When you’re having a problem within your congregation, you should 1) figure out a research question, 2) then determine the best way to examine the question using a variety of research tools, and 3) examine the data from a variety of perspectives or frames. We talk a lot about the importance of surveys, focus groups, or observation, but what about archival document analysis, also known as content analysis?

Let’s say you’re interested in looking at the congregation’s priorities — both the stated priorities and some proxy of what your congregation does in the world. You might look at comparing a mission or vision statement (your stated priority) with the budget (where you are focusing your financial resources). These sets of documents — official statements and budget reports — are valuable pieces of information for study.

Perhaps your congregation strongly values outreach to the community. Compare that value to the way “outreach to the community” is displayed in the budget. Is there a line item for local missions? Or for advertising your congregation’s presence to the neighborhood? Welcome gifts for new visitors? Does the financial output match the goals of the congregation? What sorts of information can you glean from the vision/mission statements and the budgets to be able to answer your question about your congregation’s priorities?

Looking at the budget in this light — the light of an organization’s stated goals — can be sobering. Do you have regular costs that are not associated with the vision of the congregation? Or are there areas that are large costs that aren’t toward the direct service of a goal?

This is where the frames for studying congregations may come into play. Examine the processes of setting the vision/mission statement and the budget. How are those decisions made and what is it based on? Is it based on what’s been done previously, or is it uniquely understood each time? Think through the ecology of the community — what changes are going on outside the walls of the congregation that might change your congregation? Are there demographic shifts that could affect attendance? Think through the resources of the congregation: are you expecting the same amount of money this year from previous years? Would donors be willing to give more if your budget aligned more closely with the stated goals? And what aspects of the congregation’s culture is illuminated through the budget and the vision/mission statements? Are the important artifacts, activities, and accounts clear in those documents?