Thoughts on Being a Religious Researcher

In early 1971, I got the happy news that Hartford Seminary had awarded me a two-year “traveling fellowship” for doctoral studies anywhere in the world (except Hartford Seminary).  This had not been my plan. I was finishing my Master of Divinity degree at Hartford and preparing to seek a position in urban ministry.

 It was late in the season but I applied to two schools.  The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley turned me down (ironically, I would later serve for 14 years on the GTU board of trustees).  Penn State accepted me into the inaugural class of its PhD program in Religious Studies with its dual focus in Sociology of Religion and American Religious History. My main advisers there were Yoshio Fukuyama and Paul Harrison, two fine sociologists, both of whom had done research on and consulted with Protestant denominations.

During my doctoral studies my friend Ted Erickson of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries got me involved in project on local church clusters with what was then called the Consultation in Church Union.  Ted had done some part-time teaching at Hartford while I was a student and we shared an interest in ways social research could contribute to the church’s ministry.

At the time I hadn’t thought a lot about what I would do with the degree once I finished the program.  My interest was less in teaching than in ministry and research.  Those had been my interests for a long time.  I recall a visit to my hometown in Massachusetts shortly after becoming Sociology major at Colby College that taught me an important lesson I hope I’ve never forgotten.  I had dinner one evening with the advisers of my high school youth group and showed off my college sophomore sociological expertise by telling them how they could improve their church.  They were rather disgusted with my performance and told me, “Look, kid, the only place we get to make decisions in our lives is this church.  We don’t get to make decisions at home or in our jobs.  We do get to make decisions at church.  Please don’t try to take that away from us.”

In 1975, the Board for Homeland Ministries was thinking about recreating a social research position that had not been filled when Yoshio Fukuyama relocated to Penn State.  This board had a long tradition of incorporating social research into its work on behalf of the domestic mission of the United Church of Christ.  Its previous executive, Truman Douglass, was the nephew of pioneer religious researcher H. Paul Douglass. (For more on the tradition of social research in the United Church of Christ see my blog posting at

The research position Fukuyama had been vacant for about ten years and Erickson and others were arguing for its reinstatement.  The new position was created in the board’s then-new Division of Evangelism, Church Extension and Education.  I was called to the position and began work on July 1, 1975. I was ABD at Penn State and didn’t finish my dissertation until 1979 after the department, under pressure from the university to produce more graduates, pleaded with me to get it done.

On my first day on the job the executive vice president, Howard Spragg, made me a promise: “Young man,” he said, “I’m going to make you a promise.  Nobody will ever assign you a study to do.  Your job is to figure out what’s going on in this country and what it means for our mission.”  My freedom was to be protected.

I came to realize this freedom was unusual in denominational research circles.  Many of my colleagues in other denominations functioned as research technicians.  The PCUSA and ELCA had initiated denomination-wide surveys, sampling member opinions on a range of issues.  Several were located in church extension departments with responsibility for identifying sites for new church development.  I had much more freedom to shape a research agenda for the board and as the only full-time researcher in the national setting, for the UCC as a whole.  Looking back, about a third of my time was spent serving on committees and assisting on small projects supporting staff colleagues in their areas of responsibility: e.g., designing evaluation strategies, helping national and conference staff make sense of demographic and other data.  Each year the majority of my time was devoted to one or more large-scale research projects of my own design (e.g., early studies of church growth and decline, small church empowerment, area mission strategies, making US Census available for local churches, two major ecumenical projects on “Unchurched Americans, “religious presence” in urban America). Most of these projects involved collaboration with research colleagues in other denominations and seminaries/universities.  I was able to publish regularly in denominational and scholarly journals and co-authored three books: Handbook for Congregational Studies, Varieties of Religious Presence and American Mainline Religion.

The board restructured its staff several times during my tenure and the research office was eventually lodged in the office of the EVP.  I always felt that the board saw my office as a resource for the whole church; in fact, in my later years on the job I probably spent as much project time working with the President’s Office, the Office for Church Life and Leadership, and the Stewardship Council as with UCBHM groups.

During my time with UCBHM there were rich opportunities for collaboration across the religious spectrum.  As the National Council of Churches’ research activity declined, Hartford Seminary’s research center was emerging as an important hub of research collaboration.  We were able to leverage the denomination’s limited funding for research with support from Lilly Endowment.  Most of the large-scale projects in this period were made possible by support from Lilly and other foundations.

My responsibilities changed somewhat when Charles Shelby Rooks succeeded Howard Spragg as EVP.  I was asked to provide administrative staff support to Rooks’ restructuring of the board.  This was a difficult period in the board’s history and I began to realize my future work in the church would be focused more on management than on research.  In 1986, Hartford Seminary invited me to consider its deanship.  As alum who had worked closely with colleagues in its research program, I was intrigued by the possibility of returning to a school that had begun to transform itself into a new kind of theological school.

