Lay vocation ministers speak out

Lay vocation ministers speak out

By Andrew, Andrew O’Connell, Maryellen Glackin, Andrew O’Connell, Len Uhal, c

Make it a partnership

by Maryellen Glackin

I WAS RECENTLY ASKED TO NAME MY OCCUPATION on a form. There being no check-off box, I wrote in, “Vocation director for the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.” The intake person looked quizzically at the form, “you’re a vacation director for nuns?” “Excuse me”, I said, “that’s VO-cation, not VA-cation!” It always makes for interesting conversation when I tell people about my occupation!

Arm in arm is a good approach to lay-religious collaboration in vocation ministry. From left to right are lay vocation minister (and NRVC board member) Dr. Nan Brenzel; Gabbi Carroll; Sister Mary Soher, O.P.; Sister Patricia Farrell, O.P.; and Molly Allen at the 2013 Los Angeles Religious Education Conference

When talking to students I encourage them to prepare appropriately, then “let go and let God” when it comes to choosing their path in life. I explain how being a vocation director never would have even crossed my radar screen. How could it? Only members did that work for their congregations. Yet, after more than a dozen years of doing this ministry for two different congregations, I couldn’t be happier, more fulfilled, or using more of the gifts and talents given to me by God. (But maybe someday I will try that vacation director job!)

The NRVC-CARA 2009 study on recent vocations to religious life found that having a full time person directing the vocation efforts of the community was a critical factor in the congregation’s ability to attract new members. Because of this, many congregations, including the one I currently work for, have considered hiring a lay person to lead this ministry for them.

Maryellen Glackin speaks during the 2012 convocation of the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC). As an NRVC board member, she helped organize the event.

For congregations hoping to attract new members, finding someone within the community to do vocation ministry can be a problem. For instance, a younger member with the enthusiasm and creativity needed for this ministry might be needed in an external, salaried ministry. Seasoned members with the background and life experience for the ministry may have already been in the position and not be willing to be re-cycled. For some, the reality that the congregation is aging and that there haven’t been new members in 5, 10 or 15 years, may lead them to seriously question the justice of burdening younger women with the realities of aging congregations, making it difficult to find someone within the community to do this ministry.

Over the years, many congregations have called me to discuss how they might benefit from hiring a lay person for vocation ministry. To begin I ask them to describe what they hope a lay person will bring to this role. When listening to what is expressed, their needs fall into a few general categories: skills in modern media communications; ability to understand and relate to a new generation of discerners; an infusion of enthusiasm and creativity into their present vocation ministry efforts.

Just a word of caution—no person, lay or religious, is the magic answer to securing new vocations. For vocation efforts to be successful, full community support, especially from leadership, is important. Having a vocation director (whether lay or a member of the congregation) is the beginning. Supporting vocation ministry financially and with full confidence in the vocation director sends a message to the rest of the congregation that says, “We are committed to the future of our community.”

An honest assessment of the needs and motivations for hiring someone from outside the community is a helpful first step to determine the skill set required from the person to be hired. Following is a short-list of qualifications to consider when hiring someone from outside the congregation. These will obviously depend on what the particular needs are for your congregation.

Understand contemporary religious life

For me the learning curve was not too steep since I had a long list of religious as teachers, mentors, and friends in my history. While it is helpful for the person to be acquainted with the congregation, a general knowledge of contemporary religious life is more important. Once hired, a lay vocation director could find it helpful to connect professionally with other vocation directors in your region because they represent the current diversity of religious life and its unique language with which most lay people are unfamiliar.

Expertise with the age cohort

Experience with people in the age group you hope to attract is important. As a mom with four teenagers, I brought an expertise with young people that was lacking in the first congregation with which I worked. Its ministries were primarily with the elderly and with unwed mothers. I was able to “normalize” behaviors (i.e. cell phone use, piercings, tattoos, pink hair) that seemed strange to the sisters. As my children have grown, they continue to reflect the cohort the congregation is seeking. My kids and their friends help me to stay current with the latest in social media, pop trends, music, and culture. Within Catholicism, their perspective on Pope Francis and the new translation of the Mass, for instance, have been invaluable.

Understand human dynamics Some background in psychology and sociology and the field of counseling or social work is helpful. Vocation directors are the gatekeepers for the community, so they need to understand human dynamics. Awareness of the complex issues surrounding a young adult today is essential. Just ask a young person to define “normal” family life!

