Last year, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Louis decided to revamp the way it does vocation and formation, moving from a single vocations director to a team made up of the last four women to join the congregation. That team includes Sr. Amy Hereford, the woman who wrote the book on the future of religious life — or at least one of them.
Since December, the team has been changing the way the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Louis talk to and reach prospective candidates. Eight months in, Hereford spoke to Global Sisters Report about what the team has done so far and what they hope to accomplish.
GSR: How did your community come to this model of vocation/ formation?
Hereford: Actually, it was not all that exciting. Our vocations director was toward the end of her time, and the leadership said, 'OK, let's get all the people who are interested in this topic together to talk about what we might do.' They called it a 'dreaming weekend.'
Now, it just so happened that a couple of months prior to that weekend, our congregation had invited all of the sisters under the age of 60-something — basically the youngest two generations of sisters, but we still comprise maybe 3 percent of the congregation — invited us to get together for conversation. We came up with a document saying, 'Here's what we're going to commit to, and here's what we're going to ask of the congregation.' One of the things we committed to is vocation/formation work, and we asked the community to entrust that to us.
So we were fresh with this fervor when we came into this dreaming weekend. We were already primed for that conversation. That's how we kind of got to this model. And we've taken that and then developed it further ourselves.
Why did it make sense to have this new team be made up of the 'last four in the door'?
You know, interestingly, it's obvious to me and most people outside religious life, but it was kind of a little risky and a little avant-garde for the sisters. It was like, 'Oh. You all can do it? By yourselves?' I happen to be older than the president of the United States, I think I can do this [laughter].
But we're still considered the young sisters, even though two of us are in our 30s and two of us are in our 50s — we're still young sisters. One of the 30s and one of the 50s is temporary professed, so they're kind of new to religious life. The other two of us have been in for longer.
And what have you been doing differently?
Well, we've had vocation teams as opposed to an individual, so I think the biggest difference is that it was in the hands of people 60 and over, and now it's in the hands of all us under 60.
You might imagine that we have a bigger social media presence. Almost the first thing that happened is we got our domain name and put up a blog; we knew we were going to need a blog, a Twitter name and an Instagram name, so we picked that in December. So I think certainly the social media presence is much, much different. Much more robust.
Also, how we view religious life is different than somebody who's older. I'm still in active ministry, and I expect to be in religious life another several decades. We talk about inviting co-creators — I'm inviting people who are going to help us through this transition over the next several decades. I'm inviting people I'm going to grow old with, whereas some of the older folks are looking at successors.
Also, we're reaching out to our own generation. On our team, we have two millennials and, between the two 50s, I identify more Gen X and the other one identifies more Boomer. So we've got three generations covered, and it's primarily the millennials and Gen Xers that we're reaching out to. I don't want to say [past efforts] weren't effective, but I think we bring a different energy to it.
As a reporter, I often hear younger sisters say they aren't able to take on leadership roles in their communities, but it sounds like you've been quite successful in this effort. What advice do you have for other young sisters who would like to take on more congregational responsibility?
That's a tough one. I know we have a couple of groups. You've probably heard of Giving Voice, and there's also Sisters 2.0, which is the group that founded Giving Voice and has now aged out of it. I think we need to support one another and do what we can. Connect with other folks in your generation across congregations.
I reflect a lot about this, and I write about this as well. It's a challenging time when you're that kind of tweener generation. We're not the oldest folks but we're not the youngest folks, and we have the leadership roles in our ministries, but [we] really just need to be taken seriously within our communities. I think that's beginning to shift. But just beginning. So I would say connect with other folks.
I do civil and canon law for religious communities, so I'm out working with different communities all the time, and more and more, I think that our elders are getting to the point — they're not all there yet, but they're getting to the point where they want to start turning things over.
Now, that's not going to happen overnight. But I also, for myself, I don't really feel called to leadership in my own community. I think a lot of the tasks that they're doing aren't the ones that give me energy. This vocation thing does. I get a lot of energy around it.