By Eddie Pipkin

December 30, 2016

One of the twists of the recent presidential election was the shock on behalf of the political prognosticators as to just how far off the polls were.  The predictions were clear that Hillary Clinton would win, and the triumph of Trump surprised virtually everybody.  The professional reporters and pollsters were out there writing stories and analysis.  They were confident in their sophisticated mathematical models, crunching numbers and employing software.  But they apparently missed a whole swath of motivated voters (as evidenced by this analysis in the Harvard Business Review).  They thought they knew how people felt and, therefore, how they would act.  But what they failed to do was actually go where people were and talk with them.

As leaders in ministry, we sit in a lot of meetings in which we’re trying to figure out why something worked and why it didn’t, and we make a lot of assumptions.  Often, however, those assumptions are based on our gut feelings, as opposed to actual empirical data, diligently gathered feedback, or engaging people in conversation about their experiences.  (My wife, who works with a major American corporation, told a recent tale of executives sitting in a room and coming to terms with an anomaly in sales data.  “Why are sales down over this two-week period?” the group leader asked.  People around the table confidently offered analysis:surveysays-002 “Well, A was true.”  Or “B was happening.”  But when pushed for whether those things were demonstrable reality or just educated guesses, they had to admit they were making unverified assumptions.)  Such “assumption repetition” can build an institutional narrative that begins to drive decision making.  We tend to reinforce our own biases and predispositions.  Strategies for ministry success require a good defense against over-assumption.  We need a clear-eyed understanding of how people are engaged (or not) by our vision.

I have been working with a local congregation that is in the midst of a major church wide survey project, employing written surveys and face-to-face focus groups to gather the congregation’s impressions about how the church is doing, what changes they’d like to see made, and where they’d like see ministries head in the future.  It’s been a diligent effort with carefully crafted online and paper surveys, as well as follow-up survey groups that have been facilitated by leaders asking questions that were generated from the survey results.  These leaders made every effort to solicit a variety of groups within the church, trying to get input from a diversity of ages and interests.

What is as yet unclear is exactly what they will do with all this information once it is gathered and assembled into reportable form.  How will it move from data to strategy?  This is a common challenge in all organizations—and in the case of this particular congregation, there is history of such info gathering quests that have resulted in no real change.  To be sure, if nothing else, healthy conversation between congregational leadership and the members of the congregation is useful in and of itself.  But people whose opinion has been solicited under the impression that decisions would be made based on that feedback can end up frustrated and cynical if they sincerely bring forth issues that are then never addressed again.

Here are some things to remember:

  • When you begin the process of surveying the congregation, know what you are looking for. Although an expansive, all-inclusive survey can generate reams of useful insights, it is much harder to craft all that disparate information into a useful to-do list.  An alternative strategy is to conduct a series of surveys that break out individual ministry areas (e.g. worship, missions, Christian education, etc.)  Here’s a link to the United Methodist News Service’s tips on formulating survey questions.
  • Leverage technology. There are so many available tools, such as Survey Monkey, that make it easy to set up interactive surveys and then slice and dice the results in many useful ways.  Social media can be a great tool for popping up individual breakout questions, as well as linking people to online surveys.  Be sure whatever you do is smartphone friendly.  And be sure to retain an old school paper version for the non-tech-savvy (or do something fun like have a table set up with high-schoolers with laptops to aid the older folks one Sunday morning).
  • Have a distinct plan for how will you communicate the results of your survey process and how you will move forward with using those results to help craft or fine tune the vision for your ministry. It is discouraging for survey participants to enthusiastically and honestly communicate their impressions, only to feel like nothing useful happened with that information.  Conversely, it is empowering for them to feel like valued participants in a process they can see clearly moving forward with direction.

Of course, let me emphasize my firm belief that vision comes from prayer and seeking God’s will for a ministry.  This is almost never the result of a focus group. People, when asked if they would like an alternative worship time option, notoriously request something like a Saturday night worship service that they then realize they don’t actually want to attend once you’ve spent months and thousands of dollars setting it up—oops! Passionate vision almost always rises from an inspired individual or small group of leaders who are moved by the Holy Spirit and then inspire others to support their vision.  Jesus certainly never had the disciples conduct or hold a focus group asking the people of Jerusalem to rate his sermons on a scale of 1-10.

What Jesus and the disciples did do was work out of an intense connection to their immediate community.  This was a more natural process in the days before people moved across the country at will.  Now we have to be more intentional about those community connections.  That is part of what our Connect!  and Connect! for Individuals and Small Groups are designed to do, to help you forge the kind of community connections that enable you to really understand what the needs of the community are and how your congregation can help address them.  Surveys can be helpful in establishing a direction, in refining a general vision (by seeking answers to precise questions) and especially by establishing a clear understanding of whether people’s needs are being met and stated goals are being achieved.

What are some of your own experiences in utilizing surveys, focus groups, and opportunities for feedback?  Share your inspirations and your disaster stories in the comments section.