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Theologians in the Field

Over the last couple of decades, the field of practical theology has increasingly drawn on methods from the social sciences.  Most especially, people seeking to understand the theological wisdom of a community have practiced ethnographic methods for gathering information and analyzing what they find – much as we describe in this website on ”studying congregations.”  By interviewing people and directly observing what they do together, practical theologians seek to understand and critique the implicit theologies that may or may not reveal the picture of God that official creeds or academic theologies do.

But it’s not just academic theologians who have been doing this work.  It is also seminarians and religious leaders out in the field.  Indeed, a growing movement of theological educators is advocating for ethnographic research as integral to the seminary curriculum – one of the basics every community leader should have. A new book, Qualitative Research in Theological Education, edited by Mary Moschella and Susan Willhauck, draws together some of the best contributions to this important conversation.  As Moschella, of Yale Divinity School, writes in the introduction, they are concerned with the ”formation of religious leaders and scholars whose theology is discerned not only in wrestling with ancient and contemporary texts, but also through face-to-face encounters with living human beings engaged in their complex and varied practices of faith” (xvii-xviii).

Daring to go into the field to encounter real people does require an openness to others that can be challenging and humbling.  It can change both the student and the person whose story is respectfully heard. It can cast a critical light on ideas and practices that do not promote human thriving. It can challenge researchers to abandon the ivory tower in favor of advocacy for change.

Preparing people for leadership in communities of faith of all kinds means attending to many different skills and capacities.  Everyone involved in theological education agrees that no student will learn everything they need in two or three years!  The book Moschella and Willhauck have edited provides a window on several ways ethnographic learning is being integrated into theological curricula and pedagogy and several rich examples of what such ethnographic learning looks like. These are a thoughtful and diverse array of teachers from a wide range of traditions and parts of the world. They offer both theoretical reflection and practical tips.

This effort isn’t about turning pastors into social scientists; it is a matter of equipping them with curiosities and ways of engaging that are integral to their pastoral work. As Willhauck, from Canada’s Atlantic School of Theology, says in her conclusion, she has learned to engage in the ”pastoral practices of listening, subverting my own assumptions, elevating under-heard voices, and framing challenging questions. Congregants described the process as providing a freeing sense of becoming ‘unstuck’.” (257).

As both educators and congregational leaders embrace this vision, we hope that will be a resource and a companion.


Moschella, Mary Clark, and Susan Willhauck, eds. 2018. Qualitative Research in Theological Education. London: SCM Publishers.

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of