Communicate well

Much of vocation ministry takes place in the virtual world. Having someone who is familiar with social media and a variety of communication methods is crucial. This can mean everything from responding to e-mails, to creating a web presence, to having a general comfort with technology. The vocation director doesn’t necessarily need to know how to create a website, but he or she should know how to appropriately represent your community across all social media platforms.

Be rooted in faith

Doing vocation ministry requires the ability to turn your work over to God on a regular basis. I have often commented that it is a real gift that I am not a resultsoriented, but rather a relationship-oriented person! It is essential that a vocation director, lay or religious, be grounded in his or her faith and able to share that faith with discerners. This is how we share “whose” we are with those who want to know “what” we are.

Looking at this list, many of you may notice how hiring someone from outside of your congregation might help fill a skills gap. On the other side is how the community can fill a gap for the lay vocation director they hire. I have always worked as part of a vocation team. Having members of the congregation to mentor and minister with me has been extremely rewarding. My close relationship with them fills the gap in knowledge which comes from being outside of the congregation. I experience their witness of religious life on a daily basis. My working alongside members of the congregation also helps the other members see that vocation ministry belongs to everyone. Hiring a lay vocation director witnesses to the responsibility of every baptized person to nurture church vocations. The lay men and women I know who have taken on this role within congregations take seriously their responsibility to facilitate how others hear and respond to God’s call to live their lives to the fullest.

Hiring a lay vocation director is most beneficial when it is a partnership. Currently, I work with a team that includes a member of leadership, a sister assigned to vocation ministry part-time, and five additional sisters who live and work outside of our motherhouse community. Working as part of a team has always been a blessing to me. The sisters on the vocation team bring the community perspective to our discussions. They help fill in gaps in knowledge about the community that I may miss. They also provide me with that personal, one-on-one experience of who they are so that I can more authentically represent them.

My job description includes attracting inquirers through various methods of advertising and relationship- building, screening them for appropriateness to the congregation, setting up retreats, managing virtual communications, telling the congregation’s story through social media, and representing the community at school talks and youth events. It also includes talking with our sisters on a regular basis to help them understand vocation ministry. This is done through the community newsletter, afternoon presentations for the local sisters, special talks at area group meetings, and a dedicated time at their annual gathering. By handling these tasks, a lay vocation director can free the congregation to do what they do best: being present to those who are interested in your particular community. Lay vocation directors can tell people about you, while you provide the real, living example.

Taking advantage of trainings offered by the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) and collaborating with other local vocation directors can have benefits for the entire congregation. Like many established communities, we are heavy on “seasoned” members who may worry how they can relate to newer members, or how to create space in their comfortable lives to let in new members. Through the many programs I have attended and the other congregations I’m in touch with through NRVC, I am able to learn from the experiences of others who have faced the same fears and concerns.

Efforts to prepare the congregation for newer members are sometimes better received coming from an outsider. The lay vocation director might be seen as the professional and encounter less push-back from resistant members. One common issue is whether it is ethical to invite younger women into aging congregations. Challenging a congregation to see a new way, with the support and encouragement of leadership, can create new life among the members. Even the most cynical community members can be encouraged by positive responses from young adults to unique initiatives. In the end, any way we can generate hope within religious congregations, singly or collectively, we create hope for the next generation.

At the end of the NRVC video, Absolutely Millennial, one of the young religious exclaims, “I don’t know what religious life will look like in the future, but I’m excited to be here!” If you are hoping to re-generate your congregation, hiring a qualified layperson can be a first step in defining that new future for which all of us work and hope.


4 tips for working with a lay vocations director

By Andrew O’Connell 

“IF YOU THINK it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur!” The smiles on the faces of the religious with whom I recently shared this adage was testimony to its truth in the world of vocations ministry! Thankfully there are now many committed lay Catholics with valuable skill sets who want to invest their time and talent in the future of religious life.

I’ve been working with the Presentation Brothers in Ireland for several years now. My job title is “communications director” with a documented understanding that my primary role is to communicate the work and vocation of the brothers. The role could equally be described as assistant vocations director. I work with a brother who is our named vocations director, and I chair our Vocations Strategy Team whose membership includes our youth ministry coordinator and province leader.

