Resource Library

How Research Impacts Religious Work

Resource from Insights Newsletter
Resource Library

How Research Impacts Religious Work

libraryby Meredith McNabb

“Oh, thank you for meeting with me today, Pastor.  I’m worried about my spouse’s job and my retirement; I want to know the church’s future; and I’m grieving the state of the world. Can you help?” 

“Absolutely. I’ll get back to you after I do some research.  See you soon!”

This isn’t how the conversation starts—or ends, we hope—but congregational leaders know those moments that spring up and touch on the biggest things in our people’s lives and in our faith commitments. In theological education and formation, we encourage religious leaders to be forthright about ‘knowing what they don’t know’, but we also expect that divine blessing, holy study, and inherent wisdom are going to be present in our leaders as they respond to the tough questions when they matter most, whether at the coffee shop or the hospital bedside or the direct message on social media. 

Research, in the academic sense of careful footnotes about primary documents or advanced statistical work, rarely plays a huge role in how congregational leaders do their work. Rigorous, reliable research can be inaccessible—hidden in dissertations or behind paywalls, or cloaked in such dense language that few beyond the experts can appreciate.  It can also be inapplicable—hard to translate into meaningful elements in pastoral conversations or sermons or congregational leadership decisions. 

That’s one reason why Lake Institute on Faith and Giving exists: to collect, curate, and/or direct reliable research in meaningful ways for congregational and denominational leaders. 

But it also takes a mindset shift from those leaders and from those who support them: We have to find a middle ground between a leader frozen without an expert to quote and a leader who truly believes that ‘the plural of anecdote is data’. 

Experts in Everything?

Religious leaders are asked to be experts in everything from ethics to management to maintenance, with some insight into psychology, fundraising, and science along the way—and what we’re mostly trained for is theology and scripture and polity.  Developing networks of “smart people”, as a mentor of mine calls them, who can resource one’s ministry in far-flung subjects helps, as does cultivating a habit of broad reading and continuing education. Another mentor used to keep the words of Richard of St. Victor—12th century mystical theologian that he was—as an email signature: “Learn everything—you will find later that nothing is superfluous.”

But learning to access, evaluate, and utilize what we can learn from research is important, too.  So much of how congregational leaders exercise their leadership winds up based in inertia, rumor, gut instinct, or what the person who spoke to us last—or loudest—happened to say. 

Trustworthy research, instead, can help us get ourselves grounded in an accurate picture of conditions.  The thought that “our congregation’s neighborhood doesn’t have children” can be checked by such simple research as a conversation with the nearest elementary school principal, or by such sophisticated research as census information or one of the zip-code-based demographic data products.  

“Most of our giving comes in in December” may be a thought that gives comfort during a low summer month—but careful research into month-by-month giving patterns from previous years could bring a more nuanced picture to test out that hypothesis early enough to adjust plans.

“Young people today want ____” is a cottage industry for commentary—but doing the research in both the literature and among one’s own youngest members or neighbors, perhaps in intentional focus group conversations, helps to validate what might be accurate and what might be just hype in your context.

Reliable research also gives us the tools to deal more fruitfully with issues of true disagreement. An objective point of data to look at together can help other leaders join in discernment work. Basing that work from a common set of (accurate) facts, rather than engaging in a battle of persuasiveness, is going to build a more positive process—not to mention what we trust will be wiser results. 

National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices

We have completed the first phase of the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices—a validated representative study about how congregations receive, manage, and spend financial resources.

The study stretches beyond denominational lines or even ecumenical networks, and gets at a total picture of religious congregations in the United States—cathedral churches, suburban synagogues, storefront startups and everyone in between—to look at how religious congregations deal with and think about money. 

Our hope is that this is not merely interesting data for sociologists—but that, for instance, it might be helpful for a pastor and church leadership to know how common it is for clergy to know the congregational giving records.  Accurate data might help bring light, rather than just heat, to support a conversation about whether a change in that practice might be missional.  Even for a smaller, solo decision (pastors: please don’t ever decide on your own that you should be able to look at the giving records!), when a leader can “show her work” by pointing to reliable information behind her decision, the ground is laid for factual discussion—and for general trust that the leader truly makes informed decisions. 

Facts are our friends in congregational leadership, and our openness to research as a ministry tool only serves to strengthen the ministry.

Expanded Perspective

by Jamie Goodwin

“I feel a real tension about whether or not I should know who gives what in my congregation.”

My NSCEP interviewee had broached a common topic for congregational leaders.  On one hand, they said, it is important to remain impartial and not show favoritism to certain large donors. Yet the leader simultaneously desired that donors feel the congregation’s genuine gratitude, to clearly see how vital their contributions were for congregational ministry, and to grow in wisdom according to their specific vocation.

Approaches to caring for donors within congregations varies widely both across and within religious traditions in America.  Giving and stewardship practices in U.S. congregations flow from theological orientations towards money, as well as influence from nonprofit practices.

According to NSCEP findings, among congregations whose clergy looked at giving records, 58% experienced an increase in giving over the past three years.  Forty two percent reported an increase of 10% or more. 

Similarly, congregations thank donors for their gifts at various intervals.  More than half (63%) acknowledge gifts once a year, usually in the form of a tax statement and accompanying thank you.  A minority of congregations acknowledge gifts quarterly (28%) or when someone gives their first gift (25%).  Only five percent of congregations thank donors for each gift, including digitally. Most (71%) will send an acknowledgement for a special gift, usually a donation that is larger in amount or dedicated to a special purpose. 

Just as religious convictions and organizational forms vary, giving practices will as well.  In this issue of Insights as well as previous ones, Meredith McNabb, Lake Institute’s Associate Director of Educational Programming, encourages leaders to be increasingly reflective, informed and engaged in open conversations about giving and stewardship practices within their congregations. The aim is to distill a congregation’s particular calling and giving culture. With God’s grace, the leaders’ growth mindsets will foster more generosity in congregations, both corporately and at the individual level.

DATE: February 11, 2020
TOPIC: Fundraising Practice
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Congregations' Economic Practices
AUTHOR: Meredith McNabb