There are over 70 million Catholics living in the United States, the largest faith-based denomination in the country. They worship in more than 17,650 parishes that span nearly 200 dioceses and archdioceses.
For Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that supports the Catholic priesthood with leadership development, helping the vast number of individual parishes understand the faith journey of their parishioners is critical. “The Church calls pastors and parishes to be in connection with the community,” said Dan Cellucci, CEO of CLI. “We wanted to find a way to provide a tool for priests and parish leaders to be in touch with and connected to who they were serving.”
But how would an organization like CLI effectively take the temperature of such a large number of parishes and parishioners?
First, CLI thought about creating a survey instrument to help determine what priests needed to be successful. CLI quickly realized that writing the survey, collecting the data, analyzing the information, presenting the findings, and determining actionable information at the necessary scale isn’t as easy as it sounds.
In addition, some of the parishes were already developing and using their own surveys, making it impossible to benchmark/compare parishes, or measure success over time.
“We looked at other tools that were out there. We didn’t feel that any fit our needs and our audience,” Cellucci said.
Then, he attended a presentation by Measuring Success given at Villanova University about how congregational leaders can leverage data to create vibrant and sustainable organizations.
“I was impressed at what I heard and saw,” Cellucci said.
From there, CLI built a partnership with Measuring Success to construct a complex survey instrument and an online data visualization platform that would meet the unique needs of a faith community.
It is now in its sixth year with more than 100,000 survey responses collected to date across about 450 different North American parishes.
“Faith is a lifelong journey,” Cellucci said. “We didn’t want to create a tool that measured what people wanted. We wanted to create something that would help us know where they are.”
The survey, named the Disciple Maker Index, typically garners the most responses from the people who are the most engaged in the parish.
“Working from the inside out is the right approach for CLI and the participating parishes”, Cellucci said, “because it allows for parish leadership to best understand their parishioners who are most likely to be the frontlines of evangelization.”
From there, they are looking at what makes parishioners most likely to recommend the parish to others. Part of being an active participant in the parish is being prepared to evangelize on behalf of the Catholic community.
The data has also helped individual pastors learn from each other. Cellucci said that they are developing strategies, resources, and information from the snapshots of the parishes surveyed.
The project has also opened up new relationships.
“It has been an entry tool for places we’ve never worked before and created some nice on-ramps for new relationships,” Cellucci said. “And it’s a value-add for our trusted partners”.
Cellucci said that it is important to understand how much decision making is driven by anecdotes and the need to move toward more data-driven processes.
“As part of our support to parish priests, we want to help them focus the limited time and resources they have to do the most good,” Cellucci said.
He added that data doesn’t make decisions, but it does inform good decision-making.
The Disciple Maker Index is one of the largest research projects in the Catholic church.
“We are hoping to increase responses by 25 percent this year,” he said. “All in all, it has been a fascinating journey.”