Sociology, Field Research, and Catholic Ministry

Sometimes a topic keeps knocking at your door. You know–when you don’t go looking for it–but suddenly you just keep noticing all sorts of articles, books, and questions that pertain to a broad area. This November, one of those topics for me has been the idea of field research in ministry, and how this connects to the data collection, social analyses, and research that sociologists do.

Back on November 1st, Brian Starks over at the Catholic Conversations offered the following thoughts:

Is the pope really asking for a broad parish-level survey of Catholic views?  Well, it seems that the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales has already created a survey on the ever ubiquitous–Survey Monkey–in order to generate responses…

…unfortunately, we are not talking about a probability sample and measures that have been pre-tested for validity and reliability with this survey monkey poll, but still…does Pope Francis have a soft spot in his heart for empirical sociological data?

…indeed the Vatican’s current request, even if in a non-social scientific form, is a validation of what CSPRI [Catholic Social and Pastoral Research Initiative ] is all about.  It highlights the importance of understanding the views of ordinary Catholics and taking them into consideration when acting as Church.  We do not want a Church that merely follows polls, but we DO want one that uses survey data and in-depth interviews to understand what Catholics are thinking and feeling in order to make better informed decisions as a Church.

However, if non-social scientific methods are used to collect this data, it will be of less use than it could be to Church leaders.

Starks makes the key point that data and research from the field can be used by ministers to make better informed decisions. The point isn’t to change theology or Church teaching, eliminate the role of the Holy Spirit and prayer, or discount anecdotal experience. It’s about having another tool to use to inform ourselves.

And many in ministry know this. I know I’ve used many non-social scientific survey methods to attempt to better understand what my parishioners wanted out of Adult Faith Formation, for example. I’ve also (at times) purposely used randomized surveying in order to get a more representative sample. As Starks notes–if we as ministers want to be serious about getting the best information, we need to know something (not everything, but something) about how to do quality research in these areas.

Mark M. Gray at CARA makes a similar observation:

As is often the case ahead of a synod, Pope Francis has asked the Church’s bishops to provide information about their diocese. Some bishops have attempted to survey lay Catholics to provide input for their responses (…in one case using SurveyMonkey, which in my opinion is like trying to make Thanksgiving dinner in an Easy Bake Oven. There are reasons survey researchers get graduate degrees. Sampling, weighting, question wording all really, really matter…).

I agree with both of these guys. If I’m in Catholic ministry, I need to know a little bit of social science. Not enough to do my own massive studies (we’re blessed to have researchers like Gray and Starks for that!), but enough to know how to use resources that exist and do a better job on my own collecting qualitative and quantitative data in my own field. 

On that note, 🙂 I’m not sure if I should or should not opt-in to take the GoogleForm hosted survey from my former diocese. I want to help the Synod have the most useful information possible…but I wonder, would my participation be helping to overrepresent or underrepresent various demographic categories? 😉

I’ve also come across two books this month (Transforming Catholicism: Liturgical Change in the Vatican II Church, Maines and McCallion, 2007, and The Spirit’s Tether: Family, Work, and Religion among American Catholics, Konieczny, 2013), both by sociologists, that analyze pastoral practices in parishes. I’m still making my way through both of them, but I can already see how their work can help inform my understanding of parish life.

[Note: I think field research is something distinct from field education (see the Association for Theological Field Education and Catholic Association for Theological Field Education for more information on the role theological field education, supervision, and reflection play in formation for ministry).]

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