Sometimes it seems to me that the language of business has become the language of the world. We freely use concepts such as branding, opportunity cost, and market niche, regardless of how familiar we are with their technical meanings or nuances. Some cynics might think our business-tinged newspeak is the lamentable result of an increasingly hegemonic capitalist culture. When used well however, business concepts can be used to clarify thinking and plan strategically in various sectors, wherever efficiency is prized (which is not to say everywhere).
I have heard several people compare vocation ministry to marketing, an analogy that I half-embrace. Because there is a portion of this work that can benefit from the field’s insights, I don’t find the comparison crass—rather I try to examine where there may be useful similarities to mine versus important differences calling for a distinct approach. Most obviously, although increased publicity may result in increased inquiries and a higher number of entrants into Marist formation programs, my focus when speaking with individual inquirers is on the good of the individual in front of me. After all, it would do neither him nor us any good to bring him into a life to which he doesn’t seem suited. The question of personal fit is key.
Sometimes I am asked why anybody would become a Marist Brother today. This question tends not to come from people who undervalue our vocation, but rather those who are committed either to living it or to supporting it as a Lay Marist. Often they hope that I can formulate a clear value proposition concise enough for an elevator pitch. If we just had the magic sound bite, tagline, or tweet, our job of selling the Marist Brother vocation would be a cakewalk.
Maybe it’s possible, so I certainly want to hear any good idea you have… however, I am skeptical.
I seem to remember Bro. Sean Sammon (our former Superior General and current novice director) once describing religious life as an affair of the heart. A sunset, a poem, or a good meal: Can one formulate a value proposition for any of these? I imagine even the most compelling attempt put forward would fall flat next to the actual experience. Although a total inability to explain your love for somebody might indicate its lack, the belief that you can neatly and exhaustively provide the reasons behind your feelings probably indicates an insufficient love as well. There is a depth and mystery that always leaves something more. If you truly persist in peeling an onion one layer at a time, you only find the center when the thing itself is all around you.
Even if I could sum up what lies at the heart of my vocation to life as a Marist Brother, the tagline that would attract somebody like me could just as easily attract somebody who doesn’t actually have this call. It could also fail to connect with somebody who does. So much depends on the particulars of one’s own personality, background, and experiences. My attempts to provide a clumsily inadequate description of the joy my vocation brings me may prove marginally helpful at times, but I find it hard to believe that they could be truly enlightening.
I think we make a mistake if we assume the need to present a clear “value-added” to eligible Marists that would lead them to consider becoming a brother. We should certainly invite them and witness to the joy of our lives: Some will feel drawn in by this, while others will not be. At least as important, we must introduce the Marist approach to those who are inclined to consider religious life but don’t yet know us. Any number of people might feel this call within their hearts but not recognize its object they encounter us—that was certainly the case for me.
Neither can we invite somebody straight away into life as a Marist Brother, but rather to learn about what that life is like. We can invite young men into an encounter with us via short-term experiences and ongoing accompaniment. Over time, whatever dream of religious life initially piqued their curiosity will either strengthen or diminish and they will consider life as one of us more seriously or come to rule out that possibility. A significant part of my job is to help that happen in whichever way it is meant to.
None of this means that I will abandon catchy slogans and attractive photos. After all, sometimes the first step is just getting somebody’s attention. I just don’t think any piece of writing or marketing is going to truly be what guides our next crop of Marist Brothers toward finding their vocation.
You just have to come and see.
God writes a different song for each of us—you are the only one who can dance to yours, and I am the only one who can dance to mine. Thus, this week’s “ear candy” is “Your Song” by Elton John. This week’s “brain food” is about the challenges and rewards of doing nothing—maybe you could consider it a beginner’s guide to contemplation. If you let go of your busyness, how will you hear God’s call?
Ear Candy: “Your Song” by Elton John
Brain Food: “The Case for Doing Nothing” by Olga Mecking
Come back next Saturday for a new post!