Religious Orders Go Online To Find Members

'You Can't Sit Behind A Desk Waiting For Someone'

August 26, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,

When Patricia Dooley began to wonder a few years back what her life would be like if she were a nun, she did what she'd been doing for years as a newspaper reporter and editor: She hit the Internet.

That's how she found the Congregation of Sisters of Bon Secours. The international Roman Catholic order, which has its U.S. headquarters in Marriottsville, has invested heavily in an online presence, with a stylish Web site, pages on Facebook and LinkedIn, videos on YouTube and a vocations director on Twitter.

"I was very impressed with what I saw," says Dooley, 51. "I really didn't know much about sisters and religious life. So I went online and I read about these sisters and how you got involved and what they did, and that they were nurses and the kinds of work that they did, and the way they lived their lives and the way they believed, and I got onto some of the books that they read. ... And then I called Sister Pat."

The Virginia Beach woman became a candidate for the Sisters of Bon Secours at a welcoming ceremony this month. The path she took - her first contact with the order coming online - is an increasingly common one. As the decades-long decline in new vocations threatens long-established ministries in hospitals, schools, and other organizations, religious communities are moving online in the hope of drawing a new generation of members.

A landmark study of recent vocations in the United States released this month found that 87 percent of religious orders and institutes were using the Internet to attract new candidates, and that 81 percent of their youngest candidates found the online information to have been at least "a little helpful" in helping them discern their call to religious life.

The study, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University for the National Religious Vocation Conference, concluded that Web-based outreach "has the strongest impact on new membership" among the available media options. "That is, those who reported that they use the Internet ... are more likely to report having new members."

Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, says the Web has become "an essential tool.

"Given fewer religious," he says, using the church term for the member of an order, "the chances of meeting, say, a priest, brother or a sister - it is not as common as it used to be 30 years ago. If we are to meet the millennial generation, we have got to be there where they are. And that is on the Internet."

In that spirit, his organization has sponsored an online outreach of its own: a matchmaking site. As Bednarczyk describes it, "We took the secular concept of Love Match or and applied that to religious life." Men and women considering taking vows may log on to voca, answer questions about the types of community, prayer and ministry that they are looking for, and get a list of potential fits. Some 7,000 have done so over the past year.

That's more than a tenfold increase in queries from the old paper-based method. The National Religious Vocation Conference still publishes an annual guide to religious communities with cards that can be returned to request more information. But the most cards it has ever received in a year was 600, according to Patrice Tuohy, executive editor of the VISION Catholic Vocation Guide.

According to Tuohy, 91 percent of Love Match users say they are seriously considering religious life, and 5 percent who filled out profiles last year report they have now entered religious life. "There's no question in my mind that the rise of the use of the Internet has been a huge benefit to religious communities," she says, noting that information is much more accessible online.

At the Sisters of Bon Secours, Sister Pat Dowling, the national vocations director, has seen the impact of Web outreach. When she became the order's chief recruiter eight years ago, she says, "if we got 60 inquirers during the year, you know, I thought that was pretty good." But as the sisters' online presence has grown, so has interest in joining: The number of queries jumped from 199 in 2007 to 263 last year, and Dowling expects another increase this year.

The sisters, who number about 40 in the United States, operate a national network of hospitals, including Bon Secours Baltimore Health System. The order has welcomed eight new candidates in the past five years - nearly enough, Dowling says, to sustain membership at the current level. She credits several factors, including political, economic and social upheaval, a younger generation grown accustomed to community work through school service project requirements, and having a full-time vocations director. She sees her online efforts as another factor.

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