In developing research, there are several steps:

1. Identifying interests
2. Exploring the topic
3. Descriptive research
4. Developing hypotheses
5. Choosing methods of conducting the research
6. Methods of gathering information
7. Ethical issues

Identifying Interests

The first task in developing a research project is identifying the topic which is to be studied. While this sounds easy, many students take years to complete it. Research projects often flounder because the topic is not clearly identified, or not described in such a way as to be manageable, and about which it is possible to reach some conclusions.

A first step in identifying a project is to specify one’s areas of interest and passion. The topic must carry the student through a year or more of work among those doing masters degrees and several years of work for doing doctorates. Indeed, if the topic is not of value, then whatever the result in terms of the awarding of a degree, one must question whether the project has been worthwhile.

Having identified the area of interest and passion, the researcher has to find an aspect of that area and some questions within that area which can be tackled in a manageable way. Most of us would like to solve all the problems of the world in a research project. But a project which aims to be too encompassing is bound to fail. A project which seeks very specific information is far more likely to be successful. At the same time, some of us find that projects which are too narrow quickly lose their interest value.

Sometimes areas of research arise from issues one is personally facing. How best should one go about ministry in a particular situation? What are the most effective ways of Christian education among young people? Sometimes the issues arise from personal questions. One may ask how can one deal with the apparently competing claims of science and theology? Does prayer really change things?

Sometimes areas of research arise from general observations which one would like to pursue at greater depth. Why is it, for example, that church-attending young adults get married at a much earlier age than non-church-attending young adults? Does marriage mean something different? Do they place a different value on relationships or on family life? Or are there different social pressures on them?

Topics such as ‘the most effective ways of conducting multicultural ministry’ are too general to be covered even within a doctorate. What one might do, however, is to assess several examples of conducting multicultural ministry. In this way, the general area is narrowed to a project that is manageable. It will inevitably leave open the question whether there are more effective ways of conducting multicultural ministry other than those examined. However, it is likely that if one chooses several examples which are quite different in style and content, that some of the factors which are important in their effectiveness will become apparent. Thus, the learning which arises from those specific examples may help one in assessing other possibilities.

In order that valid comparisons can be made between the various examples of ministry that will be examined, it will be important that there be some similarities in the situation. Is there a mix of cultures in each case? Have the people involved immigrated within a similar time period and come from similar places? Are there similar theological and cultural factors which make the various cases comparable? The greater the differences in the factors, the more difficult it will be in assigning differences in results to particular factors. Is the success of one form of multicultural ministry due to the cultures from which the people involved have come, the period since immigration, the similarity in linguistic background, or the actual forms of ministry itself?

Other topics are very difficult to examine because of the sort of information that would be needed. While there are many personal anecdotes about how prayer changes things, to discover patterns in the impact of prayer in certain situations would be very difficult. The range of other factors which may have an impact would be numerous. It is wise to remember the dictum of the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, that one must be able to say what would ‘disprove’ the case one wants to examine. What evidence would be necessary to show that prayer does not change things? (If it did not change things in a particular instance, would we then assume that the prayer had not been genuine, or that God had desired to change things in a way other than that which we expected?)

Having decided on one’s general area, it will be important to read widely in literature on that area. Through reading, the issues which others have found to be significant will become apparent. Journal articles are especially useful in identifying specific questions which need to be tackled as most journal articles are narrow in scope, although adding something significant to global knowledge.

Literature written from different viewpoints and using different methodologies will help to fill in the picture from a range of perspectives. Very often, sociologists and psychologists have their own perspectives on similar issues. Each may help to illumine the area as a whole. Sometimes the terminology they use may be different while dealing with similar phenomena. For example, sociologists may look at the culture of insecurity within a nation or an era and the factors which contribute to such a culture. Psychologists may look at experiences of anxiety, how these develop in different personalities and the likely catalysts for such experiences.

