The process of conducting research will depend part on what method or approach to research one has chosen. In very general terms, research methods can be divided into two types: qualitative and quantitative. Most qualitative research revolves around interviews or focus groups, while quantitative research tends to revolve around surveys. The ways in which qualitative research is developed in relation to theory, who is interviewed, when they are interviewed, and with what purpose they are interviewed depends on the research method one has chosen. The methods of conducting qualitative and quantitative research are considered in separate sections. Here are a number of specific methods.
The Past that Lives in the Present
Prepared by Rev Dr Herbert R. Swanson, former director of Office of History, Church of Christ in Thailand
Studying the past of a local congregation or of a church agency, institution or body opens important doors on the present. No two churches, for example, are the same, and the differences can frequently be highly important. We speak of the pastoral relationship as being a “marriage” between a church and a pastor, and we recognize that individual pastors do better in some churches than in others. The placement of pastors is an important and difficult issue, one that has gained increased attention in many denominations world-wide. A church’s past plays an immense role in making it the church it is today. The historical study of that church’s past offers an invaluable key to its life in the present.
Historical research, however, is a fascinating creature, a combination of simple commonsense and of particular skills that are readily learned but take some practice to master. This section of your CD will “walk” you through the basics and give you some hints on how to get started. It will also help you to see that both pastors and those doing ministry in other settings are already historians–without really realizing it.
What History Teaches Us
We are what we were. Like a mountain stream flowing down a particular terrain, the origins and channels of a church or agency’s historical experience determine where today’s river is flowing. The study of the past, again using a local church as an example, provides us with important insights into:
- the origins of the church
- formative events in the life of the church
- stories of individual members of the church
- past challenges and crises that have shaped the church
- the roles and experiences of former pastors
- the impact of national and international events on the church
Other forms of contemporary research provide us with invaluable insights into particular aspects of a church or agency’s contemporary life. Historical research turns those insights into part of a story, the story of that church or agency. The study of a church or other organization’s past helps us to put “the numbers” into a larger context. That study helps us to better understand why the numbers turn out the way they do.
Everyone is Their Own Historian
Everyone working in a church or related agency or institution is, necessarily, already involved in the study of the past. We can’t escape accumulating data about the past. Historiography is nothing more or less than a way to better organize and understand the knowledge we are already gathering. Pastors, thus, generally do a good deal of visitation in their parishioners’ homes; they acquire a wealth of historical data and insights simply in the course of their conversations with individual members. From time to time the pastor has to go to older minutes of meetings or other congregational records for particular pieces of information. Local church history research, in a sense, represents a more organized, intentional way of doing what pastors (and other church leaders) are already doing.
That is to say, that you already have many of the fundamental skills needed to do historical research. You almost certainly have already done something like such research.
As is the case with every other form of research, historical research begins with the simple question, “What do I want to know?” Equally important are the questions that immediately follow: “How much do I want to know?” and “How much time do I have to devote to learning about what I want to know?” and, finally, “How do I intend to use what I learn?” That is, at the very beginning, the researcher should define:
- the subject of research
- the purpose and goals of research
- the intended audience
- the medium of presentation
Examples: Suppose you are a student in theological college and want to do a paper on local church history. Obviously, you need to pick a church. You also need to narrow down your topic to one aspect or one period of that church’s history. You might study one pastorate, the history of youth ministry, the impact of economic change in the larger community, or one of many other possible subjects. You need to be clear as to how many pages your paper will be and when it is due as these factors strongly influence your topic and the depth to which you can go in researching it. Your instructor and, possibly, your classmates are your audience. The medium of presentation is a written academic report, including bibliography and footnotes.
Suppose you are a pastor. You want to prepare for your church’s 50th anniversary celebration. The subject of research might be the founding and early years of the church or it might be the whole history of the congregation. Your purpose is to remember the past, to instill a sense of congregational pride and an awareness of the need to move into the future. Your audience is, at least, the church’s membership and may extend to include the wider local community and/or other area churches in your denomination. Your medium of presentation might include a brief printed history (or, perhaps, a longer book), a display of photographs and artifacts, a special celebration and/or a special worship service. You will surely want to involve several members in the research and presentation of the church’s history.
Suppose you work for an agency of your denomination. You need historical data as part of a major project proposal. It will be important, again, for you to define precisely what type of data you need and how much. Do you need merely a brief historical introduction, or is the historical situation you face integral to the proposal? Will footnotes and a bibliography be necessary? Remember, finally, that your audience is a small, specific group of individuals. You will want to write up your data with them and no one else in mind.
Types of Research
There are two basic forms of historical research: documentary research and oral research. The distinction is obvious. Documentary research has to do with reading the “records” of a church or other ecclesiastical organization’s life. Oral history is done by interviewing individuals (or, in some cases, groups of people) who remember important information about the past. The skills required for doing each of these two types of historical research are quite different.
A historical document is anything that comes out of the past and contains significant written, oral, or pictorial information about past events. Indeed, anything at all that gives us some insights into the way things used to be can be considered a historical “document”. Historians, however, generally do not deal with artifacts coming out of the past so much as with written documents (for the more distant past) or such things as photographs, tape recordings, video clips, and the like (for the more recent past).
Two Types of Documents
There are two types of historical documents, known as primary and secondary sources. While the distinction can sometimes be difficult to maintain, in general, Primary Sources are those records produced by eyewitnesses to the events recorded. They saw what happened. Secondary Sources have been produced later by others from the primary, eyewitness records. For many types of historical research, you will probably not need primary sources, but if you intend to do an original history of a church, institution, or agency you will certainly want to use them. Primary sources are more difficult to use–and more interesting!
Finding Primary Documents
One of the most challenging aspects of historical research is collecting primary documents. You need both creativity and patience because invaluable data can (and probably will) be located in places you may not even realize exist. We will use the example of local churches in what follows.
Searching Close at Hand
You are looking for anything that will provide you with historical information about your church. It is easiest to begin with what is close at hand and work from there. You will want to search the cupboards and storage areas of the church building. Ask the church’s custodian where old records might be located. Ask older members, especially former clerks of session, if they know of old church records kept elsewhere. Make particular use of members who have themselves already studied the history of their church; many churches have one or more members who have made studying the church’s history their hobby. You should contact former pastors to see if they have personal records that relate to the history of the congregation. If you yourself have served the church as a pastor for some period of time, you will have many important records in your own files.
The types of records you hope to find include:
- the minutes of the local session
- correspondence and reports
- clippings from the local press
- old bulletins, programs, and leaflets
- printed historical sketches
- sermons printed up for distribution
- tape recordings of important events
What you find at hand will get you started. If you are fortunate, your local church will have a surprising large array of documents, more than you expected. Such is often the case.
Broadening the Search
If you are simply writing up a brief historical sketch, the church’s historical resources may well be sufficient for your purpose. If, however, you want to write a larger, more in-depth history, you will need to seek out other sources of data. Again, you will quite likely find more than you might have guessed exist. You should initially look in two directions:
- Local Sources of Historical Data. These include local historical societies, the public library, the histories of other churches in you community, pastors and members of other churches who know something about your church, and local “history buffs,” to mention just a few local sources.
- Denominational Data. This includes national or state archives for the denomination, and denominational magazines and other publications. If there is a denominational news magazine, you may well find reports from your congregation. Pay especially attention to the minutes and reports of the conference, presbytery, or other regional governing bodies to which your church has belonged over the years.
- As you progress, you will yourself find other sources of information that can’t be anticipated here.
Locating Secondary Sources
The search for relevant secondary sources is not that different from what we have described for primary data. You will find both in many of the same places. You will want to look for secondary sources in other places as well. Where you search depends on how broadly you want to extend the search. If you are doing a full, in-depth study of a local church’s history, you will want to study general histories of the church in Australia, such as Thompson’s, Religion in Australia, or Breward’s, A History of the Australian Churches, for example (see the bibliography). You will want to consult denominational histories or the congregation’s denomination and of other denominations, of which there are many. Denominational history at the state and national level frequently influence local church life. The formation of the Uniting Church is an obvious example. It may well be that you will also want to look at national and state histories to put your congregation’s history into its widest context. Even international events, such as World War II or the Great Depression, can have a significant impact on a local church’s history.
Again, the range of secondary sources you use will depend on the depth and breadth of your purpose as well as on your creativity in searching out relevant materials.
A Sample Bibliography
Below is the bibliography for a study of the history of the Wangaratta Baptist Church, Wangaratta, Victoria, conducted in 1984. It provides an example of the variety of both primary and secondary resources that are available for the study of local church life in Australia.
Church Secretary’s Files, 1953, 1967-1980.
Congregational Meeting Minutes 1904-1955, 1966-1979
Deacons’ Meetings Minutes 1955-1983
Endeavour Society Minutes 1927-1936
Baptist Home Mission Committee of Victoria. Minutes 1887-1957.
Primary Resources – Interviews
Anon., ‘East Wangaratta Cemetery’, North-Eastern Historical Society Newsletter, 14,5 (Oct-Nove 1975)
Australian Evangelist, The
Baptist Association of Victoria, Baptist Handbook, Melbourne: Watt & Co, 1886.
Black, Alan W. and Peter E. Glasner, Practice and Belief, Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.
