Catholics are being asked a pivotal question on their faith journey: “Where are you?”
At parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the country, this question is fleshed out through a 75-question survey tool called the Disciple Maker Index (DMI) from the Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI), based in Malvern.
The anonymous survey provides the faithful with the chance to reflect on their faith journey and share the parish’s effectiveness in assisting them. Pastors can evaluate how to best serve their flocks, using the data complied and interpreted with assistance from CLI.
“I felt like I had a chance to be heard,” said Jessica Walters, a parishioner at St. Agnes in Sellersville.
Walters is no stranger to the DMI. In addition to taking the survey as a parishioner, she helped facilitate it at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Doylestown when she was the parish’s director of religious education.
After she took a new position as director of parish services at Mary, Mother of the Redeemer in North Wales, the first thing she asked was if the parish took the Disciple Maker Index.
The parish did so as part of a three-year grant that allowed Philadelphia archdiocesan parishes to participate in the DMI. Eighty parishes participated, gathering responses from 17,000 Catholics.
All parishes are different, but CLI can give parishioners a tool to give insight to their pastors, said Dan Cellucci, CEO of Catholic Leadership Institute and a life-long resident of the Philadelphia region.
The grant is ending its final year, but Cellucci said CLI would find a way to work with any parish that is interested.
To begin the DMI process, CLI assists the parish in promoting and distributing the survey to its parishioners. The anonymous surveys can be taken online or mailed in.
Cellucci noted that many parish surveys ask what parishioners want, and while this is good, often times people do not know what they want. For that reason, the DMI asks where people are in their faith journey.
Questions inquire about personal beliefs, stage and pace of spiritual growth, involvement in parish activities, demographics, parish’s effectiveness in helping parishioners connect to community and evangelize, and satisfaction with parish, pastor and activities.
It is available in 11 different languages, which allowed Father Thomas Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia, to offer the DMI in the three languages of his parish — Vietnamese, Spanish and English.
After the survey is open for about four weeks, responses are sent to CLI where the data is processed and analyzed.
Then, CLI sets up various consultation services with the pastor and/or parish leaders. They learn how to interpret the parish’s results, which are presented through interactive software. Results can be broken down a number of dynamic ways, for example who is going to the sacrament of confession based on their age, or opinions on preaching of parishioners with versus without children.
To further clarify meaning of the data, parish teams study national trends, similar data from parishes in their dioceses and from the top three parishes in the country. This isn’t for comparison but rather for context.
“I’m not a data person so to be able to make those connections was not necessarily easy, but once they showed you how to take the data and put it in different things … it’s like the opportunities are endless,” said Walters.
CLI further helps parishes as they form action plans for next steps.
“One thing I liked about what CLI does is they didn’t just hand the parishes the survey, but they walked along side them with every dimension of it,” said Meghan Cokeley, the director of the archdiocesan Office for the New Evangelization.
Cokeley took the data gleaned from the archdiocesan DMI grant and saw a disconnect of people frequently attending Mass and rarely receiving the sacrament of reconciliation. From that data, she created an initiative called Revive Confession — its mission aligning with its name, to address what she categorized a “spiritual emergency.”
(See more information and resources from Revive Confession.)
Cellucci recommends parishes take the DMI more than once, ideally three years apart, which allows parishes to see how they’ve grown.
St. Raymond of Penafort Parish in Philadelphia followed this advice, taking the DMI twice and planning to take it a third time in the future.
“It provides so much information about where people (are) as disciples, about where people are in their walk with Jesus and the parish,” said the pastor, Father Christopher Walsh.
The parish’s first DMI revealed a low number of parishioners celebrating confession. To tackle this, St. Raymond’s gave talks on confession and increased the amount of opportunities to receive the sacrament. When the parish took the DMI again three years later, it revealed an increase in the number of people going to confession.
“How we make changes … or set goals or vision within our parish … should always (be) informed by the needs of the people that we’re serving, and we don’t know that unless we ask them,” said Walters, “and this is a great tool to ask them the questions we need answers to.”
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