The vocation impact of full-time volunteering

The vocation impact of full-time volunteering

By Carol Lackie, Katie Mulembe, c

Volunteer Cecilia Cuesta worked at the Santa Teresita Medical Center as part of the Serving with Sisters program of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles.

To learn more about the connection between full-time service work and religious vocations, HORIZON asked the Catholic Volunteer Network to report on what it has learned in general and what findings have come out of its “From Service to Sisterhood” initiative. Catholic Volunteer Network is a membership organization of some 200 Catholic lay mission programs and was the recipient of NRVC’s 2016 Harvest Award for outstanding vocation promotion.

THE CATHOLIC VOLUNTEER NETWORK (CVN) has found that full-time service is a transformative experience for not only the people being served, but also the volunteers themselves. Many depart from their time of service with a deeper faith, strengthened commitment to working for social justice, and a better understanding of their vocation. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, one of the largest CVN member programs, has coined the phrase “ruined for life” to describe the irreversible impact of a year of service.

In fact we’ve documented that impact. In 2013, CVN commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) to conduct “Volunteer Introspective,” a study of faith-based volunteer program alumni to develop a greater understanding of the long-term impact that the service experience has had on their lives.

We found that across the board, compared to the U.S. population, former volunteers have more active faith lives, more fulfilling careers, and increased engagement with their local communities. One of the interesting findings was that 37 percent of the 5,051 individuals surveyed reported having considered a vocation to religious life or the priesthood. Of those, 27 percent stated that they had very seriously considered it. Another 35 percent indicated that they had somewhat seriously considered it. For Catholic Volunteer Network it was interesting to learn that nearly half—48 percent—of those who considered priesthood or religious life did so during their volunteer service. It is clear that there is a strong connection between the volunteer experience and vocational discernment.

While volunteers frequently contemplate a religious vocation during their time of service, those of us with CVN have observed that space and time are essential elements of the discernment process. Very few volunteers seem to go straight from their year of service into religious formation; instead they typically go back home, work for a couple years and then return to the idea of intentional community and religious life at a later time. The relationships they’ve built and the powerful witness of lived religious life are the elements that stick with them. For vocation directors, what makes sense is not so much a “recruitment program” for volunteers but an approach of developing friendships with volunteers during their time of service and keeping the door open during the years afterward.

This contact with volunteers is not just for communities sponsoring a program themselves, but it should flow naturally from a solid relationship. Vocation directors whose communities don’t sponsor volunteer programs would need to first build a relationship with directors of volunteer programs in their region. By first getting to know these directors and their needs, vocation ministers can then offer to help, perhaps with spiritual direction or a retreat or by placing volunteers in a community-sponsored ministry.  CVN’s online directory can help vocation directors locate the volunteer programs in their region.

“From Service to Sisterhood” launches

Soon after CVN released its report on the vocational impact of volunteering in 2014, it began to develop the initiative “From Service to Sisterhood.” This initiative aimed to strengthen the vitality of women’s religious congregations by expanding the number that offer faith-based volunteer programs of their own. Experience has shown that women’s religious congregations thrive when women join their volunteer programs. Volunteer programs give sisters new, energetic platforms for sharing their charisms and have resulted in powerful collaborations between a congregation’s active ministry and efforts to promote new vocations.

Under its “From Service to Sisterhood” initiative, funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Catholic Volunteer Network has been able to provide financial assistance to 16 women’s religious congregations interested in starting volunteer programs of their own. The total amount of funds disbursed has exceeded $700,000.

Catholic Volunteer Network has received much positive feedback from our new members about the progress made through this initiative. What they have accomplished is exciting and inspirational and is most powerful when shared in their own words. We asked our grantees to share with us their impressions of the young women who joined them in ministry and also how the presence of the volunteers impacted the other sisters in the congregation. Sister Virginia Herbers, A.S.C.J., from the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus located in Hamden, Connecticut, answered:

The young women who participated in our From the Heart volunteer program were well received in the service sites by the local communities of sisters. A mutual sharing of mission and passion for service was evident in staffs and the volunteers. Volunteers’ expression of appreciation for the work of the congregation at the various sites brought renewed enthusiasm for mission to our sisters. The experience of shared prayer and evening reflections created an openness and dialogue between the young women and our sisters.

