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Why surveys cause so much trouble and what else you can do to listen to your congregation. 

Mark it in the Calendar

We have a (grim) request we sometimes share when a church calls and asks for our advice on putting together a congregational survey. We ask that if they’re going to send out a survey, could they also schedule a conflict consultation for about three months from now because that’s about how long it will take for the survey results to start undermining your ministry, creating internal tension, and dividing your congregation.

A Great Impulse

Church Order, Article 37 encourages councils to “invite [the congregation’s] judgment about…major matters.” And while the “congregation’s judgment” is rarely binding (with exceptions usually indicated in your bylaws), wise leaders know it's good to hear broadly from the congregation how things are going. 

Leaders have blind spots. They are prone to defensiveness. They miss and overlook things. The great impulse behind a survey is that you want to gain a broad sense of the fruitfulness of your ministry. 

A Brutal Track Record

I’ll grant you that my experience is skewed because churches usually reach out to me only when things are going badly. Perhaps there is a world of churches in the CRC who are administering surveys to great effect that I just don’t know about. But in my experience, surveys tend to be divisive, easily-manipulated, and generally leave councils with more questions than answers and more conflict than hope. 

The Problem

1. Surveys Separate Opinions from Relationships

At the heart of the church are relationships. Our relationship with God becomes the fount and foundation from which our relationships with one another grow. 

But a survey is a means of collecting data that focuses more on what we think than how we are together. In other words, a typical survey puts an emphasis on my opinion than on our relationship. And while opinions are always part of the people in a relationships, relationships cannot grow or mature much if they are only based on shared opinions.  

Obviously, churches who send surveys aren’t trying to undermine or diminish the importance of relationships. Such churches fully expect that the survey data will help the council lead in ways that strengthen relationships. But because the method of delivering the data is impersonal, the data often fail to help real communities thrive. 

2. Anonymous Responses

There may be nothing well-meaning church members do that is more corrosive, discouraging, and common than dumping anonymous feedback on their leaders. I know of and generally recommend that churches institute zero-tolerance policies on anonymous letters and notes. 

What people will say anonymously is often crueler and less actionable than what they say face to face. Because the comment is fully separated from the relationship, anonymous notes lack the kind of essential context that’s required for a relational community. 

Regrettably, surveys often permit anonymity. 

Or, perhaps, just as harmful, people who fill out surveys tend to communicate as though they were anonymous, even when they’re not. There’s something about putting distance between the feedback and the relationship that brings out the worst in us. Surveys, even ones that technically restrict anonymity, nevertheless invite much of the same baggage you’d find in anonymous responses. 

3. Lacking Nuance

A survey, like a congregational vote, tends to yield flat responses to narrow questions.  Inevitably, once responses start coming in, the survey writers will wish they had worded something differently, as they find the responses aren’t giving them the context they need to make decisions for a complex community like a church. 

4. Invitation to Complain

Responses tend not to be representative of the whole congregation. Those who are dissatisfied are most likely to respond. Those who are content don’t respond because they feel “I don’t have anything to say.” 

5. Easily Manipulated

Mark Twain is said to have popularized the line, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, darn lies, and statistics.” (paraphrase) Part of the wisdom in Twain’s line is that narrow bands of data can be put together in many different ways to tell many different stories about what’s happening. What’s actually intended by the respondent is quickly handed off to be interpreted (or misinterpreted) by the survey writer. 

6. Unclear Expectations

When you send a survey, the recipient begins forming expectations about what will be done with the information they contribute. Absent any clarification from the group sending the survey, many respondents will expect that some action be taken based on the feedback they’ve given. 

Alas, most surveys don’t generate data that are particularly actionable, which means respondents are primed to be frustrated as they expect action from results you can’t meaningfully interpret. 

A Better Way

Fortunately, surveys are not the only way to hear what your members are thinking. For instance, Thrive often recommends that churches host a version of a Next Steps listening circle when trying to understand what’s happening in the congregation. A listening circle is a structured small group where each person is invited to offer feedback to a proposal or, in this case, to offer reflection on prepared questions.

One common listening circle format has trained facilitators use a script that includes questions like:

What do you value about our church?

What are you concerned about? 

What are you hopeful about?

How do you want to contribute to our church’s thriving?

These are not so dissimilar to the questions you might put in a survey. The enormous difference is that respondents are sitting in groups where their contribution is one of seven or eight. This means they spend much more time listening to others than sharing their opinions. And when they do share their opinion, they do so realizing that their opinion is probably not a universal opinion. 

Feedback from circles like these tends to be more nuanced and actionable because it is uncovered in the same context it will be lived out: relationships within community. 

Other Virtues of Listening Circles

There are some other benefits to using listening circles in this way. 

  • Having spent time listening to the diverse observations of their own groups, participants realize that the council will have a hard time if they think of their job as making everyone happy. 
  • The Next Steps listening circles, especially, help people hold grace and truth together while they talk about potentially divisive issues. 
  • Whereas a survey and, especially, a congregational vote, can sometimes flatten or reduce people to their position on an issue, the circle tends to give a much more complex and nuanced picture of where people are coming from and how they’re seeing an issue. 
  • Finally, a good circle script will ask participants to reflect on how they want to treat each other and how they want to relate to God while they talk about the issues. This allows for healthier interaction that encourages your church to grow as a community while discussing difficult topics. 

Interested in Learning More? 

To learn more about how Thrive can help your congregation incorporate listening circles into the life of your church, contact us at [email protected] If you’ve had good success with surveys in your congregation, I’d love to hear more about that, too. 

 

Comments

I've always been wary of congregational surveys and you have given me the language to understand my wariness. Thanks! I am equally wary of congregational votes on controversial issues.  I much prefer the deep listening you describe followed by council itself then deciding what they hear the congregation saying. With the deep listening, "over-communicating" every step of the way and caring relationships you describe, council will know the heart of the congregation and be in the best position to name and frame it in ways that the congregation can take constructive next steps, whatever those are.

Hi Sean,

You have offered some very good thoughts and warnings about the limitations and trappings of surveys as a method of listening.  Much of it resonates with my experience and observation.

I wonder, have you shared this perspective within the CRC denominational organization? Denominational Survey | Christian Reformed Church (crcna.org)

The linked page says that the denomination uses the survey to "listen".  I wonder just how much some of the separation and struggle in the CRC would be different if "the denomination" (read: bureaucratic structure) listened more in person at the congregational and classical level and less from offices in Grand Rapids.  And yes, diasporic churches would likely also view some of those bureaucratic figures differently as well if allowed interaction that was not mediated through reports, magazines, editorials, and the like.

One of the best (and most difficult) parts of "being church" is that we need to do it together.  It's a team sport.  At many points he most important thing is not being right, but helping each other be better.  This article presents some helpful strategies for setting up productive church conversations.

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