Bollen, J.D., Religion in Australian Society: An Historian’s View, The Leigh College Open Lectures, Winter Series, Enfield, New South Wales: Leigh College, 1973.
Brown, Basil S., Members One of Another: The Baptist Union of Victoria 1862-1962, Melbourne: the Baptist Union of Victoria, 1962.
Brown, Basil S., ‘Early Baptists of the Ovens Valley’, typescript, n.d..
Cosson, Doug, ‘The Wangaratta Baptist Church’, typescript, 1981.
Garth, Frank, ‘Baptist Chapel and School: East Wangaratta 1865-1910’, typescript, n.d..
Gomm, Leslie J., Blazing the Western Trails: the Story of the Life and Work of William Kennedy, Sydney: J.A. Packer, 1935.
Higgins, W. T., Wangaratta: Capital of North-Eastern Victoria 1838-1927, 1927.
Leitch, Brenda, Wangaratta Baptist Church History 1902-1977, Wangaratta: mimeographed, 1977.
Manning, J.G., Builders for God, Melbourne: Victorian Baptist Home Missionary Society, 1971.
Ovens and Murray Advertiser, The
Southern Baptist, The
Victorian Baptist Witness, The
Wangaratta Chronicle, The
Whittaker, D. M., Wangaratta, Wangaratta: Wangaratta City Council, 1963.
Wilkin, F. J., A Romance of Home Missions, Melbourne: The Baptist Union of Victoria, 1927.
Wilkin, F. J., Our First Century 1838 – 1938, Melbourne: The Baptist Union of Victoria, 1939.
In this day and age when Internet resources are expanding at a rapid rate, it is difficult to provide timely advice as to online resources for church history research. You should certainly initiate an online search of key words in your subject of research, however. What you are likely to find is a variety of secondary source material. You will also want to search the online card catalogs of major universities for books and other materials related to your topic.
One of the best places to start an online search of historical documents is the National Library of Australia. It provides links to major collections of historical documents in Australia and overseas, online journals which contains materials on history in Australia, and details of Australian historical resources at various universities. Go to www.nla.gov.au/oz/histsite.
The Australian National Archives is also worth a look: www.naa.gov.au.
There are some materials on church history on the website. It is best to start at the official website for the various denominational organisations. For links to these, use the Reference section of the CD-Rom produced by the Christian Research Association, Australia’s Religious Communities: A Multimedia Exploration.
Using the Sources
Proper use of historical data, except in the most superficial sense, begins with a commitment to discovering what actually happened. It requires a certain detachment. Every church and organization has suffered through crises, arguments and disputes, and poor leadership. The historian’s task is to recover the actual past as it really took place, to the extent that she or he is able to recover it. This doesn’t mean that the historians “blabs” the whole story, but it does mean that the historian has to discover it.
Given the desire to know the truth of the past, even the unhappy truth, historians then apply a set of commonsense rules to fulfill that desire. They, in brief, are:
- determine the reliability of the historical source. How close to the event is the source? Is the source biased? Is the source competent and knowledgeable?
- determine whether or the source is genuine. While not usually an issue for local church histories, historians must always be wary of fake documents and self-proclaimed eyewitnesses. Documents may be “doctored” or sections of them removed for self-serving reasons.
- determine the perspective of the source. Even where the source was close to the event and competent to report on it, the source will have a particular perspective. What is that perspective? How did it influence the source’s reporting of the event?
For a more detailed description of the historical method, you should consult one of the standard texts on the subject, such as Jacques Barzun & Henry F. Graff, 1992, The Modern Researcher, Fort Worth, Sydney: Harcourt Brace Janovich.
In the vast majority of cases, you must take notes on the material you’ve collected. Do not rely on photocopies with important data underlined or otherwise marked. It is extremely difficult (virtually impossible) to manage data unless you turn it into notes.
The easiest way to take notes today is to type them into your computer, keeping each source (or a group of like sources) as a separate document. The “find” function in your word processor gives you a handy tool for searching for names and other information. You can also easily move data from your notes into the text of your history, thus saving many hours of time.
Remember, it is extremely important to always make a full and complete note of the source of your notes. If you intend to use footnotes, then you should decide in advance which format (Turabian, for example) you intend to use and ALWAYS RECORD THE SOURCE OF YOUR NOTES according to that format. ALWAYS. Otherwise, you will find that you want to go back to a source and can’t locate it because you failed to keep a complete and correct citation for it. You should always keep the full and correct citation with the notes themselves and avoid inventing elaborate systems for “simplifying” the notes with codes telling what the source is with the actual citation kept elsewhere.
Even if you don’t intend to do footnotes, it is important to keep a clear citation of your source with your notes so that you can go back to that source again, if necessary.
Take Just Enough Notes
One of the most frequent mistakes made in historical research is to take too many notes. There is always the temptation to take notes on something “interesting,” even though it isn’t relevant to the topic you are researching. Always remember the purpose of your research and take only sufficient notes to fulfill that purpose. Otherwise, you’ll never finish the booklet or book! Be clear as to what you want to do and do only what is necessary to do it.
Inevitably, you will take too many notes and/or irrelevant notes early in your research. Taking such notes is almost inescapable. Learn, as quickly as possible, however, to refine your note taking. Constantly ask yourself if the source you are using is relevant to your purposes.
Organizing the Notes
Organizing one’s notes can be a real headache. The data piles up quickly, and you have to be careful to keep careful control of it. For those who have never done historical research before, the easiest way to keep notes (and to write your history) is to keep them in chronological order, by year or periods of years. The historian’s job is to tell what happened in the past. The easiest, most natural way to do that is to tell the story as it happened, in chronological order. Keeping your notes in such order facilitates the whole writing process.
One of the advantages of recording all of your notes on computer is that by cutting and pasting they can be reorganized in any number of ways.
Taking Notes the Old Fashioned Way
If, for some reason, you do not use a computer for keeping notes, the best alternative is to use 4×6 inch note cards. Each card should contain just one item, be it a quotation or a note of a particular event, person, or topic. Use only one side of the card and put a topic entry at the top of the card. Be sure to include a citation of the source of the data on the card.
Cards are preferable to sheets of paper for at least two reasons. First, if you keep your notes on sheets of paper, you will necessarily mix various kinds of notes on one page. Keeping the notes organized is very difficult. Second, when it comes time to write you history, it is relatively easy to shuffle your cards into the order you want to use them. Organizing them for writing is relatively easy. Again, using sheets of paper makes it extremely difficult to rearrange your notes into the order you want to use them.
How Much Is Enough?
How many notes you take and how many sources you consult is, again, determined by your purpose in writing. If you are doing a short piece or collecting notes for a display or a multi-media presentation. You will probably be satisfied with using just a few key sources of information. If you are doing a larger work, however, you will want to cover as much of the available material as possible.
If you are using a wider range of sources, you will find that often you are reading the same information from two or more sources. You always want to quote or cite the most original, most reliable source you have for an individual event or fact. You will do well to make note of at least two sources for events, if you have them, and be keenly aware of any differences in fact or interpretation between the sources. You should always be wary of the “well-known fact.” That is, not infrequently a particular fact is given by a number of sources as being correct, which fact is not actually correct at all. Someone gives it (incorrectly) and then other sources copy it assuming it is true. Incorrect dates and misstatements of fact, in this way, gain currency. It may be that you will find a trustworthy primary source that actually contradicts a “well-known fact,” and if you do you’re to be congratulated. Your history will be able to set the record straight.
An important indication that you have done enough research is when you find yourself not really learning anything new from it. When what you’re reading simply repeats things you already know, you are approaching the end of your research. You should be cautious, however, in making sure that you do look at all of the key sources available. You never know when a source is going to provide new, unexpected, and important information.
Much of what we have said so far also applies to conducting oral history interviews, but you should be carefully aware of the differences between using oral sources and other kinds of sources for church history. Oral history is often more interesting and more frustrating than using documentary records.
The Problem of Memory
People misremember dates, places, and events almost as a matter of course. In oral history work, you will often be interviewing older people who will themselves tell you they don’t remember things as well as they used to. Take their warning seriously. If you have a document that is a primary source close to the events you’re studying and an oral history source that conflict, always trust the primary source. Never put much trust in human memory.
The Value of Oral Data:
What, then, is the value of oral history data? Oral history data can be invaluable in the following ways:
- it provides factual information not found in any documents
- it gives you a “feel” for the people involved in the history of the church
- it provides you with opinions and insights you won’t find written down
- you can “dialogue” with the source, a living person, asking questions that you can ask a document
- you can get names of other people to talk to and find out about other possible sources of information
Conducting an Interview
When you make an appointment for an interview, always explain who you are and what you’re doing. Tell the person that the average interview can take from one to several hours.
Always be on time for an interview. Take sufficient paper and pens.
Preparing for the interview. You should prepare a general line of questioning based on a clear understanding of what sorts of information you are seeking. Be careful not to prepare questions that are too specific or detailed. You will find that at times you know more about the details of an event than the interviewee remembers. You can embarrass them by asking questions that expect them to remember more than they actually do. Work, in any case, from general questions to more detailed ones.