As I survey the scene, here are some observations that might help religious congregations curious about the potential benefits of a lay vocation director.

1. Top of the agenda

“Fewer people doing more work,” is how one colleague recently described the demands of religious life today. Vocations directors can often end up carrying several portfolios of responsibility for their religious congregations, and frequently vocations ministry ends up deprioritized in favor of more pressing concerns.

This is less likely to happen when a congregation has a lay vocation director working from a tightly crafted job description and regularly held accountable for his or her performance.

For example, our Province Leadership Team receives a report each month from my office detailing work done and plans for the coming weeks. In addition, I have a regular face to face meeting with the Province Leader to discuss issues arising. In addition, I find myself sharing articles of interest regularly with the brothers and seeking feedback. This level of activity prevents a culture of passivity and inertia from setting in. Vocations ministry is kept on the agenda.

Lay vocation directors will typically occupy this ministry by choice and with conviction. Their enthusiasm in creating new initiatives should make it harder for a congregation to die in peace! It can also be a validating experience for a congregation to see a lay person promoting religious life with energy and belief.

Andrew O’Connell, communications director for the Presentation Brothers in Ireland, frequently speaks to young adults about vocation and the possibility of religious life.

2. Define roles, clarify responsibilities

“We need help with…” is a good place for a congregation to start when considering the roles and responsibilities of a lay vocation director. The Presentation Brothers made it clear to me that they needed assistance with establishing relationships and contacts with their target audience, i.e. young adults. Because I had an interest in media and communications and had good contacts in Catholic youth ministry, I was a good fit for this.

We have always had a brother as our named vocations director, and his contact details appear on our promotional literature. This involvement of a brother is crucial, as it prevents any sense that vocations ministry is now outsourced while also avoiding the danger of burdening the lay hire with the total responsibility for vocations. For instance, several brothers participate in our regular Vocations Weekends, giving testimonies and leading prayer.

Our Vocations Strategy Team meets every month, and we’ve been careful to ensure that it remains a forum for energy and ideas. I’ve seen how vocations committees can easily become wet blankets of tepid commitment and inactivity with semi-engaged members meeting infrequently. Working in a team is important. That statement is more than a cliché. On the good days it’s great to be able to share success. And on the bad days it’s nice to have the support of a co-worker.

My duties range from the administrative to the strategic. I also keep abreast of the literature and provide summaries of recent publications to our vocations team. From time to time, if the vocations director is unavailable, I will meet a discerner and provide him with the initial information he needs.

A community leader weighs in

Our employment of a lay person had its origin in our 2005 General Chapter. The theme was “Sing to the Lord a New Song.” The hiring of a layperson to assist our vocations efforts was one of our new melodies! We also stated at that Chapter that “we believe that our Presentation way of life is an authentic response to God’s call, and we are called to call others.” In other words, we declared our belief in our vocation as religious brothers. Employing a lay person was a concrete way of expressing that commitment.

Andrew O’Connell was already known to many of the brothers, and this helped in the acceptance of his new role as director of communications with a specific emphasis on vocation promotion.

I believe a substantial period of induction is essential for the layperson and for the members of the congregation who are to work alongside him or her. The layperson needs to have a good knowledge of the charism, the spirit, and the plans of the congregation if he or she is to act as a public representative.

The person will often bring useful experiences, practices and skills from his or her previous training and work experience. A religious community should accept these as blessings and attempt to bring them to service of its mission.

Andrew’s work with us has promoted our congregation in Ireland, England, and elsewhere in ways that we did not envision when we employed him. He is able to express an image of Presentation Brothers that is inclusive, relevant, and young—all attributes that the 2005 congregation Chapter would have hoped for in “singing a new song to the Lord!”

—Brother Andrew Hickey, province leader, Presentation Brothers and former vocations director

3. What’s measured improves

It would be unfair to measure success solely by the number of annual entrants. Poor results on that metric does not necessarily mean poor performance. In Ireland the climate in which we are promoting vocations is very challenging. The very act of promoting religious life is something of an accomplishment in itself!