Having read widely, the researcher is in a better position to choose what are the specific questions which will be tackled within the project. The researcher will know what are the various issues which are being debated and what are the ways in which they are being tackled by other researchers. Sometimes, there is no point in doing a project which has been done by others. Yet, often one may ask if the findings of others reflect one’s own situation.

Exploring the Area

Having decided on the topic to be explored, the next task is a more detailed examination of the literature and other information relating to the topic. (See discussion of this in more detail under Resourcing Research.) With a large research topic, this stage may take a year or more and will be a substantial part of the research project itself. The student must aim to familiarise himself or herself with all that has been written about the precise topic. It will involve a detailed and extended literature search. Libraries, journals, and Internet sites should be scanned for relevant material which needs to be carefully examined, noting the theoretical and practical contexts from which it has come. The references in journal articles and books should be followed up to see what further light they shed. This detailed literature search is generally written up as one chapter in a thesis or as an opening section in an academic article. While the literature search may not be finalised until the research project is close to completion, an initial draft can help define the topic as well as summarise existing knowledge relating to it.

It will be important at this stage to break the topic into its components. For example, a study on Christian education may decide that it will look at the methods of Christian education as well as the content of Christian education. It may look at the organisational structures through which Christian education is delivered and the motivations people have for undertaking Christian education. It may be that the researcher decides to look at Christian education among different age groups or socio-economic groups, or within a specific range of denominations. Each of these components will have its own literature, its own terms which need to be clearly defined.

Within this process, it is also helpful to look at what data has been collected in surveys, interviews and other studies. The National Church Life Survey can provide information about the questions they have included on Christian education, for example, in their surveys. The Christian Research Association website may provide details of studies that have been done in that area. The American Religion Data Archives ( will provide some idea of what relevant studies have been conducted in the United States. Some analysis of available data, such as the questions contained in the National Social Science Surveys, may be relevant, giving an indication of how people have responded to relevant questions in the past.

If there are well developed theories in one’s area of research, it will be appropriate to move to ‘hypothesis-based’ research. However, if there are no theories which are sufficiently well developed to make some predictions about what one might find in research, then it may be more appropriate to move into some ‘descriptive research’.

Descriptive Research

Descriptive research is often a prelude to more focussed, hypothesis-driven research. However, it is an important stage in research and may provide sufficient information for the researcher in its own right. Descriptive research is that research which is done when a researcher is not able to make predictions about what might be discovered, but wants to know ‘what is out there’. Descriptive research may also be helpful when one needs limited information to contribute to the framing of theological or ethical research. It is also appropriate when the literature on a particular area is sparse.

Descriptive research involves exploring the topic of interest without any highly developed perceptions of what one might find. Sometimes one can conduct such research through participant observation. In other cases, one might use interviews with open-ended questions which impose little structure on the sorts of responses which might be given. Sometimes a simple survey is useful, providing some general findings about the ways people respond to some specific questions. Sometimes focus groups allow people to stimulate each other which can contribute to descriptive research.

In this level of research, it is generally important to observe the range of situations in which one is interested and to listen to a range of responses. Thus, one may factor that into the research: deliberately choosing a range of cases to look at in quite different situations. For example, if one was exploring styles of worship, one might deliberately go to churches of different denominations, churches serving people of different age groups, to rural and urban churches. Sometimes it is the similarities discovered in a variety of situations which become the clues to developing theory. At other times, it is the way that one accounts for the differences that one finds that becomes the key to further research.

At this stage, one does not usually have much idea about what factors will be important. Thus, structuring the range of situations or the range of people to be interviewed is critical to the exercise. In an initial study of the spirituality of young people, for example, it was thought important to talk to young people of different ages, some rural and some urban, and involved in schools of different systems: Catholic, Independent, low-fee Christian and government. This should help to ensure that a range of young people were listened to, and should assist in catching a glimpse of the range of ways in which young people put their lives together and how spirituality is relevant to that.

For more details on the various methods which may be used in research, both descriptive and hypothesis-driven, see the sections under ‘Conducting Research’.

