Keeping in mind ethical considerations is an important key to conducting research on social beings, even for a congregational committee or a lay leader. The data must be collected and presented in a way that is sensitive to the people involved in the congregation. A congregational study that disrupts the trust and integrity of members of the congregation is not an effective study.
A general perspective to research ethics seems straightforward: Do No Harm. While this idea, attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, may seem easy to understand from a physical level, social research rarely directly effects the physical body. Emotional and psychological pain, however, is more likely to occur with social research, and those responses are often harder to predict. Asking embarrassing questions, for example, can cause the loss of self-esteem and trust, which may affect their psychological and physical well-being (Diener and Crandall 1978). For your studies, it is important to think through what potential harm could come from your study, and proactively attempt to reduce the possible harm.
One important way to protect the participants from harm and the researchers from liability is to collect informed consent from all participants. Informed consent requires that the researcher explain the general purpose and methods of the study, and that the participants realize that their participation is voluntary, and that they may opt out of the study at any time. For individuals working on a research project through a university or college, you may need to complete a human subjects approval process through the university’s Institutional Review Board before beginning the study.
In the end, you want to be able to look back at a strong study exploring the congregation, while not attempting to disrupt the congregation during your study (although you may have suggestions for future actions based on your findings). Engaging in a sensitive study with strong research ethics will help to legitimate the issues surrounding the study and the findings discovered through the analysis.