It is reasonable though to measure performance. Tools such as Key Performance Indicators, which are often used in the business world, can be quite helpful. For example, one can measure performance against this statement: “The vocations office will distribute X pieces of literature to Y university chaplaincies over the next 12 months with the goal that Z young adults in the target audience will attend each of our quarterly vocations weekends.” One can readily and fairly measure against that kind of a standard. We also aim to have two solid applicants for the novitiate program each year. This really helps to keep activities in focus and sharpens professional practice.

4. Mind your mind!

Vocations ministry is tough. Period. It is often characterized by disappointment and frustration. There is a danger that lay vocations directors unfamiliar with this unique operating environment will respond with anxiety, dismay, and even workaholism—all of which are destructive. A lay vocation director needs strong and defined support systems, both professional and spiritual. Professional development opportunities, such as a master class in social media, and spiritual supports such as a guided retreat will pay for themselves with increased employee loyalty and satisfaction. The challenge is to keep professionally sharp and spiritually healthy in a climate often colored by decline.

Congregations nervous about taking on the responsibilities of a lay employee could also explore the option of engaging the individual as an external consultant with a regular invoice for services or a retainer fee. There is often help available for structuring such a setup from groups that assist charities and small businesses with human resources needs.

Finally, congregations stand to gain a great deal from the professional expertise and faith commitment of lay vocation directors. It is perhaps a sign of hope that lay people are prepared to be “co-workers for the truth” in ensuring that religious life will be presented to a new generation in a lively and credible way.

My experience as a lay vocation director

By Len Uhal 

IT WAS A SUNNY, BREEZY SUNDAY in June 2003. As the alumni director for the Divine Word Missionaries (S.V.D.), I was struggling to get tablecloths on tables for an alumni picnic. The provincial walked over and asked to chat—so we sat at a picnic table. He said he needed my help. I said, “Sure, Fr. Tom, whatever you need. What can I do to help?” He went on to ask me to take over the national vocation office for the S.V.D.s in the USA, Canada and the Caribbean! And so began my full-time ministry in vocation work.

As a layman, I know that I am an anomaly in vocation ministry. Most vocation ministers who assist candidates with discernment are vowed and/or ordained. When I joined the National Religious Vocation Conference in 2003 and attended my first workshop, I think three laypeople were there. However, there are currently 16 lay NRVC members, and two laywomen have served on the NRVC board.

This emerging reality begs the questions: What is the role of laity in the discernment process of men and women considering a religious vocation? Is it good for a community to invite a layperson to collaborate in vocation ministry?

Certainly the laity has a role in calling forth new leaders for our church. The folks in the pews need to be concerned about, and involved in, the promotion of ordained and vowed religious vocations. While laypeople have more church leadership roles than in the past, we still need religious sisters, brothers, and priests. In the end, the leaders of each religious institute will have to consider whether a lay vocation minister makes sense for them. What I can share are my experiences during 10 years as the national vocation director for the Divine Word Missionaries. A vocation ministry model with a lay director has worked well for us.

Immersed in S.V.D. charism and culture

I am not convinced that formation experience is a necessity to be a lay vocation minister. In my case, however, I was in formation with the S.V.D.s for eight years (four years at our high school and four years of college formation). I left formation after earning my BA degree and just before entering novitiate. I married three years later and now have three children. I pursued a career as a certified drug and alcohol counselor and a licensed social worker, credentials I still maintain. I earned an MS degree in health care administration. During these years I always remained connected to the S.V.D.s—to individual members and to its mission. My family participated in many community activities. I would say the S.V.D. was part of our extended family and vice versa.

Len Uhal and his son, John, meet and greet the public at the 2013 National Catholic Youth Conference. Involvement in the S.V.D. community has long been a family affair for the Uhals.

In 1999 I began working with the community fulltime as the S.V.D. alumni director. In this position I also assisted the vocation office by making initial phone calls to candidates interested in learning more about the congregation. I was no stranger to vocation ministry, having worked for the vocation office as a work-study student in college. I am not the first layperson to work in the S.V.D. vocation office, but I am the first layperson to direct and manage it. While we have three USA provinces, our vocation office is a national, tri-province office where we coordinate all our vocation efforts for the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. In addition to being the national vocation director, I am also the vice president of admissions at Divine Word College, since we own and operate our own free-standing, college level formation program in Epworth, Iowa. I am directly responsible to the provincial and his liaisons, the secretary for education, formation, and recruitment and our college president.