When you begin the interview. Remind the interviewee what you are doing. Tell her or him how the interview will be used. Ask permission to refer to the interviewee by name when giving information or quotations taken from the interview. Some people will agree to be interviewed only if their names are not mentioned in connection with the data they provide. If you agree, then you must absolutely abide by that and any other conditions that you agree to. Finally, ask permission to take notes.
The interview. Church history interviews are seldom, if ever, adversarial. You will find that most church people are quite willing to talk about their church’s past, especially if they see that it will benefit their church in some ways. While a very few will refuse to talk about difficult events, many will be more than willing to go over even the most of unhappy of events. Take a friendly tone. Maintain a conversational atmosphere.
Listen carefully. Show that you are listening. If you can’t keep up with note-taking, politely ask the person to stop for just a moment while you catch up. From time to time, you may want to summarize your notes so that you can check on their accuracy. Sometimes you will find you have misunderstood. Sometimes the interviewee will remember additional information he or she had left out the first time around.
Interviews normally should not last for more than two hours since both you and the interviewee will become tired and lose concentration. If you need to and time allows, you can make additional appointments. If there is a time constraint, you may be forced (with the interviewee’s consent) to push on with a longer interview; try to avoid getting into the habit of doing long interviews.
Close the interview by thanking the person and by taking time to do some “small-talk” before leaving. Assure them that they have provided helpful insights and information. You may even want to share with the person something of what you learned from them.
After the Interview. You should review your notes as soon as possible after the interview. You will remember data that you forgot to write down. Be sure that any abbreviations you used are clear so that you don’t forget later what they mean.
Using a Tape Recorder
Tape recorders are not a “god-send” for doing oral history research. Indeed, they can frequently be a headache. The problems involved in tape recording interviews include:
- Interviewees “freeze” in front of a microphone
- Interviewees don’t want to talk freely because they’re afraid they might say something incriminating
- The mechanics of setting up a tape recorder, making sure the tape is running, checking sound levels, and the like wastes time and intrudes on the interview itself
- Recovering important information from hours and hours of interview tapes is a laborious, haphazard task
- The interviewer tends to “get lazy” in terms of carefully listening to what is being said because, “It’s all on the tape anyway.”
If you do use a tape recorder, be sure to always record the name of the interviewee date, time, and place of the interview at the beginning of each tape. If you plan to keep the tapes for any length of time use only high quality tapes and a good tape recorder.
Try to set up the machine as quickly and naturally as possible. Be sure to tell the interviewee if you intend to keep the tapes permanently, where they will be kept, and who will have access to them.
A Point of Ethics
From time to time, interviewees will tell you things with the provision that you don’t record them and don’t tell anyone else. If you agree to their conditions, then you absolutely must abide by them. You may not make note of those points. You may not tell anyone else.
What you can do, if the matter is an important one known to several people, is to ask others who may know the same information in a way that doesn’t reveal you already know the information. It is possible that, in this way, you will be able to get and use the information without breaking your agreement. If, however, the matter was a more private one or the interviewee is the only one who knows the information, you must keep your word.
In a nutshell, write up your history simply, directly, and in a clear style that avoids jargon and unnecessary verbiage. Historians are story-tellers before anything else. It is your task to tell the story well.
Let your notes tell the story. The usual practice is to tell the story as it happened, noting the key events one after another. Sometimes, obviously, an event will stretch out over a number of years and you will want to tell it completely before returning to your base line to continue the larger story of the church’s life.
Remember Your Audience
All writing is a communication process, and you have to take into careful account who you are writing for and how to best communicate with them. In many, perhaps most, cases, footnotes will not be necessary because your readership is not an academic one. You should also avoid jargon and “academic-speak” at all costs even if you expect your book, article, or other piece might be used by academic historians.
Assuming that you are writing for a general audience, define technical terms if you must use them. Refrain from using slang terms or “in terms” likely to be known only by some or most church members. Others who are likely to read your work won’t understand them. If you feel you must use slang or in terms, be sure to indicate their meaning.
Organizing the Chapters
One of the important tasks of any historian is to discover the periods through which a church or other church body has gone through. You will find that the church you are studying has gone through periods of growth and decline. One long pastorate may dominate the church’s history for two or three decades. The Great Depression and World War II often comprise an era of hardship. Each church has a founding era, and you should also be sensitive to the “pre-history” of your congregation, such as failed attempts to establish a church of your denomination in the community before your church actually began.
It is easiest and best to organize your chapters by these periods. Always be sure to explain at the beginning of the chapter why the church (or organization) entered a new phase in its history. Follow that periods major themes through the whole of the chapter.
Naming Names and Telling Tales
It is likely that you will come across events that are not to the credit of some of the people involved in them. Church members do and say things they are later embarrassed about. Pastors indulge in actions or make decisions that they shouldn’t have done or made. As a church historian, you have two responsibilities. First, your history must be truthful. Second, it must not be more truthful than necessary. Specifically, you should avoid embarrassing people and their families as much as possible.
There are times when the full truth cannot be told, even if it is important. Often, one can deal with difficult events through careful wording. Occasionally, the local church historian has to tell most of the truth, trying to do so as gently and sensitively as possible. Not infrequently, the issue is not whether or not to tell the truth, but rather how to tell it.
Avoid being judgmental. Try to tell both sides of a story, when there are differences and conflicts in the church’s history. Be sure that your sources aren’t just gossip. Describe difficult events only when they are important to the story of the church, only when they reveal important developments in the church’s life.
If you have critical comments to make, it is often best to spread them through the story at appropriate moments–making sure that the reader understands that you are expressing your own views. The problem with collecting all of your critical reflections in one chapter at the end of the story is that the reader will have forgotten the details of events you are reflecting on and your comments become divorced from the story itself.
Again, be sure that your critical evaluation of events and themes is balanced and fair. Be sure to use value-free language and to take into account interpretations that differ from your own. Don’t use church history as a bully-pulpit. Write fairly and kindly. Be always aware of the difference between being critical and criticizing. Critical comments, indeed, should generally be as positive as they are negative.
Checking the Text before Publication
As a matter of course, you should ask several knowledgeable individuals to read over what you have written. First, they may pick up mistakes of fact or interpretation; or, they may suggest you add material previously unknown to you. Second, they can warn you if your history contains something that may be offensive, and they can suggest alternative wording in some cases. Third, these readers can alert you to places where what you have written is unclear. You should always submit your writing to the scrutiny of others before releasing it to the public.
Finally, you will want to have someone assist you with proofreading. In this day and age of the computer, proofreading is a somewhat less laborious task than it used to be, especially because of the computer’s ability to check spelling. It is still necessary, however, to have someone who knows the ways and grammar of the English language (or whatever other language you use) to check carefully what you have written. Don’t trust the grammar check now included in most word processing programs.
Presentation of the Text
The actual physical presentation of your writing is important. If you don’t have page layout and desktop publishing skills yourself, you should certainly consult with someone who does. You want to produce a final written product that looks well-done, well thought out, and pleasing to the eye.
Ethnography is the ‘description of people’, and is usually taken to involve the description of a culture or way of life. Ethnography is often used by people in strange or foreign situations where a general description of what is happening is needed, rather than the testing of some specific theories. Ethnography is the method commonly used by anthropologists who work in cultures very different from their own.
The primary method of ethnography is participant observation. The researcher seeks to watch, over an extended period of time, howe people live. Often the ethnographer begins the process without a very clear focus for the research. As the observation proceeds, so the focus, the themes of particular interest, begin to emerge.
Underlying ethnography is the assumption that culture is socially constructed. Behind the actions of people are several layers of meanings and social functioning. Some of these meanings will be apparent to the actors, the people being observed. They will have an explanation about the meaning of a particular ritual or why two people interact in the ways that they do. These explanations will be indicative of the worldviews and values which are held by the individuals. Observing the nature of friendship in Thailand, for example, and it became apparent that friendship meant doing things together: shopping together, doing homework together, eating together, and so on. However, friendship did not usually mean sharing one’s deepest fears, anxieties or the problems people were experiencing in life. Interviews suggested that it was considered that sharing problems would mean destroying the ‘fun’ of friendship. One should work through one’s problems by oneself. Here, in this aspect of the culture, were some clues to important cultural patterns and values.
Participant observation is often supplemented by interviews, perhaps many discussions and conversations, throughout a long period of time, as the ethnographer tries to understand what is happening.
There will be deeper layers of social functioning of which the actors may not be consciously aware. The importance of baptism as a ceremony in which a person is accepted into a community may not be something that is explicit in consciousness. Yet, through the observations of many cases and working through the rituals which take place and the people who are invitied to participate, it may be that ethnographer comes to the conclusion that baptism performs that social role in a particular culture.
In one thesis, a student spent many months in two Thai villages: a Christian village and a Buddhist village, which stood next to each other. The student watched the ways in which the people interacted with each other, how amd when the helped each other, how they used each other’s resources, and how they each regarded the other’s religious ceremonies and activities. The student visited the two villages five or six times. On each occasion, he spent several weeks living in the village. He spent hours in discussion with people in the village. He watched the cooperation in relation to the organisation of a water supply system, and the ways they celebrated Christmas and the Buddha’s enlightenment together. He noted that, in this situation, there was a religious ‘dialogue of life’. It was not a formal religious dialogue at the ideas, beliefs or organisational level. Rather, two religious faiths were shared in the daily activities of life. He analysed the ‘dynamics of this dialogue’ of life, and through it provided some deep insights into the nature of religious faith in multi-faith situations. He provided a basis considering ‘religious dialogue’ in a very different way: as a dimension of the interactions of every-day life. For some further comments on this study, see ‘Living the Dialogue of Life‘.
