You have your research question, and now you’re ready to dive into figuring out your answer? You need to find a research method that fits with the question you’re asking. What do you want to know, and how can you best find the answer?

  • Direct Observation – carefully observing and taking notes in meetings, gatherings, worship services, and so on
  • Interviewing – asking individuals questions, typically in a one-on-one environment
  • Visual Methods – using pictures and video as a means to answer your question
  • Focus Groups – asking groups of people questions
  • Congregational Time Line – often an activity for a focus group, a way to talk through the life and history of the congregation
  • Archival Document Analysis – using documents, such as the budget, minutes, bulletins, or newsletters to better understand the congregation
  • Questionnaires and Surveys – asking large and specific groups of individuals questions
  • Secondary Source Data  – using the census or other publicly available data sources to better understand the broader community or culture

Perhaps your research question is focused on what needs people have in a future pastor or religious leader. It might be useful to conduct a survey of the congregation broadly. Alternatively, you may want to interview a few key leaders, particularly long-standing congregational leaders, about what needs they see for the congregation and what skills a pastor might need to be effective. Or, working through a congregational time line with a group of congregational leaders and members may be effective in examining the skills of previous pastors and thinking through what could help propel the congregation into future years.

Other Considerations

It is easy to do bad research, so take note:

  • As inquisitive, curious humans, we have all investigated aspects of social life to try to understand causes and effects of behavior. We often unconsciously gather information, make inferences about the facts we’ve gathered, and share our results with others. These informal studies, however, are not always accurate. We, as humans, come to problems with internal biases, and often hope to confirm those biases. Using rules for social science research methods, humans are less likely to suffer from confirmation biases, and more likely to achieve an answer that is accurate to the situation.
  • Instead, we must work to systematically study the problem we’ve raised. It’s important to talk about what it means to do a systematic study in the first place. To be systematic, we mean that the study needs to be regimented, ordered, and organized.
  • The casual observer might survey his or her friends, skim through bulletins or newsletters looking for evidence to support his or her ideas. This casual examination, however, will miss out on the opinions of people outside the observer’s friend group, and may lack a detailed view of evidence that does not support the observer’s view.
  • systematic researcher, on the other hand, will look at both the majority and the minority opinion, rigorously examining the evidence to investigating multiple theories. Systematic researchers must consider that the common narrative is wrong, while investigating different potential causes and outcomes of social behavior. A systematic researcher must be clear of potential inherent biases the individual carries, and work to ensure a fair and honest study. We’ll talk more about what practical implications this has when we talk about the various types of research tools available.

Be sure when following all of these methods to store your data appropriately. Click here for more information about data storage.

A vital part of a successful research project, whether the researcher is a student, congregational committee, or outside consultant, is to maintain high ethical and moral standards for research. Click here for more information about informed consent, human subjects reviews, and other issues related to research ethics.

Much of the work that scholars do within the field of congregational studies involves community engagement. Click here for the CDC’s Principles for Community Engagement booklet.

For more information on research methods, check out the Social Psychology Network’s research methods page.