Asking Tough Questions

The Disciple Maker Index:
Fostering Growth by Asking Tough Questions


No doubt we are at a place in the Church where we have never been before. As parishes face the outcome of the pandemic, scandals, and a growing apathy among Christians in general, one parish and one priest have defied the odds. Using the Disciple Maker Index (DMI) as a launch point, St. Anne’s in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK is thriving, growing, and beating the odds!


Hard Times, Real Solutions

“At this crucial time for our faith, I believe the Holy Spirit dares us to ask hard questions,” states Fr. Gary Kastl, rector of Holy Family Cathedral in the Diocese of Tulsa, OK. “And Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI) is asking those questions. CLI isn’t just asking the hard questions,” continues Fr. Kastl, “but investing prayer, energy, and innovation into finding real solutions and ideas that are going to catapult our Church into the next generation.”

Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Tulsa in 2007, Fr. Kastl has served as the Associate Pastor at the Church of St. Mary, Pastor at St. Pius X, and Pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church. He currently serves as the President of Bishop Kelley High School, the Rector of Holy Family Cathedral, and serves on the board of the Saint Francis Health Care System and as the chaplain to Legatus. Fr. Kastl, along with seven other priests from his diocese completed Good Leaders, Good Shepherds in 2009. This is a priest who understands the Church and its complex needs.

So, let’s start with those hard questions he’s referring to. How would you answer about your parish?

Asking the Right (Tough) Questions

  • Do your pastor and staff really know how likely parishioners are to recommend the parish to a friend?
    • Definitely
    • Maybe
    • Definitely not
  • To what extent does your parish leadership know if your parishioners are growing spiritually?
    • Very well
    • A little bit
    • Not at all
  • Is your priest getting any regular feedback about his preaching?
    • Regularly
    • Sometimes
    • Never
  • Could your priest use some productive feedback?
    • No, he is perfect
    • Yes, he could use a little feedback
    • YES PLEASE
  • How equipped do parishioners feel to share the story of their personal faith?
    • Well prepared
    • Not at all
    • I have no idea
  • Can your parish segment which populations feel most welcome?
    • Yes
    • No
  • How many parishioners truly believe Jesus is present in the Eucharist?
    • All
    • Some
    • I have no idea

These kinds of questions can be answered with CLI’s Disciple Maker Index survey (DMI), a survey tool pioneered by Catholic Leadership Institute. Now one of the largest research projects in the Catholic Church, the DMI is changing the way Church leaders reflect and make decisions. This 75-question survey, now translated into 18 languages, provides pastors and parishes a picture of where they are today, allowing them to envision and create vibrant, faith-filled parishes for tomorrow.


Some Astounding Numbers

To date, 301,490 parishioners from 1,568 parishes and 43 dioceses have participated in this groundbreaking research endeavor. These parishes are transforming their communities, growing leadership, creating healthy, stable parishes, and deepening love for Our Lord.

How does Fr. Kastl know the DMI can be transformative for a parish? “Well,” says Fr. Kastl. I was one of those 1,568 parishes.”


The Story of St. Anne

“Let me share with you the story of St. Anne Parish in Broken Arrow, OK,” offers Fr. Kastl. “Come along with me on a journey of transformation.”

St. Ann’s sits in Broken Arrow OK, a growing suburb of Tulsa. It was run by an order of priests for many years and has always has a strong devotional life, but the parish was not seeing the growth that was needed to keep pace with the growth of the city around it. When I arrived at St. Ann’s as a new pastor, I received a wonderful welcome. But I knew there was work to be done.

I knew that this parish needed renewal, but I needed more information, I didn’t have a plan or a vision, and I wanted to truly know more about my parishioners. How deep were their beliefs? What were the strengths and opportunities for this parish? Where were parishioners spiritually? How did our parish school serve them? I knew sacraments, offertory, and parish registrants were in decline, but just how much? Imagine how overwhelming this reality of a new pastoral assignment can be.

Fortunately, prior to this assignment, I was blessed to have received leadership training with CLI’s priestly training program, Good Leaders, Good Shepherds. I truly believe every priest and pastor in this country would be better shepherds if they could receive that priestly support from CLI. Upon installation, I immediately turned to CLI again to help me find out the answers to the questions I needed to know. And, just as importantly, to help our parish build a plan forward.

With ongoing support and access to CLI, our parish went on an amazing journey. Over the course of four years, St. Anne’s participated in the DMI and used it as the foundation we needed to build a bold vision for the future. We aligned ministry and resources, hired for mission, measured growth, and set new priorities and a new vision through pastoral planning. The transformation is an exciting one.


