The first question is this: what are you really doing? Some might say you are recruiting new members for your specific religious congregation. But that answer is far too narrow for today’s reality. It is more accurate to say that, as a vocation director, you are accompanying men and women as they explore ways to use their gifts and talents to further God’s kingdom. Let’s unpack that statement.

A primary part of vocation ministry is accompaniment. You walk with individuals as they discern their futures. This is a sacred task and somewhat daunting. But in doing this work you are in “good company,” for Scripture sets before us a number of individuals who accompanied others in their discernment process. Let’s look at two of them: Eli and Philip. Eli was an elderly temple priest when the young Samuel comes to serve in the temple under his wise direction. During the middle of the night, Samuel hears someone calling his name. Thinking it is Eli, he goes to him saying “Here I am. You called me?” Samuel says no and tells him to go back to sleep. This happens two more times. Finally Eli leads Samuel to recognize that it is God who is calling his name. Eli then helps Samuel formulate a response to that call, a response that is just as apropos today as it was back then: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (I Samuel 3:1-10).

Another individual in Scripture known for accompaniment was the apostle Philip. One day an angel calls his attention to a chariot in which an Ethiopian court official is sitting reading the prophet Isaiah. The official is confused about what he is reading. Philip runs after the chariot, catches up to it, and asks the man, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replies, “How can I, unless I have someone to guide me” (Acts 8:26-40). Philip provides that guidance and engages in a dialogue with the man. Eventually the man asks to be baptized.

Both narratives provide a few insights into your ministry as vocation director. First, Eli and Philip were people of God. That means they were committed to God and had years of personal experience themselves with discerning the mysterious ways of God. Your ministry requires this same kind of commitment to and familiarity with God, with Jesus.

The foundation for your ministry is always your own journey of faith. Another insight is this: Eli was willing to be awakened in the middle of the night to help Samuel. This reminds us that accompaniment can occur not merely at our own convenience, but even outside of so-called office hours.

Similarly, Philip runs after the man’s chariot to talk with him. In other words, he goes where the man is, that is, where the man is physically as well as spiritually. Then Philip initiates the conversation with a question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He begins by finding out where the man is on his faith journey. Effective vocation directors do the same thing. They go where potential candidates are. They ask good questions. They listen well. They guide.

Earlier I said as a vocation director you help individuals explore ways they can use their gifts and talents to further God’s kingdom. Vocation work goes beyond service to your congregation. You serve the greater church. Your ministry also involves more than discerning the call to religious life. It includes discerning the wider and more fundamental call to universal holiness.

Even if individuals discern they are not being called to religious life, your work is still immensely valuable. In the process of accompaniment, you impart skills and insights that will benefit the directees for life no matter where their discernment takes them. Your service to these individuals makes the whole church richer. So do the personal sacrifices, joys and pains that are part and parcel of your work.

Sustaining helps

So far we have looked at what you are really doing as vocation director. Now let’s turn to some of the helps that can sustain you in your ministry. The first I have already alluded to: it is your own deep prayer life. It only makes sense. If you are helping young people in their discernment, then you too must be in discernment every day. And this discernment begins with your personal prayer. Talk to God about your ministry. Share your joys and struggles. Pray by name for the individuals you are serving. Search scripture for courage and enlightenment. Beg Jesus for help. It is also good to regularly reflect on your own call to religious life. What helped you to say “yes” to God’s invitation to join your particular congregation? What helps you to continue to say your “yes” every day?

Always remember, though, the future of religious life and your congregation does not rest on your shoulders. It rests on God’s shoulders. As the old proverb says, “Resign as general manager of the universe!” An effective vocation director is also a humble one.