Ethnography is not usually easy in situations which are familiar. It is usually hard to step out of such situations, to examine them with the depth and the creativity which ethnography demands. Yet, some of the skills of ethnography, of carefully analysing situations, looking at cultural patterns and cultural functioning, may play a role in many research projects. Sometimes ethnography, whether identified as such or not, provides the basis for the theories and hypotheses which became the subject of more focussed research.
Introduction to phenomenological methodologies
“Phenomenology is the study of essences … all its efforts are concentrated upon reachieving a direct and primitive contact with the world.” (van Manen quoting Merleau-Ponty).
The goal of phenomenological enquiry goes beyond identifying, appreciating and explaining current and shared meanings. It seeks to critique these meanings. It does this by suspending them so as to initiate a long hard look at the objects of immediate experience to which they have been attributed. (Crotty 1996: 5)
Phenomenology is a science of lived experience. Phenomenological inquiry creates texts with a strong narrative structure:
- the text compels our attention;
- leads us to reflect upon its significance;
- speaks to our whole embodied being;
- evokes understandings;
- transforms and affects our cognitive and noncognitive meanings;
- measures our ability to make interpretive sense;
- prompts further wondering.
In creating texts the aim is to make them:
- rich (concrete experiences, stories, anecdotes)
- deep (showing interpretive insights or thematizations)
- strong (underlining the uniqueness and significance of this human experience
- oriented (showing how the writer stands in life).
van Manen’s method
Max van Manen’s phenomenological approach (1984, 1990) is based upon four procedures:
- Turning to a phenomenon which seriously interests the researcher – that is, is an abiding concern, a true quest, committing the researcher to the world;
- Investigating this experience as it is lived, rather than as it has been conceptualized;
- Reflecting on essential themes which characterize the phenomenon: asking what it is that makes the lived experience what it is;
- Describing the phenomenon through the art of writing and rewriting (or using other expressive media).
Procedure (a) involves me as the researcher in orienting to some phenomenon – finding some experience which human beings live through in which I am deeply interested Then I begin to formulate the question, to wonder about and interrogate this experience and to ask about its essential nature. Before moving to the investigation phase I also need to explicate my assumptions and pre-understandings, to uncover and make as clear as I can what I think I already know about this area – not that I can thereby remove my biases and preconceptions, but so that I can allow myself and my reader to reflect back on these and see how they may be shaping my investigation.
Procedure (b), investigation of the lived experience, involves generating data from amongst a number of potential sources. I begin with personal experience (written descriptively with as little interpretation as possible). Experiential descriptions (written and/or taped) can then be collected from others. There is no attempt in this type of research to provide a “representative” or random sample. Whether the examples are varied widely or only a little, additional accounts are understood to allow a vicarious increase in experience and permit a better understanding of the significance of this experience “for this or that person as an aspect of his or her life and, therefore, by extension, as an aspect of the possibilities of our being human” (van Manen 1984: 52). Other potentially fruitful sources of data – etymological sources, idiomatic phrases, and literature and art – may also be included.
Procedure (c) involves reflection on this data and thematic analysis addressed at determining the essential themes in the material. For phenomenologists “reflection means to bend back upon or to take up again what we have experienced, lived through or acted upon prereflectively” (Giorgi 1983: 143) Reflection on the naive descriptions of experience that have been gathered may proceed in various ways. For example, written descriptions can be subjected to the highlighting and line-by-line approaches recommended by van Manen (1984: 57), in order to glean a list of possible thematic statements from these more condensed sources. Transcripts can be condensed into summaries of the essential structure of the individual’s data according to the method modelled by Montgomery (1982).
A research notebook can be kept for self-reflection and analysis of each transcript. One version of the method involves 4 steps. First, the questions are examined for bias and removed. Hesitancies and recurring terms are recorded in the notebook, as are recurring terms. The person’s words are then put into the third person and paragraphed to help group their remarks into units of meaning. Second, thematic units are identified. The third step involves writing a summary in more generalized terms of each co-researcher’s material in such a way that the phenomenological themes can begin to emerge. At this stage where possible the summaries are taken back to the co-researchers for them to verify or change. The fourth step means the construction of a summary of the combined data across all four co-researchers, with the thematic units reorganized around the major regions of the co-researchers’ experience of the phenomenon.
Procedure (d) involves producing a draft of these themes, where responsive/reflective writing is seen as the very activity of doing phenomenology (van Manen 1984: 64). Such writing can be organized in a variety of ways (thematically, existentally, exegetically etcetera).
Structuring an account
If a co-researcher’s account does not tap into the experience in sufficient meaning or depth, broad questions such as the following could assist (Moustakas 1994: 116).
- What dimensions, incidents and people intimately connected with the experience stand out for you?
- How did the experience affect you? What changes do you associate with the experience?
- How did the experience affect significant others in your life?
- What feelings were generated by the experience?
- What thoughts stood out for you?
- What bodily changes or states were you aware of at the time?
- Have you shared all that is significant about this experience?
Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen method (Moustakas 1994: 121f)
- Using a phenomenological approach, obtain a full description of your own experience of the phenomenon;
- From the verbatim transcript of your experience complete the following steps:
- consider the relevance of each statement to the description
- record all relevant statements
- list each distinct statement or meaning unit
- cluster the meaning units into themes
- synthesise the meaning units and themes into descriptions of the textures of the experience (include verbatim examples)
- reflect on this description, and from it construct a description of the structures of your experience
- construct a textural-structural description of the meanings and essences of your experience.
- From the verbatim transcript of the experience of each of the other co-researchers, repeat steps a. to g. above;
- From these individual textural-structural descriptions construct a composite description representing the group as a whole.
Building further upon phenomenological texts
This phenomenological method can be incorporated in other learning/knowing processes such as Kolb’s Model of Experiential Learning (Kolb 1984). This model identifies four phases of learning:
Kolb conceives of experiential learning as an integrated process where immediate concrete experience is the basis for observation and reflection. These observations give rise to a theory which offers new possibilities for action, while action leads to further experience and the cycle starts again. Van Manen’s phenomenological approach can be taken for the first two phases. The findings of these first two phases can then be correlated critically with some theoretical frameworks or models in the third phase of abstract conceptualization, leading in turn to strategy which can be tested through action research methods.
Giorgi (1983) outlines a similar method for analysing data from phenomenological accounts:
- listening to audiotapes and reading transcripts to get a sense of the whole;
- intuiting about, and reflecting on, each transcript;
- identifying meaning units in each transcript;
- regrouping and redescribing statements relevant to each meaning unit for each transcript;
- intuiting about, and reflecting on, each meaning unit across all participants to uncover themes;
- writing an ‘exemplary narrative’ to illustrate each invariant theme;
- validating (by the participants and colleagues)
- synthesising statements.
Investigating phenomena or investigating subjectivity?
Phenomenological methods are widely used in practitioner research in the disciplines of nursing and education (see for example Willis & Neville 1996), although few ministry studies as yet have employed the technique (see however Jenkins 1997).
Crotty (1996) argues that most social researchers using “phenomenological” methods are in practice investigating subjective responses, not the phenomena which give rise to these responses. Phenomenological enquiry selects subjects for the sake of phenomena, not phenomena emerging from a group of subjects. (Thus for example we would select subjects because each can offer an account of living with pain, not because all of them attended an oncology clinic.) Clark Moustakas’ study of loneliness illustrates this further:
I set out to know the meaning of loneliness, not by defining and categorising, but by experiencing it directly and through the lives of others, as simple reality of life. … I set out to discover the meaning of loneliness in its simplest terms. … I was searching for, studying, and inquiring into the nature and impact of loneliness. I was totally involved in this search for a pattern and meaning which would reveal the various dimensions of loneliness in modern life. … I steeped myself in a world of loneliness, letting my life take root and unfold in it, letting its dimensions and meanings and forms evolve its own timetable and dynamics … When a pattern began to emerge with reference to the nature and function of loneliness in individual experience and in modern living, the formal study came to an end. At this point the framework and detail, the clarification of loneliness, had been formed; it was possible to differentiate and redefine its meaning, to expand and illustrate its nature and relevance in human experience. (Moustakas 1981: 210-213)
In phenomenological studies the researcher need not have had the experience under investigation, but in heuristic research (Moustakas 1995) the investigator must have had a direct, personal encounter with the phenomenon being investigated. There must have been an autobiographical connection (1995: 14). One form of heuristic phenomenological research is memory work (Haug 1987; Kippax 1990) in which a collective is formed to investigate a chosen phenomenon through sharing memories of particular experiences. The group is involved in selecting the phenomenon to be investigated, sharing accounts of each member’s experiences, re-writing those accounts in the light of this sharing, and analysing the process and the language of the process, uncovering thereby the social processes that shape these shared experiences (Koutroulis 1996).
Crotty, M. (1996) Phenomenology and nursing research. South Melbourne: Churchill Livingstone.