Before and After

As you can see, before the DMI and after the DMI and the implementation of a parish plan, St. Ann’s became a very different parish!


Initially, Fr. Kastl was worried that his parishioners were not growing spiritually. “From the DMI, I learned that in fact, they weren’t growing,” remembers Father. “Armed with the knowledge from the DMI, we made a plan to change that.”

Father and his team went to work to ensure faith formation became a major priority and plotted the path to improvement with challenging goals and milestones to get there. “When we retook the DMI again two years later, we well exceeded the national average scores for discipleship,” says Fr. Kastl. Their results revealed in 2016 that 62% of parishioners “strongly agree” that St. Ann’s helped them grow spiritually as a Catholic, a significant increase from 36% in 2014!

“Catholic Leadership Institute’s support was a gamechanger for our parish. It was a gamechanger for me as a pastor,” recalls Father. “Now imagine if we could scale this support and deliver it to every parish, every pastor, and every diocese in this country who is willing to be bold,” challenges Fr. Kastl. “We could change the landscape of parish life.”

That is not just the plan. That’s not just the dream. That is what is happening right now.

The work at St. Ann’s took place from 2013-2016, but it has informed the work Catholic Leadership is doing today. The DMI remains the heart of that work and has been the inspiration for two major pilot programs CLI has at work across the country that seek to support priests and transform parishes just as what was done at St. Ann’s.


Next Generation Parish

First, Next Generation Parish is a groundbreaking initiative for renewing parish life throughout the United States. This program is a similar journey to what St. Ann’s experienced. Within this endeavor, the Disciple Maker Index survey gives parishes a clear picture of where their people are and where they have the potential to go. It provides pastors, parish staffs, and ministry leaders real feedback on what is working and what’s not so they can make a plan to move forward. Next Generation Parish truly prepares a parish to thrive for generations to come.


Called for More

“As a priest,” states Fr. Kastl, “I can tell you that this endeavor is life changing for priests, bishops, dioceses, and parishioners.” Called For More uses technology and research to place, onboard, and support new pastors and the program is revolutionizing the way the Catholic Church approaches the priest placement process. Called For More assists bishops in making pastoral assignments and creates transition plans and personalized support for pastors. Each of those components is informed by parishioner feedback gathered from the DMI.

I was a part of the team that developed the pilot for this program, and I truly believe that as a result, pastors will be better equipped to shepherd their flocks in every way,” encourages Fr. Kastl.


The DMI

The Disciple Maker Index has revealed some interesting trends. When it comes to core beliefs, Mass experiences, feeling included, being equipped to share faith with others, and really valuing the role of the Church in a person’s relationship with God, the DMI data has found that experience is universal. Whether respondents are members of their parish for 20 or more years or brand new, their answers are very much the same.

The DMI has also shown that there are objective standards of quality and truth that are being promoted in parishes. When it’s bad it’s bad. And when things are good, they are truly good. “The DMI process forced the parish look hard at ourselves. We knew we had to hold ourselves accountable. If we didn’t acknowledge truth, we couldn’t make a change,” remembers Father.

So, to what extent do all parishes need to take a hard look at themselves? If you think they all need to take that hard look, you aren’t alone. To address this, CLI has a big goal for all of their programs: impact 3,600 parishes, 4,800 priests, and over 6 million parishioners over the course of the next 5 years. This includes those new to the Church, those who have been parishioners for decades, it includes all demographics, and all stages of spiritual growth. It includes the Church of today and the Church of tomorrow, and if you are interested, it could include your parish, too! “Moving parishes into the future requires grit, it demands grace, and it depends on leaders like you and me,” challenges Fr. Kastl.

With this challenge from Father, CLI is committed to bringing parishes around the country into the Church of tomorrow. St. Ann’s is just one story among many that are experiencing renewal, growth, and new momentum to reach modern man in today’s world. But CLI needs partners in each diocese to come alongside this work and regenerate it diocese by diocese and parish by parish. If you are interested in partnering with CLI financially to make this happen in your diocese, contact Chad Peddicord at CLI today!


CLI’s Commitment to Tough Questions

CLI is committed to bringing the DMI survey to as many parishes as possible. With a track record of guiding successful transformation in parishes, the DMI has become a core tool CLI offers the Church. Tough questions reveal tough realities, and it takes courage for pastors and their parishes to embark on this journey. But as St. Anne’s models – meaningful and impactful transformation is possible and within reach! As scripture reminds us,

Take courage. Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.”
-1 Chronicles 15:7-

by Mike School

Aug 26, 2021

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