I received a question from Donna about an important topic in religious life — the role of lay associates (or affiliates) in religious life. Here’s what Donna said:

What role do you think lay affiliates of religious orders will play in the future in religious life? Do you think these folk will be more integrated into a given community’s life (i.e., their ministries, activities, etc.) than they are now? How do you view the associates of your order? Is it difficult for older, more traditional sisters to accept associates?

First things first … Lay affiliates or associates are women and men who wish to formally associate themselves with a religious community, their mission and spirituality. Not all congregations have associates, and those that do vary in the formation process and the degree to which associates can be involved in the life of the congregation. For a specific example of a congregation’s associate program check out the the Monroe IHM page on IHM Associates.

Now, specifically regarding Donna’s questions … Lay people (including associates/affiliates) already play a significant role in many of our communities. They may hold significant positions in our institution such as financial manager, building administrator, nurse, development director, etc. While these positions are all responsible ultimately to the leadership of a religious community (which is made up of sisters who are our elected leaders/superiors and council members), they still are in positions which enhance and exert influence on the life of the community. Not every community, for example, has a sister who is trained in development work. So we hire someone who is willing to enter into our vision and work with us in that capacity. So congregations have for a long time now relied on the expertise and gifts of lay people. Associates/affiliates are lay people who formally choose to associate with us. They may already be our coworkers, alumna/us from our schools, relatives, former sisters, or simply innocent bystanders who somehow came in contact with us and are attracted to our mission and life. So, since lay people have for a while been part of religious communities, I believe they will continue to play a role in the future of religious life as well.

Do I think associates/affiliates will be more integrated into a given community’s life than they are now? Depending on a community, associates/affiliates may already be integrated into a community’s life. In any given congregation, there may be a range of ways an associate can be involved — from a prayer partner to heading a community’s office of peace and justice. An associate may come to one or two events yearly, while another associate may be on a committee and attend as many events as she/he is able to.

To take Donna’s question in another direction, one might ask (as many have): since some religious communities are experiencing a decrease in numbers, does that mean that communities will become more fully integrated with vowed and lay members in order for the community to survive? A big question which many communities have discussed. I’m not sure I can really answer this question. I do however think it is important to be clear about the significance of God’s call. Being an associate is part of a lay person’s larger call from God. The lay person may be married, have children, and/or be involved in some profession utilitizing their God-given gifts. The call to lay life is no less significant than the call to religious or ordained life. Choosing to associate oneself with a religious congregation does not mean that one wishes to be a quasi-nun. Quasi-nunness (for lack of a better word) is a disservice to the integrity of both the religious life vocation and the lay life vocation. They are two distinct lifestyles. Is there overlapping? Sure. Do we learn from one another? Absolutely. However religious communities proceed with associates/affiliates, I believe we must be clear about this.

In terms of how I view associates … check the link above to see my community’s web page on IHM Associates. I treasure our IHM Associates and have enjoyed working with IHM Associates on various committees and projects, learning with them, and worshipping with them. Each Associate in her or his own way enriches our community.

Finally, is it difficult for “older, more traditional sisters” to accept associates? I’m not really sure. We really can’t make generalizations about this group because there isn’t really one way that any particular age group or type (?) of nun thinks about a particular issue. In my experience, our sisters have been very welcoming of associates. There is a wisdom in our older members that sees beyond labels and embraces people for who they are and respects their journey. Whether liberal or traditional (I use such labels sparingly and with great caution because I believe they are too much of a generalization and do more harm than good), young or old, new to the community or a veteran, a sister may accept associates joyfully or with hesitation. There is such variance.

Well, there’s my two-cents … well, maybe four- or five-cents. Do comment, friends. I’d like to hear the range of thinking on the role of associates in religious life.