In 2009, the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, a Lilly Endowment Inc. funded collaboration of five Catholic national ministerial organizations, commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to conduct a series of three surveys in parishes nationwide. The first of these was a single informant survey sent to parishes to develop a portrait of parish life in the United States today. This was followed by surveys of parish leaders in a sub-sample of these parishes as well as in-pew surveys with their parishioners.

The parish survey is based on a partially stratified random sample of 5,549 U.S. parishes. The stratification of the first 3,500 parishes sampled was based on weighting by the arch/diocesan averages of the percentage of the Catholic population and the percentage of the number of Catholic parishes in the United States in each arch/diocese as reported in The Official Catholic Directory (OCD). This stratification ensured that parishes representing the full Catholic population were included rather than a sample dominated by areas where there are many small parishes with comparatively small Catholic populations. CARA also sampled an additional 2,049 parishes using simple random sampling. These parishes were selected to ensure that the survey included at least 800 responses. Following a series of reminders and a field period spanning from March 2010 to December 2010, a total of 846 parishes responded to the survey for a response rate of 15.3 percent.  The margin of sampling error for the survey is ±3.3 percentage points. The report for this phase is: The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes.

The second survey for the project included responses from 532 parish leaders (e.g., parish staff, finance and pastoral council members, other parish leaders) in 246 of the parishes from the first survey (margin of sampling error of ±4.2 percentage points). This survey was in the field from May 2011 to April 2012. Parish leaders include all staff—ministry and non-ministry, paid or volunteer—in the parish as well as all parish finance council members, pastoral council members, and up to ten other individuals identified by the pastor or parish life coordinator (a deacon or lay person entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish under Canon 517.2) “who exhibit leadership in the parish community. These parish leaders were drawn from a subset of parishes completing the phase one survey as well as in-pew surveys of parishioners for the overall project. Additionally, a random sample of 930 parish leaders, identified by their pastors and parish life coordinators from the first phase, were also invited to respond. Another 100 pastors and parish life coordinators from the first survey were asked to distribute surveys to all of their parish finance council members. The report for this phase is: Perspectives from Parish Leaders: U.S. Parish Life and Ministry.

The third survey for the project was conducted in parts of 2011 and 2012 and includes 14,437 parishioners surveyed in-pew in a subset of 23 parishes randomly selected from the first phase. All parishes were guaranteed anonymity within the project as part of their agreement to participate. Stratified random selection was used to select a sample of 70 parishes to ensure geographic variability and the inclusion of oversamples for Emerging Models type parishes (i.e., multicultural, PLC, MPM, and consolidated). Additionally, five parishes were selected by the partners to represent specific parish types. Thus, in total, 75 parishes were chosen for potential participation in the third phase and 65 were invited by the time data collection ended. Five refused to participate and ten uninvited parishes were held in reserve at the time data collection ceased. Thirty-five percent of the 65 invited parishes (i.e., 23 parishes) participated in the project. Another 35 percent verbally agreed to participate in the third phase of the project but did not follow through with all of the steps required by the time data collection for the study was ended. The report for this phase is: Views for the Pews: Parishioner Evaluations of Parish Life in the United States.

The framework for the research was loosely based on the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Life conducted in the 1980s. This research had included surveys in 36 parishes. The Notre Dame study evolved over seven years, whereas the parish research for Emerging Models was completed in two years.