Ellis, C. & Flaherty, M. (eds) (1992) Investigating subjectivity: research on lived experience. Newbury Park: Sage.
Giorgi, A. (1970) ‘Toward phenomenologically based research in psychology’, Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 1, 75-98.
________ (1983) ‘Concerning the possibility of phenomenological psychological research’, Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 14(2), 129-169.
Haug, F. (1987) Female sexualization: a collective work of memory. London: Verso.
Jenkins, W. (1997) Caring to death: reflections on the experience of ministry to the dying. MPhil Thesis, Murdoch University.
Kippax, S. (1990) “Memory work, a method” in J. Daly & E. Willis (eds) The social sciences and health research: Report of a workshop, Ballarat, Victoria. Melbourne: La Trobe University.
Kolb D (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development, Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Koutroulis, G. (1996) “Memory-work: process, practice and pitfalls” in D. Colquhoun & A. Kellehear (eds) Health research in practice Vol 2. Melbourne: Chapman & Hall, 95-113.
Montgomery, J.D. (1982) ‘A phenomenological investigation of the premenstruum’, Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 13, 45-72.
Moustakas, C. (1981) ‘Heuristic research’ in P. Reason and J. Rowan (eds) Human inquiry: a sourcebook of new paradigm research. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
Moustakas, C. (1994) Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage.
Moustakas, C. (1995) Heuristic research. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage.
Spinelli, E. (1989) The interpreted world: an introduction to phenomenological psychology. London: Sage.
van Manen, M. (1984) ‘Practising phenomenological writing’, Phenomenology and Pedagogy 2(1), 36-69.
van Manen. M. (1990) Researching lived experience. New York: State University of New York Press.
Willis, P. & Neville, B. (eds) (1996) Qualitative research practice in adult education. Melbourne: David Lovell, Part Three, 195-282.
The grounded theory approach is a qualitative research method that uses a systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived grounded theory about a phenomenon. The research findings constitute a theoretical formulation of the reality under investigation, rather than consisting of a set of numbers, or a group of loosely related themes. Through this methodology, the concepts and relationships between them are not only generated but they are also provisionally tested. (Strauss & Corbin 1990: 24; key words emphasised in the original).
The analytic procedures of grounded theory are designed to:
- Build rather than merely test theory;
- Give the research process the rigour necessary to make the theory “good” science;
- Help the analyst to break through the biases and assumptions brought to, and developed during, the research process;
- Provide the grounding, build the density, and develop the sensitivity and integration needed to generate a rich, tightly woven, explanatory theory that closely approximates the reality it represents. (Strauss & Corbin 1990: 57)
Grounded theory process (Charmaz 1995; Strauss & Corbin 1990)
- Record phenomena (see Waitzkin 1991);
- Code these recordings: that is, fracture the data and identify some categories, their properties and their contexts, perhaps using a line-by-line approach (open coding in Strauss & Corbin’s terminology);
- Identify code(s) that appear to be emerging as categories and endeavour to express other codes as sub-categories of these. Strauss & Corbin (1990) call this axial coding*, while Charmaz (1995) refers to it as focused coding.
- Undertake theoretical sampling: that is, collect further data to develop (confirm and test) the emerging theory;
- Develop the presentation, taking into account the audience and/or further analyses (for example, theological correlation).
* Strauss & Corbin (1990: 99) see axial coding as making (new) connections between categories using a “paradigm model”: (A) causal conditions -> (B) phenomenon -> (C) context -> (D) intervening conditions -> (E) action/interaction strategies -> (F) consequences. Charmaz’ memo-writing does a similar thing in more intuitive ways.
Charmaz, K. (1995) “Grounded theory” in J. Smith. R. Harré and L. Langenhove (eds) Rethinking research methods in psychology. London: Sage, 27-49.
Richardson, J. (1991) “Experiencing research on new religions and cults” in W. Shaffir & R. Stebbins (eds) Experiencing fieldwork: an inside view of qualitative research. Newbury Park: Sage.
Strauss, A. & Corbin, J. (1990) Basics of qualitative research: grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park: Sage.
Waitzkin, H. (1991) The politics of medical encounters: how patients and doctors deal with social problems. New Haven: Yale University Press, 49-71.
Evaluating grounded theory research
Note that these criteria are taken directly from the text by Strauss and Corbin. They reflect the terminology (and grammar) of that text.
Criteria for evaluating the research process (Strauss & Corbin 1990: 252-4)
- How was the original sample selected? What grounds?
- What major categories emerged?
- What were some of the events, incidents, actions and so on (as indicators) that pointed to some of these major categories?
- On the basis of what categories did theoretical sampling proceed? That is, how did theoretical formulations guide some of the data collection? After the theoretical sampling was done, how representative did these categories prove to be?
- What were some of the hypotheses pertaining to conceptual relations (that is, among the categories), and on what grounds were they formulated and tested?
- Were there instances when hypotheses did not hold up against what was actually seen? How were these discrepancies accounted for? How did they affect the hypotheses?
- How and why was the core category selected? Was this selection sudden or gradual, difficult or easy? On what grounds were the final analytic decisions made?
Criteria for empirical grounding of the study (Strauss & Corbin 1990: 254-7)
- Are concepts generated?
- Are the concepts systematically related?
- Are there many conceptual linkages and are the categories well developed? Do they have conceptual density?
- Is much variation built into the theory?
- Are the broader conditions that affect the phenomenon under study built into its explanation?
- Has process been taken into account?
- Do the theoretical findings seem significant and to what extent?
Social constructionist & postmodern approaches
Social constructionist, post structuralist, and postmodern approaches are centred around particular ways of reading texts. Usually, texts created by one discourse are read “from the margins” by another discourse. The discourse developing this alternative reading does so in the light of experience which is marginalized or excluded in the text, or absent from it in the first place. Thus the new reading begins by deconstructing the original text , then constructing an alternative narrative which reinterprets the original situation and findings. Examples include feminist readings of scripture and post-colonial readings of national histories. It is of course possible to utilise a reading from the margins in conjunction with other readings. For example, Howard Waitzkin uses content analysis, followed by theme analysis, then post-structural analysis on a series of doctor-patient encounters: Waitzkin, H. (1991) The politics of medical encounters. New Haven: Yale University Press, chaps 2 & 3 in particular.
A contextual reading which deconstructs an ideology, in this case biomedical science, showing the plausibility of the assertion that scientific knowledge is socially constructed.
For example, Nicolson, M. & McLaughlin, C. (1988) “Social constructionism and medical sociology: a study of the vascular theory of multiple sclerosis” Sociology of Health and Illness 10 (3), 234-261.
Empirical social constructionism: Q-sort method
Provision of a comprehensive set of assertions, based on fieldwork with a sample group, which are then ranked by participants. Factor analysis identifies distinct patterns which emerge, and interviews with exemplificatory subjects can be used to thicken the description for each pattern.
Stainton Rogers, W. (1991) Explaining health and illness: an exploration of diversity. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, chaps 5 & 6 in particular.
Basic to social constructionist readings, then, is thorough-going relativism arising from an assumption that a plurality of meanings is possible in any given situation.
Post-structuralist readings tend to be anti-empirical, for what is read from the margins is of much greater significance than measurements done in the frame.
Postmodern readings tend to an even greater level of radicalism, reflecting different ways of experiencing and explaining the world around us. Thorough-going post-modernists tend to reject theory itself, replacing theory with daily life, the immediate and concrete. Less radical approaches still call for substantial re-definition and innovation. Post-modern critiques, at this stage at least, tend not to promote new directions so much as to contemplate and deconstruct modernity. In particular they challenge:
- all-encompassing global views or Grand Narratives;
- the superiority of the present over the past (the assumption of progress);
- any rigid boundaries between disciplines of knowledge.
Most post-modernists reject conventional academic styles of presentation, preferring provocative and intriguing approaches which shock, startle or unsettle.
Post-modernists, defining everything as a text, seek to “locate” meaning rather than “discover” it, They avoid judgement, and the most sophisticated among them never “advocate” or “reject”, but speak rather of “being concerned with” a topic or “interested in” something. They offer “readings” not “observations”, “interpretations”, not “findings”; they “muse” about one thing or another. They never test because testing requires “evidence”, a meaningless concept within a post-modern frame of reference. (Rosenau 1992: 8)
Many postmodernists deny the existence of, or indeed the possibility of there being, undergirding methodologies for postmodern criticism. Nevertheless it is possible (as a somewhat-unreconstructed modernist) to detect a pattern in postmodern responses to modernity:
indeterminacy is offered in the face of determinism;
diversity rather than unity is pursued;
difference is sought rather than synthesis;
complexity is preferred to simplification.
the unique is preferred to the general;
intertextual relations are looked to in place of causality;
truth is replaced by tentativeness;
confidence in emotion replaces efforts at impartial observation.
Reference: Rosenau, P. (1992) Postmodernism and the social sciences. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
An alternative reading of post-modernism is suggested by Stephen Toulmin (Toulmin, S (1990) Cosmopolis: the hidden agenda of modernity, Chicago, University of Chicago Press). He describes the impact of Cartesian dualism upon the emerging modernism of Renaissance world-views in terms of the following shifts (Toulmin 1990: 30-34):
From the oral to the written: formal logic was in; rhetoric was out
From the particular to the universal: general principles were in; particular cases were out
From the local to the general: abstract axioms were in; concrete diversity was out
From the timely to the timeless: the permanent was in; the transitory was out
Postmodernism as an expression of dissatisfaction with the modernist project seeks to reverse these shifts; but in so doing has the potential to reclaim the original modernist project from its Cartesian distortions.
