April 17, 2009

Survey says… Gallup programs geared to strengthen parishioner engagement

Parishes across the archdiocese are using the Clifton StrengthFinder (SF) and Member Engagement Survey (ME-25), which are two research-based assessment tools developed by the Gallup organization, to help parishioners identify their talents and enhance engagement in their faith communities. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Parishes across the archdiocese are using the Clifton StrengthFinder (SF) and Member Engagement Survey (ME-25), which are two research-based assessment tools developed by the Gallup organization, to help parishioners identify their talents and enhance engagement in their faith communities. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

It’s not uncommon for parish leaders from one faith community to another to share the same concern: They depend too much upon too few regular volunteers.

Several parishes across the archdiocese are currently using two programs developed by the Gallup organization—known worldwide for decades for its skills in accurate polling—to determine how to enhance parishioner engagement by helping them to utilize their God-given talents and “do what they do best.”

Gallup analysts review the results of a simple 25-question survey called the ME-25 completed by parishioners. Their analysis will indicate to parish leaders the percentage of parishioners who are actively engaged in the life of the parish, are only minimally engaged or are actively disengaged from the faith community.

Using those survey results, parish leaders are encouraged to develop two or three modest but concrete objectives with action steps to be implemented over a 12-month period. All objectives are designed to meet the goal of strengthening parishioner engagement.

The StrengthsFinder assessment tool helps individuals learn their top five God-given themes of talent. Parishioners are then encouraged to reflect upon and begin to discern how to use those talents for growth and service.

Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis began using both programs last fall.

Steve Day, a member of the parish’s stewardship and development committee, sees a lot of positives coming out of the programs.

“We’re hoping that it’s going to make people stronger spiritually and enjoy the ministries they participate in more because they’ll be more tailored to the strengths that they have been given by God,” Day said. “As a result, they’ll do them more enthusiastically and with more fervor than they may have in the past.”

Last fall, some 1,200 Holy Spirit parishioners completed the ME-25 survey. Albert Winseman, who helped develop the Gallup programs, spoke to parish leaders in November. And during Lent this year, several groups of parishioners completed the 20-minute StrengthsFinder assessment and met regularly to learn more about their talents and how they relate to their life of faith.

“They can use the results of the [StrengthsFinder] survey in a lot of ways in their lives,” said Father Joseph Riedman, Holy Spirit’s administrator. “We try to encourage them to use them here. And they can use them in other ways in their lives. You could use it when you’re looking for a job.”

Lynda Miller, a member of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis, has helped oversee the use of StrengthsFinder in her faith community. She thinks it can be especially useful in reaching out to new parishioners.

“We’d like them to do the StrengthsFinder before they get too heavily entrenched in something that may or may not be working for them,” she said. “If you’re not happy with the [volunteering] job you’re doing in the parish, you may stop or you may leave the parish. The important thing is to find something that satisfies people and suits their skill set.”

Suzie Didat, the business manager of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County in the New Albany Deanery, thinks the Gallup programs can help Catholics overcome a way of looking at themselves and at service to the Church that was common in the past.

“I’ve always been taught that if you’re not strong in one area, you need to look at ways to change and grow and adapt to that,” Didat said. “This comes from the opposite end. You discover what your strengths are and then gear your activities more toward those strengths.

“That will empower you to draw more people into the community and be involved.”

Staff members at St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish and several of its lay leaders have taken the StrengthsFinder test. A daylong workshop on the program in the parish is set for May.

“I am so hopeful that it will just jump- start volunteerism,” Didat said. “We have a lot of volunteers now, but it’s the same volunteers.”

Father Daniel Mahan, executive director of the Indianapolis-based Marian College Center for Catholic Stewardship, helps parishes use the Gallup programs in the context of stewardship of talent and time. He sees great potential in the programs.

“Those who are engaged are the ones who are serving much more,” said Father Mahan. “They’re inviting others to participate in Church activities. And they are giving, to the tune of three times as much as those who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged.”

He also thinks that the Gallup programs are good because, from the start, they are focused on being able to measure accurately their rate of success. It’s very much tied to outcomes.

“We’re looking for real outcomes in terms of service: The hours that people are spending in service in the parish and throughout the community, how many people have invited someone to participate in a Church activity over the last month, and giving as a percentage of income,” Father Mahan said.

But beyond the tangible ways in which the program’s success can be measured, he also emphasized the positive influence they can have on parishioners’ souls.

“When you get a person to become engaged in the parish, … it’s amazing how much more open they are to the spiritual counsel that’s offered in homilies, the extra programs that are offered in the parish,” Father Mahan said. “ … Engagement leads to spiritual commitment in many, many cases.”

(The Marian College Center for Catholic Stewardship is sponsoring a summit on strengths and engagement on Oct. 22. For more information on it or the center, call 317-955-6152 or log on to www.marian.edu/stewardship. For more information about Strengths and Engagement programs, log on to www.allaboutchurchengagement.com.)

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