Dave Barringer, CEO of the Society of St. Vincent DePaul writes, I came away from last week’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (CSMG) extremely excited and encouraged. But this had nothing to do with public policy, USCCB positions or really, the event itself.
I came away from last week’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (CSMG) extremely excited and encouraged. But this had nothing to do with public policy, USCCB positions or really, the event itself.
The event was fine, and went as expected with its education sessions, opportunities to meet with Washington’s elected representatives and their staff. But what I did not expect was the increase in the number of colleges and college students actively participating as part of CSMG’s Young Leaders Initiative. More than 30, mostly Catholic universities were represented by more than 150 young adults.
After I randomly happened to sit with two nursing students during the first luncheon, my objectives for the CSMG immediately changed.
As a marketing student years ago, I learned about the “shotgun vs. rifle” communications strategies available to marketers. I suppose that in today’s world of political correctness this may be known by another name, but the basic idea is simple: Some strategies are directed at wide numbers and types of potential audiences, hoping to attract some from the crowd, while other strategies are directed to attract specific individual customers once they are defined. It’s a matter of efficiency of time and dollars to reach your intended audience.
Nationally and locally, we have been trying to figure out how to be in touch with college students and other young adults to ask how the Society of St. Vincent de Paul might be a relevant part of their faith and service life. Can a traditional, parish-based Conference work in a campus setting? Are the values of the Society attractive to young adults given the request for their time and money, home visits, meetings and so forth that Vincentians accept as part of their lay vocation? How can we be seen the same as, or differently than, other on-campus opportunities for faith and service to others? The Society’s national Extension committee and many Vincentians in communities across the country have been working toward these answers in the planning to grow our membership including young adults.
So back at the CSMG, I felt that God had dropped an opportunity into my lap. While others viewed lunch as a time to make new friends and catch up with old ones, I now saw it as a focus group opportunity. I looked for young people to sit beside at every opportunity over our four days at CSMG, and found them very receptive to my questions about their life on campus and its intersection with their faith and view of community service.
In every single case from these conversations, I found that what the Society has to offer in terms of advancing an individual’s spirituality, growing in fellowship, and providing opportunities to serve the poor and help them out of poverty are very attractive to college-aged Catholics. Some schools already have Society Conferences, and some students attend Mass at nearby churches where there is a Conference. This however does not imply that the college students are ever asked to join. Most though, would be very interested in learning more about the Society.
Why? Because college students, they tell me, are asked all the time to raise funds or to raise awareness, but there aren’t many opportunities to provide organized direct service, especially to the poor. And the opportunity to increase one’s own spirituality as a
college student is a gaping hole in campus life. It can be done on an individual basis, with some challenge, but groups organized for this purpose either don’t exist or haven’t gotten the word out. The students have a hunger to put their faith into action and service.
Granted, my little research exercise was biased in that everyone participating was already more active in their faith than most college students, by example simply of their attending CSMG. Yet they repeatedly told me that there were plenty more like them back on campus, and they would welcome an opportunity to learn more about the Society. To reduce further bias, I didn’t tell anyone of my CEO role until after the conversations. I was one of at least two dozen Vincentians attending the Conference.
Where do we go from here? Please don’t wait for a fancy marketing plan, brochures or ads in campus newspapers to try that old shotgun approach. Pick up the proverbial rifle. Find a college student and have a conversation. I’m now convinced that if just one or two students work together with a little bit of your support, a strong seed of hope for a Society Conference will be planted.
The next generation of Vincentians is out there. We need to invite them to join us, they deserve an invitation, and they need your invitation to feel they have license and support to get started. If my experience last week can be an indicator, your experience in this will be invigorating!
Yours in Christ,