Your religious congregation can be a second help for you. It is good to find creative ways to involve the larger community in your work. You might begin by keeping the members informed about the activities of your ministry. Many vocation directors advertise such things as retreats, cook outs, evenings of prayer and reflection, service projects, etc. You might solicit help in advance for these activities from community members. Not every member may be comfortable giving a talk, but all members can pray for the endeavor. Others can help setting up for talks, hosting a refreshment table or cleaning up afterward. It can be helpful to follow every activity with a report to your members. Pictures really help, too.

A third aid in vocation work is to believe in the value of religious life in general and your congregation in particular. If you believe religious life has something to offer men and women seeking to serve God, then that makes your “job” easier. If you believe your congregation has the ability to nurture new members to become who God is calling them to be, then this belief will have a positive impact on all you do.

What are some ways we stir the embers of our belief in our congregation and in religious life? One way is to reflect on the history of your specific congregation. I travel all over the country giving talks and retreats. Many times I find myself at congregational motherhouses. When I arrive I always ask for books on the founding of their congregation. If they have a heritage room, I spend some time in it. As an outsider, I am always impressed with the history of each congregation, the heroic women and men who founded it, the courageous works these religious accomplished, often with meager resources. I suggest every vocation director regularly ponder the roots of her or his congregation. When I ponder the early history of my own congregation, for example, I often find myself saying, “How did those women do it?” or “And we think we have problems!”

But pondering one’s history is not enough. It is important to be in touch with the contemporary life of your congregation. How do you do this? One way is to keep up with the current news about your congregation. Visit and contribute to its website regularly, read all the general communications to your congregation, and even visit some of your members where they are now serving. Another way to keep in touch with the vitality of your congregation is by visiting your retirement or health care center and entering into conversations with these seasoned members who incarnate your charism and spirit so well.

And, finally, it is good to be connected with other vocation directors through meetings, publications and programs geared to this special ministry. You will find support and insight for your own ministry through this contact, and many vocation outreach efforts work best with the presence and collaboration of many communities.

Hanging on to hope

Vocation ministry involves the future. And the virtue needed to face the future is always hope. We are living in difficult times. I say this realizing we could say the same thing about every age. Every age has its challenges, struggles, ambiguities, pains and heartaches. As we religious watch our numbers dwindle, we might be tempted to think God is deserting us, or we are doing something drastically wrong. When such negative thoughts plague me, I remind myself that one of the major themes of the Bible is this: God chooses the lowly and the few to accomplish the great and the wonderful. Moses was a lousy speaker. Jeremiah thought he was too young. Gideon’s army kept shrinking. And Mary was a poor teenage girl living in a town no one ever heard of. Yet God worked marvels in and through them.

I am reminded of that passage from the prophet Habakkuk that is a part of the Divine Office:

Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines;

though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;

though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.

(Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Talk about a bleak situation! No figs, no grapes, no olives, no flocks, no herd! And yet the psalmist can still exult in his saving God. Now, that’s hope! The passage graphically reminds us that our hope is not in things, in size, in numbers. Our hope is not in our intelligence, creativity, hard work or goodness. No, our hope is in God. In God!

Similarly at the Last Supper there was little reason for hope. Judas was about to betray Jesus, Jesus was about to be arrested, and the other disciples were about to run away. And when Jesus hung on the cross, it certainly looked like The End. Yet it was precisely at these seemingly unpromising moments that God was working marvelous things: birthing the church, destroying evil, conquering death, and bestowing salvation upon humankind. Who knows what marvelous things God is working in and through you as you serve as vocation director?

But vocation ministry is not only a work of hope; it is a work of faith and love. You plant rather than reap. You water even when you see no growth. You pour your time, attention, and care upon those individuals God puts into your life. Then you entrust the fruits of your work to God. Yes, that is what you are really doing as a vocation director. And what’s more, with God’s grace, we do all of this with joy. With great joy!

Sister Melannie Svoboda, SND is a Sister of Notre Dame of Chardon OH. Currently she gives talks and retreats nationally and is the author of 11 books. Sister Melannie has served as novice director and provincial and has taught at the secondary and university levels.


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