Doing theology as a reading from the margins
One method for doing theology is to carry out a “Christian studies” reading of contemporary texts: for example, a critical reading of social science texts in terms of what is marginalised, excluded or absent when viewed in the light of relevant Christian experience and tradition.
Studying Dimensions of Congregational Life
Leaders of congregations inevitably spend some time studying dimensions of congregational life. Much of such ‘study’ happens informally and with little rigour. It happens as the leader notes the comments people make about what hymns they enjoy or what is important to them in their faith. It happens as the leader or group of leaders reflects on the past year’s events and programs and plans the following year’s activities.
A course of Christian education, for example, may be evaluated informally by talking to a few people who were involved. Or, one can gather information more systematically by giving every participant a sheet of questions to answer about the content of the course, the methods used, and other aspects of it. By looking at the results carefully, and perhaps by analysing the groups of those who responded – such as older people and younger people – the second approach is much more likely to provide valuable feedback which can be used the next time the course is used.
In conducting teaching programs and in preaching, it is often helpful to have some idea of what people think. Ideally, education builds on the ideas and perspectives that people have. It takes into account the language and background that already exists, and moves people in their thinking from those points. Thus, a teacher will often begin by asking some questions to gather some idea of the students’ knowledge.
A minister or priest coming into a new church does well to spend time listening to the members of the congregation, seeking to understand people’s needs and perspectives, their aspirations and their expectations. Again, such listening may be done informally and with little rigour, or it can be done with greater care. Notes of conversations can be made which be analysed carefully afterwards. Focus groups can be established to canvas ideas and provide an opportunity to hear members of the congregation discuss issues. The greater the care in listening, the more accurate will be process. The better the information, then, on which the minister or priest builds his preaching plans, the teaching programs, the visioning processes and the service activities.
Many churches engage in some ‘research’ with more or less rigour as they engage an issue, develop their mission and evangelistic activities, or develop a five year plan or visioning process. For example, a Uniting Church was grappling with how its worship should be changed to better meet the needs and expecations of its congregation. The worship committee put together a small questionnaire and invited all the attenders to complete it. The responses showed how diverse were the opinions about worship, and particularly, how the attitudes of younger and older people varied. It became apparent that there was a real need for a variety of worship services to cater for those different forms of expression of faith.
Another church was developing a five year plan. As a prelude to that, the leaders decided to reflect on the journey the church had taken over recent years. They developed a program of visiting and talking with the members about the life of the church over the years, what had been the highlights and what had been the difficult times. Many of the older people especially enjoyed the experience of sharing their stories. The process reminded them that their experiences were helpful. As the history of the congregation was put together, so it provided a helpful context for the development of future plans which would build on the congregation’s strengths.
Other research is conducted which has wider application, which seeks to understand how congregations work. Such research aims at identifying patterns which will apply in many congregations. It is best developed on the basis of theory and through the careful testing of hypotheses. However, some of the methods and resources of such research are similar to those used in addressing particular congregational needs or issues.
The materials below provide three frameworks through which congregational life may be examined: the culture, the processes and the resources of a congregation. These frameworks have taken from the book, Nancy Ammerman, Jackson Carroll, Carl Dudley and William McKinney, Studying Congregations: A New Handbook, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1998. However, firstly, a word about congregational surveys.
Surveys such as the National Church Life Survey and Natural Church Development provide some useful indicators of the health of the ‘internal workings’ of a congregation. Most of these indicators revolve around the subjective assessment of key aspects of congregational life such as:
- fellowship and sense of belonging
- processes for involving newcomers
- education whether people feel they are growing in faith
- styles of leadership and levels of conflict
- the outreach activities of the church in evangelism or social welfare
The measures on these indicators are useful as starting points for the evaluation of the life of a congregation. They provide some basic measures of what is happening in the congregation which can usually be compared with what has happened in the past and what is happening in congregations of the same denomination.
The National Church Life Survey is based on the perceptions of all those who attend the church on a typical Sunday. It provides a more balanced perspective on the whole body of attenders on a typical Sunday and not just those at the centre of its activities. It has been developed in Australia and is attuned to the dynamics of Australian congregations and provides comparisons with various denominations. It has a broader perspective on church life than does the Natural Church Development measures and includes some measures associated with social welfare as well as evangelism. The National Church Life Survey has been used not only among Protestant and Anglican churches but also in Catholic parishes.
The Natural Church Development program is highly evangelistic in its focus and does not include any measures which relate to social welfare or the activities of the church in the wider community. It contains nothing which relates to the social justice dimensions of church life and activity, but has many measures relating to newcomers and how they are assimilated into the life of the congregation. It has been developed through world-wide surveys, and thus is not particularly attuned to the dynamics or the peculiarities of Australian churches and makes no allowances for different denominations. It is based on the responses of around 30 key people in the congregation, and thus provides a picture of the life of the congregation from the perspective of those who are centrally involved, but does not include the perspectives of those who are on the fringes. It cannot provide information about the spread of responses whether the youth have similar feelings about the congregational life to the elderly.
The Culture of a Congregation
Such surveys provide useful insights on key issues, but surveys are only one way of examining the life of a congregation, and they are not good at identifying the nuances and identifying characteristics of individual congregations. Every congregation has its own ‘culture’, its own ways of doing things. To understand a congregation fully, something of that culture has be unravelled and identified.
Some of the key parts of a congregational culture are:
- Rituals what rituals are held, and how are they held. The sounds, smells, sights and movements involved in the ritual, the people who undertake leadership roles and those who participate are all important dimensions of rituals. There are rituals of ‘intensification’ which are designed to intensify the group’s commitment to its shared beliefs. Formative events are often re-enacted. They include not only Christmas, but Mothers’ Day, church anniversaries and even its annual general meeting. There are other rituals which are rites of passage: important times for individuals as a change in their lives is marked such as baptism.
- Other activities of the church: educational, fellowship, task-oriented, decision-making, activities and ‘working bees’. There are other patterns of activity in a church: how people greet each other and the ways in which they communicate with each other.
- How newcomers are introduced to the culture and who is accepted and who is not, what classes or other demands are made of newcomers. Whether the church is active in seeking newcomers to join its life, and how it communicates with people who are not part of the congregation, are important aspects of its culture.
- Artifacts – the building itself, its layout and usage, the size of the car-park, the notice-board, and, in particular, what is central in the church building all say something of the nature of the congregation and the way in which it sees itself.
- History – particularly the way that it tells its own story about its past says something about what is important to it in the present.
- Symbols, images and metaphors used in the congregation signal what is important to the congregation. Many symbols are complex in their meanings. Different people will see them in different ways. Talking with congregational members about the symbols used in the congregation will help identify some of the contours of the implicit theology of the congregation.
Various ‘patterns’ of congregational life have been identified. One study divided congregations into four basic types in terms of the ways in which they related to their contexts:
- Sanctuary churches – providing a sacred space which is a safe haven from the world;
- Evangelistic churches – seeking to change the world by changing individuals one at a time;
- Civic churches – seeking to preserve and promote what is good in the world;
- Activist churches – seeking to change the structures of the world which cause suffering and injustice (D. A. Roosen, W. McKinney and J. W. Carroll, Varieties of Religious Presence, New York, Pilgrim Press, 1984).
Nancy Ammerman suggests some key questions to identify a congregation’s culture:
- Which rituals are most frequent and central to the congregation’s culture?
- Which other activities are most instrumental in shaping the people who participate and in influencing what this group thinks of itself?
- What symbols best describe who they are? What objects, people, and events carry meanings linking them to the ideals of this group?
- Which routine practices and styles of relationship best capture what this congregation values most?
- What stories are the essential myths of this people?
- What beliefs and ideas best describe what they think a practicing member ought to be like? (N. Ammerman, ‘Culture and Identity in the Congregation’ in N. Ammerman, J. W. Carroll, C. S. Dudley and W. McKinney, Studying Congregations: A New Handbook, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1998, p. 101).
Processes in a Congregation
Using processes as a framework helps focus on the social dynamics of a congregation. It involves looking at the ways in which a congregation makes plans and decisions, solves problems and disagreements and expresses its faith. There are the formal processes usually governed by written rules and procedures. But there are also the informal practices which may not be so easy to uncover, and which depend on the unwritten relationships between the various people. Authority itself has both formal and informal dimensions, the former relating to positions relating to the structures of organisation, and informal relating to the ways in which individuals are regarded.
Carl Dudley (1998, p.108) suggests that in looking at congregational processes, one might look at:
- Flow of social interaction and information
- Styles – whether people consider it important to make formal decisions or not;
- Incidents – the events which cause people to react and how they react
- Consensus – the extent to which members agree on basic goals, policies and directions and whether disagreement is located in particular subgroups or friendship circles
- Success and failure – what people consider to be successes and failures;
- Hunches and surprises about what is happening.
