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Research firm explores state of the United Methodist Church

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The Rev. Larry Hollon
June 21, 2006

By Linda Green*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — What do United Methodists like about their denomination? What is the role of the church in their lives?

Getting answers to these and other questions is the task of an international consulting firm that is working with the United Methodist Church’s Connectional Table for an assessment of the state of the denomination.

Researchers with the Martec Group are contacting United Methodists to collect information for the Connectional Table’s state of the church project, said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications and a member of the table.
The research firm’s findings will describe the thoughts, feelings, values and judgments of active and inactive members of the United Methodist Church, he said.

Martec will be contacting United Methodists to request interviews this summer. The company is based in Chicago and has offices in Houston, San Francisco, Detroit, Frankfurt, Tokyo and Beijing. The firm also will interview bishops, pastors, district superintendents, annual conference treasurers and administrative service directors, connectional ministries directors and designated lay leaders.

The Connectional Table was created by the 2004 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, to guide the church’s mission and ministries.

The research effort was initiated to define current realities — strengths and weaknesses — in the life and ministries of the United Methodist Church and to offer proposals for dialogue and action that will “lead to enhanced effectiveness in making disciples of Jesus Christ and foster mercy and justice in the world,” said Neil Alexander, co-leader of the research project with Hollon, and president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House.

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Meera Buck

“The research is just one of the ways we are working to observe and learn more about the range of opinions and attitudes United Methodists have about the needs of people, the effectiveness of our churches and extension ministries, and the near- and long-term challenges we must confront,” said Alexander, who is also a member of the Connectional Table.

The first draft of the State of the Church report is expected to be completed by the end of this year, Hollon said.

“It is obvious that this is a bold undertaking,” Alexander said. The table “aspires to ignite imaginations and animate churchwide evaluation and planning.” The group does not “intend to issue a judgmental report card,” but based on input from a variety of sources, it will “prepare descriptions and propositions that will help laity and clergy reflect in informed and faithful ways about who we are, how we are doing, and how we can advance our mission and witness together.”

An international effort

Meera Buck, the principal researcher for United Methodist data for Martec, said her assignment is to develop an understanding of the state of the church, find out “what is on the minds of United Methodists and the role of the church in their lives with a view toward the future.”

Buck, a United Methodist, said the research has three phases. The group is analyzing existing church data as well as conducting personal, one-on-one interviews with “all kinds of people within the church to understand what they think of the church,” she said. “The interviews will be representative of areas where the United Methodist Church exists.”

Data will be gathered from United Methodists in the United States, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Germany, Switzerland, Russia and the Philippines. The Martec Group is also collecting information through telephone interviews, Internet bulletin boards, surveys and other research methods.

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Neil Alexander

“We need statistically valid baseline data so we will not fill in the blanks with speculative assumptions,” Alexander said. The results gleaned from the gathered information will provide points of comparison for measuring the degree and rate of changes in attitudes and views in future years, he said.

The State of the Church Project is “not intended to be a one-time event,” he said.

Alexander said it is hoped that the reports that arrive at the end of this year and in 2007 and 2008 will generate discussions at every level of the denomination.

“The Connectional Table is encouraging leaders to participate in facing the facts about current reality, to collaborate in prayer and reflection to discern God’s call, and to help shape our response as individuals, congregations, annual conferences and the general church,” he said.

Candor needed

Since the personal interview phase of the research has begun, concerns have been raised about how the data will be used and of the confidentiality of responses.

“I always assure people that they are going to be totally anonymous, and if I quote anybody, it will be as a group of people,” Buck said. Citing the researchers’ code of ethics, she said anonymity compels candor, and without it, researchers would not get the information they seek.

“We need candor,” Buck said. “This is a huge effort to help United Methodists the world over. It is not a report card on anything. It is looking to the future.”

According to Alexander, the only thing the Connectional Table is seeking is “to collect honest, accurate, and useful information that helps all of us think about who we are, how we are doing, and how we can become more effective in fulfilling our mission.”

The Martec Group wants United Methodists to participate in the research when asked. It needs people to convey their likes and dislikes about the church.

Persons who want additional information about the interviews should contact Linda Saunders at United Methodist Communications by e-mail at lsaunders@umcom.org or by calling (615) 742-5119.

 
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Resources
The Martec Group
The United Methodist Publishing House