Tell me what you value and I’ll tell you where you worship: a parish typology based upon measures of importance

In the past Catholics had little choice in their parish: most attended the parish within whose boundary they lived. If they belonged to an ethnic group which had a parish in the area, they were also free to register at that parish. While boundaries still officially exist, their importance generally has been downplayed by church officials during the last 30 years. Many Catholics choose their parish from among the Catholic parishes available in their area. In many ways the expectation of being able to choose one’s own parish is taken for granted, like the expectation of being able to choose one’s bank or physician.

Why then do individual Catholics gravitate to particular parishes? I theorized that parishes have “corporate personalities” which can be conceptualized and measured. One can get a sense of a parish’s personality by analyzing what the parishioners consider important. I was able to do this in the Rockford Diocese because of data collected in conjunction with a multi-year planning process. More than 55,000 Catholics returned pew surveys that indicated which of 34 elements of parish life were most important to them. They also were given opportunity to indicate the quality of parish programs and to specify various ways they show commitment to the parish.

Factor analysis was the primary tool utilized in producing the typology. Factor analysis produced constructs of importance which are neither directly observable nor which appear as single survey items. Three factors emerged from the analysis.

Factor 1: “Catholic Schools.” The first factor was composed of two survey questions: 1) access to a Catholic elementary school; and 2) access to a Catholic high school. Catholics who expressed an opinion about the importance of one of these questions tended to express the same opinion about the second question.

Factor 2: “Horizontal Spirituality.” The second factor shows a distinct focus on the parish as community, or — to use a term from the Second Vatican Council — the “people of God.”  According to this spirituality, God is truly present within ordinary people in the Christian assembly. God is also present in a special way among the poor and dispossessed. The focus is upon God as “already present” within people instead of being perceived as “out there” and needing to be invited “down” to the human level. To capture this emphasis, the term “horizontal spirituality” was chosen for the second factor.

The survey items most strongly linked in this factor are the following:

❏ The parish reaches out to the poor;

❏ Parish leadership is sensitive to problems, concerns;

❏ The parish exhibits a spirit of warmth and hospitality;

❏ The parish works with groups in the local community; and

❏ The parish promotes respect for human life.

Survey respondents who indicated high importance for any one item in this group generally also indicated high importance for the other items in this group. Conversely, respondents who indicated low importance for any one item in the group tended to indicate low importance for the other items.

Factor 3: “Vertical Spirituality.” The third factor focused upon sacraments and devotional services outside of the Mass. There is also emphasis upon outward appearances, such as the sacredness of the church and of reverence of liturgical ministers which serve at Mass. This factor seems to be capturing the sense of God as transcendent, outside and above the human condition. One does not primarily find God in one’s neighbor because he/she is also a sinful human; one primarily finds God in the sacraments, the Church and Scripture. Because this spirituality focuses on God as “higher” and “above,” the term “vertical spirituality” was chosen as the name of the third factor.

The survey items most strongly linked in this factor are the following:

❏ There are sufficient opportunities to receive Reconciliation;

❏ There are devotional services outside Mass; and

❏ At Mass the liturgical ministers act reverently.

Like with the other two factors, survey respondents who indicated high importance for any one item in this group generally also indicated high importance for the other items in this group.


Importance of Catholic schools. Catholics put a large amount of energy and resources into maintaining their parochial school system. The emergence of “Catholic schools” as a factor, therefore, is not surprising.

Analysis showed a negative relationship between “Catholic schools” and involvement in the parish. This correlation remained even after taking into account parish size. The implication is that parishes in which Catholic schools are very important may not be developing many opportunities for involvement in non-school ministries. When there are limitations of resources, leadership tends to put the resources into those areas which are seen as important by many people. The danger is that there will be fewer opportunities for adults without parochial school children to become involved in the parish outside of Sunday Mass. This issue is important and should be discussed by parish leaders.

There are also implications in the emergence of this factor for religious researchers. In much research on contributions and commitment, Catholics are compared to other denominations without acknowledging the presence of the Catholic school system and the commitment it receives. Given the importance of Catholic schools in the factor analysis and the degree to which Catholics use enormous resources in maintaining the school system, researchers minimally should note the possibility that commitment by Catholics may look different than commitment by other denominations.

Multi-dimensionality of Horizontal and Vertical Spiritualities. One may hear suggestions made in religious writings or conversation which suggest that a spirituality which emphasizes God’s immanence (the horizontal dimension) is the opposite of one which emphasizes God’s transcendence (the vertical dimension). The unspoken assumption is that there is one dimension to spirituality, with immanence found at one end and transcendence at the other. This research has shown that the two spiritualities actually compose two different dimensions. The opposite of high transcendence is low transcendence, not high immanence.