The Formulation of Hypotheses

Having studied the literature and perhaps done some initial observational research, one is in a position to move further into more focussed research based on theories and on hypotheses deduced from them.

Research involves the development of theories. Theories are general predictions about what happens in the real world and how a number of factors may relate to each other and produce certain outcomes. Theories may be derived in a range of ways:

  1. From our general observations and experiences, or from initial observational research that we have conducted.
  2. From the work of other people who have produced theories or ideas – perhaps in other countries or other situations.
  3. From our own introspection – trying to see what would influence ourselves and how we would respond to other situations.

In the area of religion, there are a number of very general theories, from which more specific hypotheses can be deduced. Many of these general theories had their origins in the nineteenth century, but continue to be used in different ways today. They include, for example,

  1. Secularisation a theory which goes back to Auguste Comte and which suggests in one form or another, that religion was important for explaining the world and seeking to take control in the world before scientific thinking was well developed. Scientific and technological thinking will eventually take over and religion will wane, or at least be pushed out of the public sphere of life, becoming a ‘hobby’ for small groups of interested people.
  2. Deprivation theory – can be found, for example, in the writings of Karl Marx. Religion is something that people cling on to when they have nothing else. It provides hope when there is no reason to hope, or in Marx’s terms, religion is the opiate of the masses. It has been suggested at various times that people in lower socio-economic situations, or when oppressed, are more likely to be religious. While the theory has often be phrased in a negative way, it can also be presented in more positive ways: that people turn to religion in times of difficulty can be seen as something positive and does not necessarily mean that religion provides ‘false hope’.
  3. Society idealised – The great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, suggested that religion involves the divinisation of the ideals and values of a society. In many situations, religion is closely associated with the cultures of societies and sub-groups within societies. Religion becomes the bearer of the society’s values and ideals. In some ways, this can develop into what is often referred to as ‘civic religion’, those forms of religion which are associated with nationhood (as expressed, for example, in a national anthem) and with celebrations of a nation (for example, in ANZAC day ceremonies).
  4. Rational choice theory – has been developed in the United States in recent times to account for the interest people have in religion based on the idea that people make rational choices. They weigh up what they see as the benefits and the costs of religion, and decide whether they will be involved or not. Rodney Stark who has been at the forefront of the development of this theory suggests that the benefits include present social benefits, but also the benefits of certainty about life after death. He suggests that religious involvement depends a lot on how religion is ‘marketed’ by religious organisations.

It may be that one or more versions of such theories are relevant to the study that has been chosen. Or they may be other theoretical frameworks which appear to make sense and which can provide the basis for hypotheses.

In looking at the dynamics of ministry situations, it is often appropriate to draw on theoretical frameworks which have been found to be useful in secular circumstances. In relation to understanding people, counselling, and other pastoral activities, psychological theories may well be relevant. In relation to group dynamics and issues of leadership, social psychology may have much to offer. In relation to communication, the discipline of semiotics may be relevant.

If one is doing research into the topic of evangelism, for example, one cannot simply ask people why they were converted. While the answers may provide some helpful information, they are unlikely to provide all the relevant clues. There are many factors in society which influence people’s thinking and their behaviour, although they may not be explicitly aware of them. People are attracted by many things without making conscious decisions about them. A lot of advertising is based on the fact that people make unconscious links between situations or ideas which are attractive to them. For example, people may choose to put their money into a particular bank because the bank advertises that it provides money for wonderful holidays.

Surveys can help the researcher to discover links between various factors, even if people are not conscious of them. However, to do this, one must work out what factors might have a link. Then one can use surveys to test whether those hunches were correct. Surveys can not usually tell us about causes, but they can tell us about links or associations. The statements which suggest certain links are called ‘hypotheses’.

For example, we might have a hypothesis that parents influence their children’s decisions about faith. We can then do some questions asking parents about their faith, and then asking children. If we find that the children’s faith is very similar to their parents’, we would have found some evidence for a link. However, we must be careful at this point. The similarity does not mean that the parents’ faith caused the children to have a similar faith. There may be many other factors we need to take into account. For example, it may be that the parents took their children to church, and it was because of the church, that the children adopted their parents’ faith.