Leadership is an important part of the processes of a congregation. In relation to leadership, it will be important to look at styles of leadership and the involvement of others in decision-making, the patterns of accountability and the extent of a sense of team. To some extent, patterns of leadership are influenced by the denominational traditions. Thus, priests in Catholic churches have an authority given by the denomination which ministers in a Baptist church do not formally have. In many Protestant denominations, leaders have some form of accountability to the congregation. However, in many other churches, there is a strong sense of hierarchy in which leaders of congregation are primarily accountable to the authorities within the higher denominational structures. Nevertheless, informally, the actual patterns of authority and decision-making may work somewhat differently.
Most organisations evolve through a similar sort of life-cycle. They may often start with vision and enthusiasm, but few members. The early days are marked by high energy and high levels of involvement, which can lead to creative conflict as patterns are formed and habits developed. In their maturity, the staff and programs are firmly established and there is comparatively little debate about fundamental directions. However, institutional patterns may take over to an extent that they are maintained past their times of effectiveness, sustained by memories of how useful they have been in the past. Finally, there may come a period of disillusionment and institutional disintegration. (See, for example, Martin F. Saarinen, The Life Cycle of a Congregation, The Alban Institute, Washington D. C., 1986.)
Churches of different sizes function somewhat differently. Arlin Rothauage, in Sizing up the Congregation for New Member Ministry, (New York: The Episcopal Church Centre, 1983) identifies the following major patterns:
- family churches – up to 50 active people (perhaps no one employed in leadership)
- pastoral churches – between 50 and 150 people (often with one clergy in leadership)
- program churches – between 150 and 350 people (two or three clergy sharing the work)
- corporate churches – of over 350 people (a full team of staff with distinct responsibilities).
Conflict is an on-going part of the life of many congregations, and can be positive or can be negative and destructive. Researchers must be very careful in looking at conflict in a church, for they will easily find themselves in the midst of it and expectations will be readily developed that they will assist in resolving it. People will seek to claim the researcher for their own side and for their own purposes.
Conflict situations often involve the hiding of information from one group or another. There are heightened concerns and feelings which make it more difficult than usual to obtain information in a dispassionate way.
If a researcher is going to look at a situation of conflict, the ethics of the researcher’s involvement must be very clearly worked out, and procedures adopted which will not lead to unrealistic expectations or further hurt through the involvement of the researcher.
There are some cases where churches seek to resolve conflict by hiring a specialist. This may be appropriate where technical information is involved. In other circumstances, an outside person is invited to facilitate, assisting the group to identify themselves the processes which are frustrating them and to find appropriate compromises through which the group may move on.
Another way of looking at a congregation is by looking at its resources and its ability to mobilise those resources to serve its goals and objectives. There are several kinds of resources which need attention: people, money and capital objects such as buildings.
The people resources in a congregation include not only the numbers, but the backgrounds from which they come, their educational experiences, their ages and, most importantly, their levels of commitment. Surveys such as the National Church Life Survey can be used from this perspective: for thinking through the resources of a congregation. At the same time, of course, these ‘resources’ are also needs and challenges, opportunities for ministry within the context of the congregation.
It is often helpful to look at the expectations that the people in a congregation have about
- attendance at worship
- involvement in groups
- financial support of the congregation and its activities
- taking on roles and responsibilities
- participating in formal structures of Christian education
- involvement in wider church or multi-church activities
- the celebration of important festivals.
Focus groups can be useful in identifying such expectations. It will be important to note, however, that the expectations of one sub-group will be different from those of other sub-groups within the congregation. Young people, for example, might have very different expectations, from the elderly, or those who are retired from those who are working full-time.
Membership change can provide an indicator of how a congregation is progressing. There are several ways in which people enter the church:
- as children, through their families
- as ‘newcomers’ without previous involvement in a church
- as transfers from another church of the same denomination
- as switches from another denomination.
Similarly, there are several ways in which people leave:
- death or incapacity as health fails
- drift out into no involvement
- transfer to another church of the same denomination
- switch into a church of another denomination.
In looking at the future of a congregation, the variety of ‘inputs’ and the ‘outputs’ need to be considered. The NCLS has analysed the patterns of people moving in and out of various denominations in the book Peter Kaldor, John Bellamy, Ruth Powell, Keith Castle and Bronwyn Hughes, Build My Church, NCLS Research, 1999.
The budget of a church, both in terms of its income and expenditure, says a lot about the resources of a congregation and what are its priorities in terms of activities. It will be important to look at what part of the income is a result of regular giving by the members of the congregation and what part comes from bequests, special activities, and investments such as the rental of property.
Similarly, the expenditure may be balanced by cutting usual donations to activities beyond the congregation, or postponing maintainance, or by relying on bequests or other savings.
The major capital resource of most congregations is its building. The researcher may well be interested in how the capital resources are being used. An inventory of the capital resources may well be a way to begin the process of examination: a list of the various rooms in the buildings, the conditions and the activities which could be conducted in the various spaces.
A more in-depth assessment will need to consider in what ways are the buildings and the major ‘sacred spaces’ of the church building itself are being used. Do the usages reflect the theology of the group, help to define its self-image and identity? How are the buildings seen by the surrounding community? The meanings and intentions of people, as discussed in focus groups, may bring to life something of the meaning of these resources.
A case-study approach is applicable when one wishes to examine one or a few ‘cases’ in some depth. The case-study approach is often used when one wants to look at a situation in which it is not clear what factors are contributing to what is occuring, and particularly when there are only a few possible examples one could study.
For example, the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne wanted to understand the factors which contributed to some churches developing in a very healthy way while other churches languished. It was not at all clear what factors would be important in the health of the churches, nor how those factors would interact with each other.
A measure of ‘health’ was developed from the National Church Life Survey, and involved growth in numbers, growth in involvement, reports of growth in faith among those involved, retention of young people in the life of the church, and growth in involvement in the life of the community. Twenty churches scoring high on most of these criteria were identified. Then followed the case-studies of these churches. The researcher attended services, taking notes of the way the service was presented, how people were welcomed, the content of the sermons, and so on. The researcher then conducted focus groups of young people associated with these churches and with people who had recently come to the church. These focus groups focussed on what factors encouraged people to explore the church in the first place and what were factors which encouraged people to become involved. There was also a lengthy interview with the clergy and with some of the church leaders, discussing the strategies that the church used to build its life, both quantitatively and qualitatively. For a full account of this case study see Report on Congregational Health and Vitality in the Anglican Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Thus, the case-study used several different methods to gather information about each case: participant observation, focus groups and interviews. Each case was examined holistically in terms of the nature of its growth within its particular context. There were many different approaches which had worked in different situations. One church attracted people through the professionalism of its classical style of music. Another church attacted people through its popular style band. Some churches were evangelical, some were more liberal in their theological approach. In most churches, small groups played an important role, but the nature of these small groups varied considerably. In several churches, the Alpha program was being used in an extended form with additional programs in spiritual maturity and ministry. In other churches, the groups revolved around serving the community: an environmental group, an historical group, a social justice group, and so on.
Finding similar factors operating in quite different situations provided some clues as to what might important for the health of these churches. For example, it was found that most of these healthy churches had a clear sense of where they were heading. They had vision statements which had been worked out with extensive consultation with the church community. However, it became apparent that strategies for achieving the vision were equally important. Only as there were clear strategies for obtaining the vision could the vision be operative.
In case-study research the following matters need to be considered:
- the nature and boundaries of the cases – what situations one is studying and what are the themes and issues within those situations:
- the focus of the research – which may be expressed in terms of exactly what one is seeking to describe or perhaps even in terms of some ‘hypotheses’ whose validity one wishes to examine;
- the number of cases one will study and how these are selected;
- what information will be gathered in each case-study, from whom and by what method;
- how that information will be analysed.
An in-depth study of one case alone may be indicative of some of the dynamics operating in that situation. For example, the author’s doctoral thesis revolved around one case-study of the relationship between Christian faith and culture in northern Thailand. It involved three years of work, looking at historical data, interviewing groups of elders in churches, discussions with clergy and with Buddhists monks, conducting surveys of matched groups of Buddhist and Christian university students and so on. However, in many instances, several case-studies allow one to look at what are common factors operative in different situations.
In case-studies, triangulation in methodology, that is, using a range of methods to gather and analyse information, is particularly important. Triangulation will help ensure that the variety of factors involved in the case-study are considered. As similar relationships are discovered using a variety of methods, so the evidence is built for the existence of those relationships.
While one case-study may elucidate the factors operative in that situation, it is hard to generalise from that one situation. A range of case-studies, chosen to ensure that they cover a range of circumstances, provides a better basis for generalisation. In case-study research, it is advisable to choose as many case studies as one has the resources to do, and to cover as broad a range of situations as possible. Similar factors emerging in very different situations, provide some confidence in generalisation.
Sometimes, case-study research plays a very useful role as descriptive research. As such, it may form the prelude to checking the importance of factors uncovered through case-studies through a more extensive quantative research project.
Research involving Program Evaluation
Evaluation is an important part of many research projects. It is the process through which people ask whether a project is achieving what it set out to do. In evaluation, there is a check on whether appropriate methods are being used and whether those people involved are performing their tasks appropriately.
