The Value and Use of Surveys (February 2016 iTeach)

by the Revv. Tanya Eustace, Scott Hughes, and Will Randolph

iTeach newsletter

February 2016


The Value and Use of Surveys

As leaders in ministry, how do we recognize God at work in our congregations and communities? How do we discern how God is calling us to lead as people charged with making disciples for the transformation of the world?

In his book, The Soul of the Congregation, Thomas Frank reminds us that the answers to these questions come in response to intentional listening and a deep desire to learn about the communities and people with whom we are in ministry. Every culture is unique. Each congregation has its own identity, gifts, and stories. When we take time to actively listen to and get to know the people in our midst, we discover God at work, and we hear where God is calling us next. 

Active listening involves approaching a conversation with respect and a desire to hear and learn from another person. This process deepens our understanding of those with whom we are in ministry and opens our eyes, hearts, and minds to God at work in our communities. Effective leadership requires paying attention, asking questions, listening, and learning. Through this process, we grow to understand God’s people. We gather information, and we begin to discern where God is calling us next. How is God calling this congregation to use its gifts? How can this ecclesia (God’s gathered people) bring Christ’s love to a hurting world?

One way we can actively listen is to invite those we serve to respond to a survey. This is a method that was perfected in the business world, but has often been ignored by congregations and their leaders. Corporations provide opportunities for feedback, not exclusively to understand their customers’ preferences, but also to cement relationships.

Although surveys are helpful, they also have limitations. Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, warns, “When the preferences of church members are greater than their passion for the gospel, the church is dying” (“Four Reasons the Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission in a Church”)

Although surveys can be useful instruments for attentive listening, they should not be the final word regarding the direction of our faith formation offerings. It is helpful to know what our church members want, and we should trust where Christ is presently working in their desires. However, surveys can result in false optimism about what people plan to do versus what they will actually commit to do. Further, there are experiences, skills, and knowledge that disciples need to know in order to grow in faith. 

Additionally, data are not always accurate.  Improperly worded questions will not yield the results you want.  People's emotions also play a role in how they answer surveys.

The differences between a helpful survey and an unhelpful one are significant. The former provides relevant, productive information; the latter simply confirms prior knowledge. Church leaders who use surveys should concentrate upon developing an unbiased instrument that generates significant information. The way to ensure fruitful surveys is to begin with a clear objective about what type of feedback you are seeking and from whom. The next step is to jot down the questions that will elicit the information, prioritize the questions, and then eliminate duplicate questions. Prioritization is important because a survey should be short, with no more than 10 questions. Finally, the questions should be open-ended to invite additional feedback. 

There are excellent short guides and online survey services to help leaders design their own surveys. Because so many households are wired, quick survey formation and response is possible. However, a representative group is not always achieved this way.  Older and younger members in congregations may not have access to the Internet, and churches generally do not have up-to-date email address lists.  Further, studies have indicated that there are lower rates of participation with online surveys than with print surveys completed during worship. 

If you do choose to use online survey services, here are some of the popular ones to choose from:

  • Survey Monkey offers free and paid plans.
  • Google Forms  offers both printable surveys and online versions and is free. 
  • Survey Gizmo and Survey Planet are free to set up online or to print out surveys, but content analysis and export requires purchase of a monthly subscription.

You probably receive requests for feedback almost daily. Think about which surveys you choose to answer. This will help you design your own.  The final step in surveying is to give your target respondents a reason to respond. Whether you offer a special enticement for completing the survey or not, the key to survey success hinges upon publicity and promotion. The more ways you publicize the survey, the greater will be the response.

One idea for publicizing a printed survey is to have a designated Survey Sunday (usually one Sunday quarterly) in which you distribute printed surveys and ask the congregation to complete them and turn them in.

Having stated the values and limitations of surveys as well as some practical tips, we’d like to model attentive listening from our audience – you! Additionally, we thought it would be helpful to provide an example of a survey. At your convenience, please click the button below to tell us how we might improve our monthly iTeach articles. 

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