We may also find many exceptions, where children have not adopted their parents’ faith. These exceptions encourage us to develop our questions a little further, and to develop some further hypotheses. For example, on the basis of further thought, and perhaps after talking with a few people, we might develop some hypotheses such as the following.

  1. Parents with an intense faith pass their faith on more successfully to their children.
  2. Parents with a joyous faith pass their faith on more successfully to their children.
  3. Parents who see faith as a duty that they fulfil grudgingly are unlikely to pass on their faith to their children.
  4. Fathers are more likely to pass on their faith to their children than are mothers.

From general hypotheses, we will need to develop testable hypotheses. For example, we cannot just ask people whether their fathers passed on their faith to them. Most people will not be able to ‘weigh up’ the separate influence of their fathers as distinct from many other influences, although how important people think their fathers are in their journey of faith may be one piece of evidence we examine.

In developing our testable hypotheses, we must

  • be clear exactly what we are asking;
  • ask only what people are able to answer;
  • recognise the differences between what people think and what actually happens;
  • be able to state what information would prove our hypotheses wrong.

Among our testable hypotheses may be:

  1. People think their fathers were a major influence on their own religious faith.
  2. The beliefs about God among fathers are similar to those held by their children.
  3. The levels of church involvement among fathers are similar to those of their children.
  4. People who report their parents “enjoyed” being Christians, also report that the Christian faith is very important to themselves.

It will be possible, then, to develop a survey in which these ‘testable hypotheses’ can be tested. If the survey shows there are good reasons not to reject the hypotheses (which is always the default position), then we have some evidence (although no proof) for our general theory.

Choosing a Research Method

Having decided on one’s topic and completed an initial literature search, one may be ready to choose one’s research method. The choice of method depends a lot on what one wants to discover. On the other hand, what one is able to discover may depend partly on what research methods are practical in the situation.

If one wants to obtain information about a large population such as all Australians, or all attenders of Uniting Churches, then the only practical way to obtain such information is through a survey. To interview sufficient people to get information that could reliably generalised to such a large group would usually be impossible in any other way. Surveys are the usual basis of quantitative research, analysed using statistical methods. Many organisations are using short telephone interviews instead of written surveys. However, these demand expensive equipment, many interviewers, and a lot of money on phone calls. A telephone survey of 1000 people may well cost in the order of $50,000 if done by a commercial company.

If one wants to examine in depth the ways in which people think about something, and does not need to generalise the results to a large population, then qualitative research may be more appropriate. Qualitative research is usually more open-ended. It is more sensitive to the contexts in which people participate.

Qualitative research may be done in a range of ways.

‘Narrative research’ is open-ended, a way of listening to people tell their story. The interviewer gives a few prompts and listens to the person’s story and the ways in which they tell that story. Narrative research is a good way into a person’s worldview, the ways in which they put their lives together.

Historical research often involves interviews, but can also involve using a range of other resources: photographs, letters, records of meetings, and so on. The historical researcher will look for patterns in these materials. It will provide information about how the present situation has come about, the activities, events and patterns of behaviour which have contributed to it.

Case-study research involves looking at one or a few cases, and may involve both some historical research about the past and a range of methods to obtain information about the present. Most case-studies involve gathering information about one or a few ‘bounded’ examples in a range of ways and using a range of resources. Case-study research is particularly appropriate when one’s subject is not people but organisations or groups of people within a particular circumstance. Case studies are good at looking at the dynamics of a situation, an organisation, or a group within its perculiar context. Sometimes a single case is chosen expecting that it will reveal some important dynamics or because it is expected to be unique and the study will not be generalised to other situations. On other occasions, several case-studies are conducted to see if similar factors and themes arise within different contexts.