Several of the volunteers expressed curiosity and interest in our way of life, allowing our sisters to share their own personal journey of God’s call. Two young women continue their contact with our congregation through the sisters they met during their service experience. One young woman requested application for entrance to our congregation’s formation program. This ongoing relationship with our congregation is encouraging to our sisters and motivates our leadership team to continue investing in our volunteer program.

After the experience of two successful volunteer weeks at various locations, our congregational leadership is convinced of the value of a volunteer program that expands our community’s charism of sharing Christ’s love through service, community and prayer. Our leadership recognizes that connecting with young people is essential to the vibrancy of a volunteer program. To emphasize this priority, our leadership team is supporting the transition of our program from two part-time directors to one director, a sister with the availability, resources, and experience to more effectively connect young people to our mission.

We know that for some congregations setting up and maintaining a volunteer program might be beyond their capacity. Acknowledging this potential challenge, three congregations, two in South Dakota and one in North Dakota, joined together to launch a joint program—Benedictine Volunteers, Inc. The program director, Patricia Nguyen, offered the following reflection on the effect the presence of the young women has had on the sisters:

Volunteers re-energize and extend the sisters’ mission beyond their own abilities. They bring energy and young vitality to the community. Young people bring with them an enthusiasm for life that is infectious. There is more joy and laughter. Volunteers seek mentorship and wisdom from the sisters.

The women serving with Benedictine Volunteers, Inc. have enjoyed the profound experience of serving alongside sisters while discerning their own vocations. Molly, the first volunteer for the program, spent three months working in the Mother of God Monastery gardens, an assisted senior living facility, the Benedictine Multicultural Center, and Habitat for Humanity. She says: “The sense of community I felt with the sisters made all the difference in my experience as a volunteer. If I leave with something, it is a better sense of balance in my life that the sisters have taught and modeled for me.”

Molly added that the discernment program that was part of her experience taught her new skills in learning how to do lectio divina and be more discerning in her life’s decision making.

Volunteer Natalie, who worked in a variety of projects, from the monastery gardens to an after-school program, said:

This program is such a great fit for me. I feel so welcome, at home, and inspired by the sisters. I’m in a stage of my life where I am not sure where God is calling me to be. To have the opportunity to serve others, to explore a variety of ministries, and to pray and discern my call in community is so amazing. I am surrounded by mothers and grandmothers who have so many life experiences to teach me.

Consciously connecting with volunteers

A key aspect of any volunteer program hoping to attract vocations is the interaction between the volunteers and the sisters. We have stressed this with our grantees and asked them to discuss their efforts in this regard. For the Benedictine Volunteers, Patricia Nguyen explains:

Sisters play active roles in supporting and mentoring volunteers. At Mother of God Monastery, one of the ways we engage the community is to offer Molly and Natalie a weekly community companion, a mutual opportunity for sisters and volunteers to get to know one another more closely. Each community is engaged in the spiritual development of our volunteers by hosting discernment weekends. Sisters are invited to participate in faith-sharing and discernment weekend activities with the volunteers. Volunteers garner wisdom from the sisters’ stories and ministries. Sisters are enlivened and refreshed by the youthful energy and enthusiasm of volunteers.

Volunteer Laura Leon plays Duck, Duck Goose at Little Flower Educational Center in Los Angeles during the summer program, Serving with Sisters.

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, guided by Sister Faustina, hosted an especially enthusiastic program in the summer of 2015.  For two weeks, three sisters lived with the nine young women, ages 20-26, who were accepted for the program. They shared prayer, meals, recreation, and experiences of service.  

An important part of their program was an orientation that covered topics such as femininity, personality, teamwork, and communication. The orientation was crowned with a ceremony before the community’s Holy Hour in which the young women’s hands were anointed with blessed oil as all the sisters prayed for them.  