This multi dimensionality raises several challenges for church leaders: understanding parish needs; understanding Hispanic parishes; promoting commitment; and assigning priests.

Understanding Parish Needs. The main issue revolves around the needs of parishes that score low on both “horizontal spirituality” and “vertical spirituality.” What do they need or expect? Perhaps parishioners are happy just to have Mass each weekend and do not see the need for additional programs or services. This category seems to be made up of parishes which are predominantly rural and small. These parishes tend to have a high percentage of parishioners who have been in the parish for at least 10 years.

Understanding Hispanic Parishes. The parishes scoring highest on both “horizontal spirituality” and “vertical spirituality” are Hispanic. In fact, the three parishes scoring exceptionally high on both factors — to the point they are considered outliers — are Hispanic. This suggests something about the uniqueness of Hispanic culture, where both the human community and God’s transcendence are prized. While it is beyond the scope of this research to define the uniqueness, it does point out the need to better understand the culture.

Promoting Commitment. Commitment was measured through four variables: Mass attendance, attachment to the parish (a subjective measurement), involvement in the parish, and financial contributions to the parish. Only one correlation was found: between “vertical spirituality” and Mass attendance, i.e. parishes with higher scores on this measure have higher Mass attendance rates. While “horizontal spirituality” correlated highly with the perceived quality of parish programs and services, this apparent satisfaction does not translate to greater commitment. Why do parishes with high “horizontal spirituality” not show greater commitment? Further research is needed about the relationship of parish typology to parish stewardship.

Assigning Pastors. This parish typology may find its greatest utility in assigning pastors to parishes. Pastor assignments should carefully be made so that pastoral leadership is sensitive to the natural yearnings of the people. A parish that scores high on one of the factors will not be a good fit for a priest who does not value that factor. It may be difficult, for example, for a parish that values horizontal spirituality to accept as its spiritual leader a priest who indicates he sees little value in this type of spirituality. It could also be difficult in this case for the priest to genuinely affirm the people.

On the other hand, a parish which scores low on a non-primary factor could benefit from a pastor who values this factor, as long as he affirms parishioners’ primary focus. Take the case of a parish which scores high on the factor “Catholic schools” but low on “vertical spirituality.” A good candidate for pastor would be a priest who values Catholic education but also sees the importance of a vertical spirituality. He could affirm the importance of Catholic schools — sharing this core value with his people — but also gently encourage them to appreciate traditional devotions.

Additional research is needed regarding the influence that a pastor actually has upon the parish. Does a “good pastor fit” depend more upon: 1) a shared core value between people and pastor; or 2) the personality of the pastor? How does a pastor serve a parish that is low on all or most dimensions of importance?

3 thoughts on “Tell me what you value and I’ll tell you where you worship: a parish typology based upon measures of importance

  1. Michael,

    As a liturgical theologian, your study has some interest for me (I’ll put a link to it on our own blog for the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy).

    Though I have some questions about how you went about discerning the descriptors for the categories of horizontal-vertical spirituality. I’m not quite sure why vertical spirituality, as you describe it, includes the understanding that the human person (in your language, the neighbor) is so sinful that he or she may not be an image of God. Is this the way that most people in these parishes made the distinction? Is it from a particular theological source?


  2. Tim,

    Thank you for your comments. My explanation about vertical spirituality was that “One does not primarily find God in one’s neighbor because he/she is also a sinful human; one primarily finds God in the sacraments, the Church and Scripture.” I do not state that a person with a strong vertical orientation does not find God in their neighbors but that when looking for God the first focus is on the sacraments, the Church and Scripture. The word “primarily” is key. Your reading that the neighbor “. . . is so sinful that he or she may not be an image of God” is not something that I wrote nor is it supported by this research.

    You wonder how I went about naming the horizontal and vertical factors. The naming of factors that emerge from factor analysis usually comes about by inspecting the variables with the strongest loadings (correlations) and looking for a term that captures a common dimension of these variables. In my article I show the variables with the strongest loadings as bullet points. To me the terms horizontal and vertical spirituality seemed to make the most sense for the second and third factor. Another researcher might have used other terms. Sometimes naming factors is as much an art as a science.

    Finally, you ask whether most people in these parishes made a distinction about finding God in their neighbor vis-a-vis the sacraments/Church/Scripture. I don’t know. I do not claim to know the basis of another’s opinions or their theological sources. I do know that people who indicated the importance of sufficient opportunities to receive Reconciliation also tended to indicate the importance of having devotional services outside Mass, and of having reverent liturgical ministers at Mass. Thus they were grouped as a factor. It is likely that people had multiple motivations for agreeing with (or disagreeing with) the importance of these statements.