A grounded theory approach is used to develop theory from the situation rather than to presuppose what the relevant theory might be from the beginning. In grounded theory research, researchers make multiple visits to the place of research, listening, observing, and developing the categories of information as they go. Often a ‘zigzag’ process is used in which some information is gathered, some analysis done, then further information is gathered, followed by more analysis. The end point is obtained when the researcher discovers that there is nothing more to add, and the results can be presented in terms of a theory or a series of hypotheses or propositions.

Gathering Information:
Interviews, Focus Groups and Surveys

Surveys, interviews and focus groups are all ways of listening to people. Each way may be used in a church or community context and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. In Pointers March 1998, the example was given of using questionnaires in a church to listen to people’s attitudes to the style of music. In small congregations, it would be unusual to use a questionnaire: the minister or members of the music committee may well telephone people to discuss the matter with them, or talk with them after the worship service. There are many other occasions when individual interviews are very helpful. With large groups, questionnaires provide a useful means of listening to a large number of people.

These various means of gathering information can be used within the context of different approaches to research. For the different methods of doing research, see the section on conducting research.

Individual interviews

Individual interviews allow one to pursue people’s stories in depth. One can take into account the dynamics of the situation. Let us return to the example of people’s choice of music. As we talk with the individual, about what styles of music they enjoy and why, we may well find the individual who has a hearing problem such that he or she is particularly sensitive to loud music or low notes or a certain frequency. This governs their feelings far more than aesthetic considerations. It is a little story that a survey would probably not have picked up.

In an interview, the person is not restricted to the ‘boxes’ a questionnaire places before them. They do not have to choose, for example, between ‘contemporary music’ and ‘traditional music’. They may describe their choices as ‘traditional folk music’, ‘ethnic music’, ‘Country and Western music’ which would not necessarily fit the boxes. An interview allows people to say that they like a mixture: popular music at the start of a service, but a traditional hymn at the end, for example. Or they may have strong feelings about avoiding contemporary music during Holy Communion. In interviews, one can ask open-ended questions, and listen to the full story, the nuances, the individuality of the responses.

However, individual interviews have disadvantages. The first is that they take a great deal of time. To do interviews even with thirty people on a limited subject may well take several days of time. Usually, we do not have that sort of time available. In order to cut the time, we cut the number of interviews. But it is likely that the very people we leave out will have different opinions to those we interview. In a church situation, it is much easier to interview those who always around, who are in the core of church life, rather than people on the fringes, the newcomers, the young people, or the very elderly and those who say little unless asked.

In order to overcome such problems, it is important to interview a wide range of people and not those who are easy to interview. The interviewing strategy must be planned. According to the particular issue, it may be important to ensure that one interviews people of

  • different age groups
  • different life-stages – with young children, teenage children, without children, etc.
  • different educational backgrounds
  • different denominational or spiritual backgrounds.

Another issue for the interviewer is what he or she does with the interviews. Occasionally, it may be important to hear the story of a few individuals. Often one needs to know what a group of people think. On such occasions, the individual stories have to be ‘put together’ in some way. The interviewer will usually code the responses, making decisions about the points at which stories were similar and the points at which they differed. In so doing, the interviewer has to put the individual stories in some kinds of ‘boxes’. The interviewer may decide that two-thirds of the people like ‘contemporary music’ even though the people themselves described the music they enjoyed in a variety of terms. In a survey, the respondent decides the appropriate ‘boxes’ for their opinions, rather than the interviewer, and the results are often more reliable in that regard.

An interview schedule will assist in providing comparable information. If the questions have been prepared prior to the interview, similar questions may be asked. Responses may more readily be compared. The interview situation does allow the interviewer to stray from the schedule to pursue something which is particularly interesting. However, as the interviewer returns to the schedule, the various areas of interest will be covered, and the wording used with a variety of people will be similar.