I was able to remain fairly active as a scholar while at Hartford but found myself energized by my administrative responsibilities as dean.  We were able to restructure the school’s academic programs, more than doubling degree program enrollments and attracting over 3,000 persons a year for continuing education programs.  During these years Lilly was very kind to Hartford Seminary and we were able to add to the staff of the seminary’s research center.  I began a couple of leadership education programs for denominational and ecumenical executives that had a lot of impact.

After almost a decade at Hartford Seminary (and approaching age 50) I began thinking a bit about my vocational future.  Talking with friends and colleagues, I came to realize that my calling was less to a position or role than to assisting what is known as “mainline” or “liberal” Protestant Christianity to recover a sense of its vocation in a radically-changing culture.  This was an important breakthrough for me at the time.  I began to understand that institutional roles (such as church executive roles, seminary presidencies and deanships) are strategies, not ends.  I also realized that the two main foci of my scholarly work, religious institutions and public renewal needed to be more integrated in my own work, leading to a new focus on leadership.   Toward the end of a long conversation Craig Dykstra of Lilly said to me, “The last thing you want is a seminary presidency.  That would prevent you from doing what you are called to do.”

I realized that the deanship at Hartford with its strong educational programs, its research center and its work in interfaith relations was a pretty terrific place to shape the future of mainline Protestantism and its partner faith communities.  Hartford gave me freedom to do some consulting and lecturing on the side and encouraged its faculty to serve the wider community.  For much of my time there I served as a trustee of the Alban Institute, chairing the search committee for Loren Mead’s successor as president.  As I began my 10th year I told the Hartford faculty about my conclusion that I was not going to be a seminary president.

The following summer my wife Linda and I were preparing to travel in West Africa when I received a call from a friend who was co-chairing the presidential search committee at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.  Was I at all interested in applying?  I told her where I was vocationally and that I was committed to remaining at Hartford.  “Well, some night when you and Linda are looking up at the skies in Nigeria, I want you to think about coming to Berkeley and PSR.”  We did think about it, but again I told we were not interested.

A few months later the same friend called again.  PSR’s search was not going well and my name kept coming up as the right match for the school.  Would I come out and visit with the committee?  “If it helps, think of yourself as a consultant, not a candidate,” she said. This is tactic I had often used in the past and would use many times in the future.

I had a good visit with the committee and three days later was offered the position.  Three weeks later, after a second visit, I accepted the offer.

Pacific School of Religion didn’t call me as its president because I am a researcher (or, for that matter, a student of congregations or denominations).  They saw an alignment between their needs and my skills, background and vocational commitments.  Together, we would try to make a difference on behalf of what we labeled “Progressive Christianity” and its partners.

I made the naïve assumption that my life as a scholar could continue while serving as a seminary president.  I did try to teach each year and accepted an occasional lectureship opportunity.  My board was very generous in allowing me to be on Cape Cod for much of the summer, which enabled me to stay fairly current in my field.  Serving on doctoral and masters committees for students was also helpful.  I enjoyed my relationships with faculty colleagues at PSR and the GTU but was saddened to discover that even more than deans, whose administrative responsibilities are seen by faculty members as temporary aberrations on otherwise acceptable career trajectories, presidents in higher education are defined by their role.  Whatever scholarly accomplishments they might bring to their position, however successful they might be in bringing students or dollars to the school, presidents are seen as having somehow gone over to the other side.  I don’t think this was unique to Pacific School of Religion; in fact, I’m told by colleagues it’s far worse in other places.

Three and a half years ago I retired from my role at PSR’s president. I was able to look back on a reasonably successful 14 years of work and don’t regret more than a couple of days of my tenure.  I left not needing one more faculty meeting or personnel issue or fundraising goal.  Now I find myself teaching part-time, chairing a personnel committee and raising money for nonprofits!  I read more, blog and write a bit and help congregations and theological schools explore and shape their futures.

When we left Berkeley to move to Cape Cod, Linda and I made a conscious decision to downsize.  We gave away two-thirds of our furniture, clothing and books.  The books were the hardest.  I decided not to keep the “best” books on my shelves, knowing that I could find most of them in libraries or online.  I decided to keep intact my fairly large collection of books on congregations and denominations and a couple of shelves of books in American religious history.  Letting go of books by favorite theologians was hard and in the end I couldn’t part with the Niebuhrs and, oddly enough, books on the family of Lyman Beecher.  I’m still adding to my collection in these areas.

As a researcher I remain fascinated by the questions that have dominated my scholarship over time, question like these:  How do religious institutions develop, sustain and break down boundaries in their internal life and relationships with the cultures of what they are a part?  How do religious institutions dis-establish themselves gracefully and then find ways to take an appropriate place among other religious institutions? How do we answer the most important and difficult question pastors ought to ask every Sunday, “What are these people doing here?  What keeps them coming back?”  How do we find ways for old institutions to renew or transform themselves when the old ways don’t and perhaps shouldn’t work anymore?  How can religious leaders learn to think while practicing and practice while thinking?

These ought to keep me busy for a while.


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