The Central Midwest District UUA merged in 2013 with the Districts of Heartland and Prairie Star to form the MidAmerica Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
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My Love-Hate Relationship with Surveys

One of the questions I am asked most frequently regard use of surveys in congregations. I include here a somewhat patchwork version of advice I have given recently on the topic.

I have a love-hate relationship with surveys, especially surveys used as a part of congregational planning. Frankly, used in this context they can often do more harm than good.

The appeal of surveys is obvious. When used as one among a number of ways of collecting data, they can get great and comparatively easy way to add peripheral vision to face-to-face methods of gathering response. This is especially true since the advent of good, cheap — or even free — software for doing this such as SurveyMonkey.com. These new methods reduce to practically nothing the old tasks of counting survey results and make analysis easier.
There are two key problems with surveys or — to be more adequate — to problems with how surveys are used.

The first challenge is that polls are often used as quasi-votes, not as a means to get in view the range of view. So, to use the worst kind of examples (a real one from a recent project), a poll might say that 95% of people think that the signs and communications of a congregations are adequate. What this overlooked was that the 5% who did not find them adequate were the new members and the poll did not include visitors. In any instance where there will be inclination for a poll to be used as a quasi-vote, good scientific method and good consulting both would say that they should be directed to make a clear decision about whether a vote is what is wanted and — if it is — that should be conducted within the procedures for their polity. Polls as quasi-votes yield no real information. In the negative, they tend to hide what is emerging behind the “average” and cause much real destruction. If however, they are used to explore a complex reality they can be very informative.

The second challenge is that congregations are temped to use surveys as a ways to avoid the tough work of face-to-face conversations. People need to be heard and to hear each other face-to-face on any subject that is sufficiently important to warrant a survey. These conversations are most healthy when the people in the conversation speak directly on the basis of their own convictions — not leaning for support on the views of an anonymous percent of the congregation. While the question of anonymity deserves its own separate discussion, suffice it to say here that confidentiality in congregational planning is over-rated. The creative directions in planning focus on face-to-face methods such as World Cafe (www.theworldcafe.com) which has worked well recently for congregations of a variety of sizes in the district.

Yet surveys do have a place. Here are a few guidelines for using surveys well:

  • Surveys work well as a way of understanding the range of views and as a prelude to direct conversations. A good conclusion from a survey is: “we didn’t know so many people thought that; let’s get them together.” A bad way to use a survey is to say: “more people want us to hire an assistant minister than an administrator; therefore we should hire an assistant minister.”
  • Surveys work poorly as a substitute for direct face-to-face communication. The besetting sins of congregational communication are anonymous feedback and indirect feedback. Surveys by their nature tend to be both so it is important not to take any action or draw any conclusions on the basis of a survey alone. They can be a very good way of identifying which conversations you need to have.
  • Always test your survey on a small group of people, if only with your committee or six friends from work.
  • Electronic tools for doing surveys are getting very good. I have used a number. Survey Monkey is my current favorite. You pay a nominal fee per month and they have a free version which is adequate for many purposes.
  • Consult with the senior leadership of the congregation before undertaking a survey. Show a copy of the survey in draft form and then, when the survey is finalized, send them a complete copy of what will go to the congregation.

There is much more to say about this, but this is a good start.