During their time together the sisters and volunteers worked in the sisters’ local elementary schools and helped out at their retreat center, retirement home and child care facility. A high point was when volunteers joined the congregation’s current candidates for a mountain hike and picnic. While serving, many volunteers met with a sister to discuss their spiritual life and vocational discernment. Sister Faustina reported:

The Serving with Sisters volunteers were deeply grateful for the opportunity to enter into our Carmelite charism and experience the tremendous joy that comes from a life of prayer, community, and service.  During the two weeks, they were able to experience serving in all our apostolates and interact with many of our sisters. All of these young women have continued to keep in contact with us and are eager to remain connected with our community even though most of them live out of state. Two of the young women are meeting with me monthly to discern and prepare for candidacy.

The volunteers themselves reinforced Sister Faustina’s positive sense of the program. One wrote: “My desire is that more young women will be given the opportunity to enter this oasis of God’s love and mercy so they ask the questions which have been weighing on their hearts.  It is a life-changing experience.”  Others reported:

• By being immersed into service and religious life (without the pressure of entering), I have learned to rely more on Jesus’ Sacred Heart as a source of love and mercy.  I have also learned what it looks like to give myself as a gift to others in a radical and beautiful way.  Regardless of whether my vocation is to marriage and family or religious life, I am going home with a more generous heart.

• This program holds the secret to having a happy and fulfilling life. It enables you to see the world through Christ’s eyes. With our eyes fixed on Jesus we can do anything because he gives us his strength. I used to think the religious life was boring and rigid, but I’ve come to realize that it is actually the opposite!  Religious life is so balanced and full of LIFE.

When asked about the long term impact of the volunteer program, Sister Faustina offered the following:  

Our volunteer programs continue to provide a safe place for young women to get to know the sisters and discern their vocation. This year (2015), four of our 10 candidates were able to draw close to our community ... and then applied for candidacy!  Many of our sisters have expressed that being involved in these programs is renewing for their own vocation.  Nurturing young vocations is very life-giving and certainly adds vitality to our community.

Spiritual growth a highlight

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange drew from a familiar formula for their program, the St. Joseph Worker Program. This program, which originated in the Twin Cities area, now exists in cities across the U.S. The program is built upon the four pillars of justice, leadership, spirituality, and community; it aims to provide a transformative experience for the young women who participate. The newest program in Orange, California began in 2015 with three volunteers serving in healthcare and education. One of the volunteers wrote this about the community living experience:

Challenges only separate us if we give up. It is precisely because we are a team that we can know that when things are tough, we will keep going and supporting each other. Every day we get a chance to give each other grace and keep going. And at the end of the year, our community will have built some unknown, intangible and beautiful creation.

Another volunteer was drawn to the Saint Joseph Worker Program’s core values and the chance to find and foster the gifts for service that God is developing in her:

As I was finishing school, there [were] overwhelming  choices and pressure to apply for jobs. My heart continued to go back to working a year through the CVN. I felt a strong need to develop deeper into the person God was truly calling me to be before I jumped into a career. I believe the core values of this program—spirituality, social justice, leadership, and community—will help me develop into that person.

From Service to Sisterhood has given us numerous, real-life examples of the positive impact a volunteer program can have on the sponsoring congregation and the volunteers themselves. Through service, rooted in faith, young adults have the opportunity to develop deep and meaningful relationships with people in consecrated life. This exposure proves to be life-giving for both volunteers and communities. Because of these positive experiences, many people who serve with a CVN program take their own vocational discernment much more seriously than those who have not had this type of exposure.

The stories shared here reflect only a few of the thousands of lives changed through service every year. As religious communities continue to embrace the powerful impact of a faith-based volunteer experience, we can hope for many more transformed lives in the future.




Katie Mulembe is the manager of outreach and engagement for Catholic Volunteer Network, a member organization of  Catholic lay mission programs that offers supports and service opportunities.


Carol Lackie is the organization’s Sisters Initiative coordinator.


Related resource in HORIZON

“Ruined for life: transforming lives, discerning vocations through volunteer programs,” by Sister Mary Medved, S.N.J.M., HORIZON 2005, No. 4.

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