Another disadvantage of interviews is that it may easily be influenced by the interviewer and the situation of the interview. Most people try to express themselves in ways they think will be ‘acceptable’, or at least ‘comprehensible’ to the person listening. In so doing, they use the terms that they think the interviewer will understand and appreciate. If a young person asks about music, the person being interviewed may well assume that that person likes contemporary music. They may well say that they enjoy some contemporary music, even though their preference is for traditional music. If an older person asks the question, a similar response may be given in quite a different way: while a few contemporary songs are acceptable, they definitely prefer traditional music. As the story is interpreted by the interviewer, the report at the end may be quite different.

Some people win the confidence of others readily. Some do not. Some will naturally appear ‘in authority’, while others do not appear that way. Depending on the situation, what has happened recently and what is happening while the interview is taking place, the story told may have quite a different slant to it. Surveys are more often perceived as neutral compared with interviews although they may suffer from similar problems depending on who is seen as asking the questions. Anonymity of the questionnaire can assist in providing more accurate information.

Focus Groups

Focus groups allow one to listen to a variety of people within one time period. As a group of people discuss matters with each other, one can listen to their various stories in the time it would take to listen to just one or two stories told through individual interviews. As one person expresses their opinions, others simply affirm that their’s are similar, or may express their differences.

As with interviews, focus groups allow one to follow up issues that one had not envisaged prior to the group. The nuances of individual stories may be heard and the situations of individuals taken into account. Open-ended questions may be used very effectively in focus groups.

Focus groups are often stimulating. As one person expresses their opinion, others will find themselves in agreement or disagreement over issues about which they had previously given little thought. New ideas come to light in focus groups that a survey would never have plumbed, and an interview would not have mentioned. People respond in terms of their body language even when they do not give a verbal response to the opinions others are expressing.

In both interviews and focus groups, having started the process, it is unusual for the person to give up. They will be drawn into it and generally see it through. They are unlikely to lose interest as quickly as they might with a questionnaire.

On the other hand, focus groups have similar problems to those experienced in interviews. They are far more likely to be influenced by personalities than are surveys. The interviewer will be visible, and, in the focus group, strong personalities may well dominate the expression of opinions.

The Christian Research Association was recently involved in research about religious education curricula. The researchers asked primary school children to chose the most interesting activity out of a range of between four and six items. The younger children, in particular, often looked for the expression of majority or the expression of group leaders before making similar choices to the others. Some older children changed their minds when their friends made choices different from those they had initially made themselves. The processes are sometimes more subtle among older people, but most of us want to be accepted if not positively liked or thought well of. The focus group may stimulate people to different ideas, but may also produce consensus which does not truly represent the differences of opinions represented.


Surveys have the advantage that they allow one to gather the opinions of many people at one time. Analysis of the responses is less time-consuming than that of interviews and focus groups. It is easier to examine the differences and similarities between different sub-groups, such as different age groups, or people from different backgrounds. It is also easier to examine complex inter-relationships of factors.

Ethically, surveys may be less ‘imposing’ than interviews. Generally, ethics committees accept that when surveys are given to people to be done in their own time, they can then make a free decision whether to respond or not. Interviews, on the other hand, have to be organised in advance, and people need to have the opportunity of deciding, in advance, whether they will be involved. Surveys are often less time-consuming from the participants’ point of view than are interviews or focus groups, although some people find the written constraints of surveys demanding. It is also easier for surveys to be completed anonymously. The researcher does not need to personally meet the person who completes the survey. Names and addresses may be kept separately from the survey information.

On the other hand, it may be difficult to get people to complete a survey. Whereas, times are set for interviews and focus groups, people usually do surveys in their time. All one can do is remind them. It is common with a major survey to send out two or three reminders to complete the survey.

Mixtures of Methods

Best results are often obtained by using a variety of methods. The mixing of methods is often referred to as ‘triangulation’. Interviews or focus groups may be very useful to understand something of the variety of opinions and the ways in which people put their opinions together. They are a useful starting point to investigate a new topic. They may lead to awareness of dimensions the researcher had not previously anticipated. By allowing the researcher to pursue the story, they will provide information about factors which may influence opinions.