Through the process of evaluation those who are responsible for putting programs into place are given feedback as to whether they are choosing the right programs. Those involved in carrying out the programs receive some feedback on whether they have performed in a way which has met expectations. Those who have funded the programs see what has been achieved through their funding. Evaluation is particularly important when there needs to be accountability to a church or to a community in the use of money. It should be part of the process through which there is transparency and accountability in the spending of an organisation”s money.
Each of these stakeholders will expect something different from the process of evaluation, and a different type of evaluation is needed to meet those expectations. The program director, for example, will want to look at the long-term impact on a program in relation to the overall development of a community in order to decide what programs are most appropriate and in what circumstances. The people involved, however, may well have greater interest in the short-term impact of particular ways of carrying out the program. The public may be interested in some sort of cost / benefit analysis, so that they can see that the money is spent effectively.
There are various levels of evaluation of a program. These include, for example,
- the impact on the participants
- the efficiency of the management of the program – how much it has cost for what benefits
- the design of the program – whether the design has been such to best achieve the ends for which the program was designed
- applicability of the program – whether the program suited some groups of participants better than others.
In undertaking an evaluation of a program, the researcher needs to be clear why the evaluation is taking place and what is expected from the process of evaluation itself.
Two aspects of evaluation commonly identified are:
- Efficiency of the program – relative cost of achieving the positive impacts;
- Effectiveness of the program – the match between the objectives of the program and the program”s outcomes.
There is also the issue of who should undertake the evaluation. Should it be the person running the program or someone outside of the program? The “inside” person will have special knowledge of what has taken place and what might be the things to look for. However, the “insider” also has vested interests and in many cases it will be hard for the insider to stand back and look at the program objectively and as a whole.
There will often be difficult ethical issues in “insider” evaluation. The person running the program may well have a relationship with those who have taken the program so that the latter feel that they should “say nice things” about the program. If they want to maintain a relationship with the program organiser, they will want to put the emphasis on the positive experiences and the advantages they have gained and may be reluctant to speak about the negatives – especially if these involve the management of the program itself. To some extent, it may be possible to minimise those by making sure that anonymity in the gathering of feedback is guaranteed through anonymous questionnaires, for example. However, people involved will often be reticent to tell “the whole truth” to others involved.
Another step in the evaluation will be to determine what are the criteria for evaluation. What will count as a positive evaluation? To a some extent, this should have been stated in the original program objectives, established before the program was started. It is only fair to evaluate a program primarily on what it aimed to achieve. It may be that certain rates of involvement or a particular level of affirmation of the program was expected. There may be evaluations associated with the budgeted costs of the program, not only in financial terms but also in terms of time and energy.
Thus, ideally, with any community development project there will be several layers of evaluation which may be distinguished as follows:
- Within Program Evaluation provides feedback as the program is developed from within the program itself. While the process may be assisted by a reference group which is not involved in a daily basis, the lead in evaluation may be taken by the program officer rather than an external consultant or researcher. Such evaluation provides on-going assessment as to the effectiveness of particular activities or methods within the program. For example, if a program is designed to assist a particular group of people in the community, such as people who may be experiencing problems in parenting, but it proves difficult to make good connections with that particular group, then the person in charge of the project may feel it appropriate to try a different approach. Sue Kenny (1994, p.219) speaks about the need for a ‘culture of evaluation’ which may include informal discussions on what has been good or bad about a day’s activities, as well as monthly semi-formal evaluations. Day-to-day decisions are based partly on the pragmatic understanding of what is working. As many church and community programs involve facilitating and empowering others, rather than putting into place services or functions, there is a need to build into the processes continual evaluation which is sensitive to whether people are being empowered and activities and networks facilitated.
- Overall Program Evaluation looks at the program as a whole and provides information to those who are responsible for the program. There are a range of aspects to such evaluation, including:
- the extent to which the goals of the program have been achieved
- the breadth of the group of people who have benefitted from the program – the proportions of the target group
- unintended and undesired consequences of the program
- unintended good consequences
- sustainability of the results of the program
- the efficiency with which the program achieved its goals taking into account the resources committed to the program (Weiss 1972, p.25).
- relevant to the needs of the participants;
- impact – how the program has affected people involved and the potential for change;
- efficiency – how well the program makes use of limited resources;
- effectiveness – whether the program achieves its objectives;
- progress – how the program has evolved and trends that are evident;
- sustainability – whether the program is self-sustaining and its prospects for the future (see for example, ‘Evaluating Community Gardens in Sydney’ on www.communitybuilders.nsw.gov.au/building_stronger/safer/gardens_eval.html, accessed 4th December 2002).
Quantitative methods such as the numbers of people attending a program or graduating from it are useful indicators. They may often be indicative of interest maintained, and thus pointers towards the relevance and impact of a program. Understanding why people find a program relevant and interesting requires more depth of information.
Questionnaires completed by participants or organisers can provide information from a lot of people with little cost or time, and can be statistically analysed to identify relationships between various answers or to examine the responses of sub-groups within the population under consideration.
However, questionnaires are not always the best means of gathering information. Several of the factors which may need to be considered are:
- Do participants have a sufficiently high level of literacy as is required for completing questionnaires?
- Are resources available for translating questionnaires into a variety of languages that would be needed if questionnaires were used?
- Do the participants involved in the program prefer to operate at an oral level and are thus reluctant to complete written questionnaires?
- Is it likely that there are sensitive contextual factors that may be critical in understanding a situation which questionnaires will not pick up?
- How likely is it that the researcher will get a a good return rate of questionnaires?
- participant observation in the program itself
- noting of the various outputs in terms of activities, events and structures;
- gathering of statistics on participation; and
- interviews of both program organisers and program participants.
- Community Level Evaluation looks at overall change in communities as a third level of evaluation. In a church, for example, it might be anticipated that a particular program will change the life of the church in quite general ways. Suppose an adult Christian education program is introduced. It would be hoped that over a period of years, the whole church will benefit and the benefits will be evident in a general survey of church attenders. In other programs, it may be that one hopes to have an impact on the whole of the local community which will be evident in general indicators used to measure the quality of community life. Such indicators might include
- Labour force participation
- Employment growth – part-time
- Unemployment rate
- Overall long-term unemployment rate
- Average weekly/annual income
- Home ownership rate
- Households renting public housing
- Social security dependency rates
- Number of sole parent families
- School dropout and truancy rates
- Youth suicide and attempted suicide rates
- Quality/range/accessibility of local social and full-time amenities
- Educational attainment
- Crime rates (including juvenile)
- Index of economic resources
- Level and type of local infrastructure
- Health indicators
- Level of access to services
Such information as provided by these indicators would provide a base-line in terms of which the effectiveness of programs might be evaluated. It would be hoped that through a particular program the community would change in a way that would be shown by changes in these indicators. In other words, the proportions of the population in employment and with incomes well above the poverty lines would rise. Ultimately, it would be hoped that crime would decrease and indicators would show improved physical and mental health. However, there are several reasons why changes in such indicators are not always reliable indicators of the impact of a particular project. The first is that such figures are subject to whole range of influences and it is impossible to hold everything else constant while the impact of a particular project is measured. Many macro factors have a much greater impact, such as the State, national and even global economic factors, national immigrant flows and refugee crises, environmental conditions and changes. There are other local factors such as large employers closing factories, toxic fumes from a chemical spill, and changes in the availability of heroin on the streets. The second reason is that projects usually have a very high level of impact on a small group of individuals. Indeed, the size of the group may mean that changes in the employability or confidence in leadership of that group would not make one percentage difference in a Census of the area. Impact on other people occurs like the ripples in a pond, the further from the core group, the weaker the impact. The ripple effects may also take some time before they are experienced. One person is trained for a position and finds employment. The members of that person’s family benefit in a variety of ways: the money for consumer goods, the improved self-esteem of the employed person, the better care of the health of the family that results, and the greater confidence that education can lead to higher levels of well-being among the children. The wider community benefits from the economic activity and the greater self-esteem of its residents. The results will be experienced over a life-time, and a survey, taken at one particular time among a sample of the population, may uncover little, if anything, of these results. A third reason is that most people’s experience of community is diverse. Most are connected to several communities: to ethnic communities, geographical communities, communities of interest related to education, sport, hobbies and other activities in which they are involved. Each of these communities have an impact on the person. Even in relation to a single individual, distinguishing the impact of these various communities is difficult. Programs do not always achieve the goals expected of them. Indeed, one of the results of evaluation is often a modification in the expectations of what will be achieved next time the program is run. Nevertheless, evaluation should be a part of every program, in order that resources are used wisely, that we learn from our mistakes, and that we continue to improve the ways we do things.
John M. Owen, 1993, Program Evaluation: Forms and Approaches, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
Kenny, S., 1994, Developing Communities for the Future: Community Development in Australia, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne.
Rodwell, M. K., 1995, ‘Constructivist Research: A Qualitative Approach’ in Pecora, P. J., Fraser, M. W., Nelson, K. E., McCroskey, J., and Meezan, W., Evaluating Family-Based Services, Aldine De Gruyter, New York.
Wadsworth, Y., 1991, Everyday Evaluation on the Run, Action Research Issues Association, Melbourne.
Weiss, C. H., 1972, Evaluation Research: Methods for Assessing Program Effectiveness, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey.