Can your career fit into religious life?

By Sister Janet Gildea, S.C.

Becoming a sister, brother, or priest doesn’t have to mean giving up your professional path. Not only that, a religious vocation can reshape your career in surprising ways.

Image: For most of her life as a member of a religious community, Sister Janet Gildea, S.C. has been able to work as a physician.

I WAS SO CLEAR about my call to be a family physician. I had been accepted to medical school. I desired to serve those most in need of health care—people I had met at a free clinic sponsored by an inner-city parish and where I volunteered in high school. The doctors, nurses, and other parishioners who served the sick in the evenings at the clinic taught me that health care is a basic human right and that my faith calls me to be sure that everyone has access. That was my calling.

During college I also began to notice within myself a growing curiosity about religious life. The sisters who taught many of my classes and lived on campus were dedicated professionals and academics with a spiritual side that showed in their interactions with students, staff, and colleagues. Some lived in the college convent, others on the floors of the dorm, others in small groups in homes across the road from the school. I was intrigued, but I felt I was removed from them because in my understanding, “Sisters couldn’t be doctors.”

Attorney and Sister of St. Joseph Alison McCrary, C.S.J. notarizing and completing incorporation papers for a New Orleans nonprofit.
Attorney and Sister of St. Joseph Alison McCrary, C.S.J. notarizing and completing incorporation papers for a New Orleans nonprofit.

Don’t limit your possibilities
Many young adults, students, and professionals make the same assumption I did—that ministry work for religious sisters and brothers has a fairly narrow scope: teaching, nursing, parish, or other church-related service. I thought that becoming a sister, brother, or priest meant giving up most other professional paths and very likely the freedom to have any say about it. Not true!

A story in a diocesan newspaper about a Franciscan sister who was in a family practice medical residency awakened me to the possibility that I might have “a call within a call.” There were sister-doctors. Uh-oh! There are also sister-lawyers, sister-veterinarians, sister-cello professors—in short, the people of God need all of these ministries, and religious women and men can respond with great freedom and creativity according to their abilities. The active apostolic life can support the diversity of gifts young adults offer today.

What about my student loans?
In cooperation with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and through a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), VISION’s publisher, completed a formal Educational Debt Study in 2013 that showed that student loans often prevent discerners from acting on a desire to be a religious  priest, sister, or brother.

As a result of the findings of that debt study, the NRVC initiated the establishment of the National Fund for Catholic Religious Vocations ( to assist religious communities with student loan payments for new members. The fund, an independent entity affiliated with the NRVC, is scheduled to be fully functioning by 2015.

The details regarding the nature of assistance and how religious communities may apply will be publicized through the NRVC (

Even communities with a very specific focus, like nursing the elderly, service to immigrants, or education, can many times incorporate persons with a breadth of professional training and skills. The sense of a call to serve in a particular profession can help in the discernment process by narrowing the field of congregations you may want to consider.

Challenges and opportunities
Incorporating new members with professional training can have special challenges for religious communities. Educational debt is an issue that congregations are trying to help candidates address (see the box accompanying this article). Another challenge can be negotiating the demands of a career or training program within the structures of formation for religious life. In some ways it is important to discover early in the discernment process whether your professional commitment blends well with the life of the congregation. During the time of considering and then beginning religious life, many communities negotiate the give-and-take of religious life and professional work. In my case the three years of medical residency training were ideal for an extended candidacy period—when those joining religious communities can observe and participate in religious life from the inside—allowing for nights on-call at the hospital and a more gradual introduction to life in community.

Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, S.J. has played a prominent role in Australia in defending the rights of native peoples.
Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, S.J. has played a prominent role in Australia in defending the rights of native peoples.

Time to take the plunge
At some point, however, the seriousness and requirements of your commitment to religious life must take priority. A year or so away from the demands of professional training won’t ruin a professional life but will build the solid foundation required for consecrated life. Taking some time off during initial formation is not so different from choosing to be a stay-at-home mom or dad for a while, as did several of my colleagues in medicine. My novitiate year—a period of discernment, preparation, and formation activities before taking temporary vows—began just after completing my medical residency, and to be honest I looked forward to the immersion into the deep story of my congregation and to the opportunity for prayer and study of the vows. The reentry to full-time work was exciting, and I felt that my novitiate period helped me to integrate my call within a call.

Marianist Brother Frank O’Donnell, S.M. is a lawyer who has put his legal skills to work for various nonprofits.
Marianist Brother Frank O’Donnell, S.M. is a lawyer who has put his legal skills to work for various nonprofits.

Congregations with members in the profession for which you are prepared have experience working with issues such as liability insurance and ongoing educational and licensing requirements. Vocation ministers can put you in contact with vowed members who have navigated the waters ahead of you, and these people can be valuable resources. Organizations of professionals (see sidebar below) have annual meetings and provide regional networking possibilities to support the integration of professional life and religious commitment.

Vocation forms your career
A religious vocation can reshape your career in surprising ways. Religious congregations are continually evaluating their ministries as they reflect on the signs of the times, listening for the call of their charism—their particular focus and spirit—in the light of the gospel. There are traditional needs in community-sponsored ministries such as schools and hospitals, but new projects spring up that require fresh eyes and new skills. A psychologist might work with veterans or women released from prison. An accountant can handle the financial side of a struggling social service agency. Sometimes the formation experience itself illuminates new interests or aptitudes through opportunities for growth in self-knowledge.

Many occupations can be put to good use for the sake of the kingdom. What could God do with yours?

Professional associations for people in religious life
Association of Sister, Brother, and Priest Physicians
Contact medical doctor Sister Janet Gildea, S.C.; 915-525-5882

Intercommunity Legal Conference
Contact attorney William D. Buckley; 212-689-1113

Sister Janet Gildea, S.C.Sister Janet Gildea, S.C. is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati and a family physician.





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