However, without enormous expense in time or money, interviews and focus groups are rarely suitable for testing how widely such opinions are held. Opinions expressed will be influenced by the interviewer, other people in the vicinity and the situation. It is usually difficult to get similar quantity of information from all the people or all the groups of people from which one would like to hear. Surveys allow one to check more easily how widely particularly opinions or attitudes, or what the quiet majority really think. They allow one to analyse more easily the opinions of different sub-groups.

Considerable strength in research is derived from obtaining comparable information through the use of a variety of methods.

Ethical Issues

If you are studying for a degree, any research project which involves human subjects will need to be passed by an ethics committee. Most degree-awarding institutions have now established such committees. These committees operate according to strict government guidelines and report annually to the National Health and Medical Research Council on the projects they pass and those they do not pass. They expect to receive annual reports on all research projects and have a duty to ensure that research projects are carried out in accordance with the guidelines. The government guidelines have been published in a small book entitled National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans. The book is available from Federal government bookshops. Further information is available on the website:

Most committees provide a list of questions which researchers must answer. Researchers also have to submit copies of letters seeking permission for interviews along with interview schedules and questionnaires.

It should be noted that the guidelines are to be applied not only to research conducted in Australia but also to research conducted overseas by people involved in Australian organisations or by Australian citizens. At the same time, researchers must meet any standards expected in the country in which they are working.

It is the responsibility of ethics committees to ensure that projects are conducted in accordance with certain ethical principles. Among these are the following:

  1. Respect for persons. This means that all involvement in research should be voluntary. Indeed, it is the duty of ethics committees to ensure that all people who are asked to assist with a research project are aware that they have the right to say they do not wish to take part. Thus, in asking people, researchers have the duty to make sure that people know (and actually feel) that their involvement is voluntary and will only occur with their full and free consent, and that they can withdraw from the project at any time. In order the voluntary consent to involvement can be given, people should be given written information about the research and what it will involve before the time occurs. It is usual for ethics committees to ask to see the letters requesting participation prior to approval of the research project. It is also usual for those letters to have information about how participants may make a complaint to the ethics committee (with the name and address of a member of the ethics committee) if they so chose. Insuring that involvement is voluntary is especially difficult if there is some sort of pre-existing relationship between the person who is asked to be involved and the researcher. It is not fair, for example, for a minister or priest to use his or her position to gain the participation of people in projects. Yet, it is often difficult to stop this from occurring. It usually means that it is not ethical for a minister to engage in interview based research in their own congregation. Conducting research without the knowledge and permission of those involved is not permitted. If one is going to tape record a conversation, then permission must be asked beforehand, and in such a way that people involved feel no obligation to agree. It is also important that the confidences of the person involved are protected. Again, it may be difficult to do this in a small community or in a congregation. Special steps must be taken to ensure that this occurs during the process, and that any notes or recordings are kept securely and in such a way that all confidences are protected following the research. In relation to surveys, it is important that names and details of people are not recorded in the same files as their responses and that there is no way of matching responses with names. In relation to interviews, it is important that recordings are kept locked and secure and are heard only by members of the research team. If someone else assists in the transcriptions of interviews, they must agree to the code of confidentiality which is established.
  2. Beneficence. Researchers must ensure the minimum harm or cost to research participants. This means that one does not make undue demands on participants in terms of their time or in terms of what one expects them to do. Ideally, one should aim at providing some means whereby the participants receive some benefits from the research themselves, such as by making reports available to them. Again, this may pose issues for people doing research in the context of a church. Researchers must be particularly careful if their questions are likely to cause distress or anxiety to participants. For example, to do interviews among members of a church during a period when there is a high level of conflict occurring in the congregation could possibly inflame the situation, despite the best attempts of the researcher to remain neutral. To ask people questions about distressing experiences could revive the experience of distress among some people and such questions must be handled carefully.
  3. Justice. For the sake of justice, researchers should ensure that the burdens of research do not fall constantly on a small group of people while others receive the benefits. For example, it was recognised in the medical realm that patients in public hospitals were frequently the subject of research while those in private hospitals did not participate in research at all.