My job description includes, among other responsibilities, supervising the vocation office team, leading the team in strategic planning with long-term goals and strategies, identifying advertising and marketing opportunities, preparing an annual budget, making direct contact with vocation candidates, and assisting them in their discernment process. I plan vocation events such as Come and See weekends, give vocation presentations at high schools and colleges, and attend vocation fairs. We are fortunate to be able to have a large vocation staff. Our current team includes four S.V.D. priests, one S.V.D. brother, a lay support staff member and me as the director. Overall, this setup has worked well over the last 10 years. I find great joy in vocation ministry and consider my work a service to both the universal church and the Divine Word Missionaries around the world. On a daily basis I field phone calls from interested candidates, assign new referrals to specific vocation directors based on a specific “territory” in the country, manage advertising efforts, and establish and maintain the budget. I coordinate out-reach efforts for various events, compile statistics, identify and implement strategic planning, and process all application materials for initial formation with our community in the U.S. (and all applications for non-S.V.D. candidates to Divine Word College).

Len Uhal talks to Divine Word College students about the online features of the college library.

About 60 percent of my job is administration. However, the other 40 percent is the most enjoyable—actually attending vocation promotion events and traveling to meet specific candidates in their homes, hosting them for Come and See visits, and walking with them on their discernment journey. I have individual candidates assigned to me just like the vowed religious vocation directors on our team. The S.V.D. priests and brother on our team dedicate all their time to promoting our community and having direct contact with our candidates. They model the charism of the Divine Word Missionaries. My role in the administrative functions frees them to concentrate on this important aspect of vocation ministry.

Like the vowed team members, I communicate regularly with my candidates, visit with them, meet their families, complete assessment reports on their appropriateness and help them with the formal application process. I am also involved with immigration issues for any international S.V.D. candidates (and international students attending our college). My role as the national vocation director for the S.V.D. is similar to what vocation directors for other communities do.

Generally I think the S.V.D. team has worked well over the years. I have worked with at least 13 different S.V.D. vowed religious members on the vocation team since I started as director. Some have worked a year or two; most have served two, three-year terms, although Father Trung Mai, S.V.D. is completing his ninth year of vocation ministry this summer. I believe there has been a mutual respect among our team members—they respect me as the provincial’s appointee as director, and I respect their role as vowed members of the Society. As in any supervisory position, within or outside of religious life, there have been some bumps in the road as we improve communication and cohesion as a team. However, our common goal to promote the S.V.D. and invite new members to join our mission to spread the Gospel, unites us and helps us focus on our ministry—each of us with our unique role to play in the process.

Effective model for us

Some have said that if a congregation hires a lay vocation director, it reflects negatively on the community—that maybe the congregation is dying. Well, if we just look at the numbers with the S.V.D. model the past 10 years, we have had 217 candidates enter initial formation in the U.S., 66 have professed first vows and 73 professed perpetual vows as Divine Word Missionaries. As a team, I believe we are doing very well, and the Society of Divine Word is very much alive!

Many candidates are surprised that I am not a priest or brother, but they are quite accepting of me walking with them on their discernment journey. In fact, some candidates feel relief realizing that a decision to enter formation is not a decision to profess vows. Many think that once they enter formation it is a “done deal.” They do not realize that formation is ongoing discernment— that some will profess vows and some will feel the Holy Spirit leading them another direction. When I share my discernment journey with them, many seem relaxed and understand the process a bit better.

Every community must decide if collaborating with laypeople in vocation ministry is the right option for them. The Divine Word Missionaries have made a conscious decision to collaborate with the laity in important roles within the Society, including vocation ministry. It works for us. Yes, there are pros and cons. From supervisory and accountability issues, to budgeting, job descriptions, and perception, collaboration can be a challenge. However, when the fit is right, there are many rewards for the lay vocation minister, the community, and the candidates in discernment. May the Holy Spirit bless all of us in this ministry of presence and discernment as we help men and women more fully understand God’s call in their lives.


Maryellen Glackin is vocation director for the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. A counseling psychologist, she is married and has four children.


Andrew O’Connell is communications director for the Presentation Brothers in Ireland, with whom he has had a longstanding friendship.


Len Uhal is national vocation director for Divine Word Missionaries. He experienced S.V.D. formation and is today married and father of three children.



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