The Catholic East Texas interviews Deanna Johnston, the Director of Family Life for the St. Philip Institute of Catechesis and Evangelization in the Diocese of Tyler

Can you explain your role as the Director of Family Life for the St. Philip Institute?

The short answer is everything that is outlined in section 3 in the Constitution on Teaching.  My department is focused on all things related to the family, which has primarily consisted of developing marriage formation for engaged couples, ongoing marriage enrichment opportunities for couples beyond the wedding day, and developing resources for Fertility Awareness and Natural Family Planning. 

Deanna Johnston, Director of Family Life for the St. Philip Institute of Catechesis and Evangelization

In light of the crazy events of 2020, I am also realizing that the Church needs to support families as domestic churches, so not only focusing on marriage ministries but also branching out into ways that we can walk with families in the messiness of day to day family life. I know that for me personally, as a wife and mother of 4, I need all the support in my domestic church that I can get! I want to make sure that’s something we’re really offering to families in the diocese. 

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am originally from Memphis, TN. I went to Catholic school from grades 1-12, and then attended the University of Memphis where I earned a BA in Philosophy and Spanish. After graduating from college, I did two years of volunteer work with a mission organization: one year in Saltillo Coahuila, Mexico working in a home for girls, and one year in San Antonio, Texas. At the end of that second year I really felt a call to move into parish ministry, which led me to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Dodge City, Kansas. My primary role there was to help families preparing for the baptism of their children, to work with engaged couples going through the marriage preparation process, and to help the parish and diocese with the development of Natural Family Planning resources. I was there from November 2010-June 2017 and I really see that time as a formation for the things I’m doing now in the Diocese of Tyler.

My husband Michael and I have been married for 7 ½ years. Michael is originally from the Diocese of Tyler, and he even discerned the priesthood as a seminarian for this diocese. However, I always make a point to mention he and I met after he left the seminary. So it is not my fault that he is not a priest! We met on CatholicMatch in 2010 and we got married on October 5, 2013 (the feast day of St. Faustina, my patron saint). We have four amazing kids: Alexandria (6), Simon (4), Elena (2.5), and Leo (1). 

What are primary focuses for you as the Director of Family Life?

Working with engaged couples and making sure that we’re offering solid marriage formation is a crucial part of the mission. Marriage is the foundation for the family, and families make up society. If we can help couples to have strong marriages from the very beginning, and try to offer tools and resources that will not only help them in the day to day of family life, but also help them to thrive in their vocations and to be disciples of Jesus Christ… that is something that could change the world! Also, marriage formation is something that begins within the family, long before adulthood and engagement. So by investing in families we really have an opportunity to make a big impact in the world. 

I am also very passionate about Fertility Awareness and Natural Family Planning resources. We joke in the office that I’m the person who has no issue discussing things like cervical mucus and women’s reproductive health issues with anyone and everyone, including priests and seminarians. But really, this is important because it is more than just teaching people about methods of postponing or achieving pregnancy. It’s about having a fuller vision of God’s plan for marriage and family life and understanding the gift of a couple’s combined fertility. 

I think that Fertility Awareness is an empowering thing for women (both single and married) to know and understand how their bodies work and how fertility awareness is actually a vital sign for health. It can also be an empowering tool for couples to use within married life as they discern God’s will for their family and exercise responsible parenthood. My hope for our diocese is that we can make these resources more readily available in a variety of methods and languages so that women and couples can have access to this kind of education. 

What about your work brings you the most joy? 

Being with the engaged couples on the Three to Get Marriage retreat weekends and being able to witness lightbulb moments for folks.

One of the most powerful moments for me, would have been Summer of 2019. We had a couple come, they were civilly married, and they had been together for 26 years. They had never prayed together because he was Protestant and she was Catholic and the husband was always like “you do your thing, I’ll do my thing because we are not on the same page.” But the retreat was the first time they had ever prayed together and he was in tears because of the experience.

Does that happen at every retreat? No. But there are times where you get to see those really neat moments that God is just doing his thing and to realize that the ministry that we are doing is a vehicle for that. It’s humbling. Seeing how God brings those people together, seeing people’s minds change to be open to life, or people who are afraid of trusting God with their fertility begin to trust – that brings me the most joy. 

Also, the St. Philip Institute team. It brings me joy working with our team! We have fun in what we are doing.

What do you wish people understood about family life? 

I wish people understood how crucial their family is to the Body of Christ. Personally, I know it can be challenging for families to fall into comparing themselves to others and getting discouraged by what we don’t see. But recognizing that as individual families, if you are what God has called you to be, then you are living your domestic church to the best of your ability, as messy and loud and chaotic and simple as it can be.

One of the beautiful things about our community of faith is that we are diverse: all of our families are different, and the gifts and missions that God has entrusted to each family are unique. I want to encourage all families to embrace whatever journey God has you on and that we really need to encourage and uplift one another on the journey. 

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of the marriage formation program for engaged couples that we created during my first year at the Institute. We established the new diocesan norms for marriage formation following Bishop Strickland’s vision in section 3 of the Constitution, and we created the Three to Get Married/Son Tres Los Que Se Casan retreat ministry. To date we’ve had over 350 couples attend that retreat since it was created in April 2018.

Do you have a favorite Scripture passage?  

Matthew 14:22-36 when Jesus walks on water. I love this story so much and I even have the image of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water with Jesus on the wall in my office. In my personal life and in ministry I feel like God invites me daily to step out of my comfort zone and trust him – to be at peace, to walk on water, and to be not afraid. I want to have that kind of faith in my personal walk with Christ, in my vocation, and also in my role in the Family Life Office!

Any final thoughts?

I love my job! I really love my job. The people of East Texas really are amazing. Being able to walk with people in their journeys of faith, that’s a great privilege. 

You can learn more about the work Deanna does for the Diocese of Tyler by visiting the Department of Family Life page on the St. Philip Institute Website.