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Janice McLean-Farrell on a Pastoral Approach to Research

Congregations often want to get information from members and neighbors. They can learn how to do so pastorally by considering how scholars do academic research using human subjects. Scholars follow ethical standards to gain data while doing no harm.

Janice McLean-Farrell is Dirk Romeyn Assistant Professor of Metro-Urban Ministry at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She has worked as a youth leader, urban pastor, and urban ministry professor, and she serves on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Vital Worship Grants Advisory Board. In this edited conversation, McLean-Farrell talks about what churches can learn from how scholars interview people to gain data and knowledge.

How would you describe the concept of institutional research board (IRB) procedures to people who’ve never heard of it?

Institutional research board (IRB) procedures are the measures an institution puts in place to ensure that any research using human subjects is done to the highest ethical standard. In a university setting, especially when researchers receive federal funding, the IRB policies and procedures are already in place. Projects approved by an IRB help scholars generate new data and knowledge in ways that do no harm and preserve people’s rights.

For example, if you research children who’ve been separated from their parents, you need to protect their identities and make sure your questions don’t traumatize or retraumatize them. You need counselors in place and protocols for when to pause or end an interview so that you don’t harm the child's well-being and healing.

Do IRB guidelines apply to congregations that want to find answers from others?

Most congregations planning to “do research” should think about the ethics research guidelines included in the IRB process because, as Christians, we believe in human dignity. This research might be to evaluate church ministries, discover why membership is declining, or survey neighbors about their needs and how the church might meet those needs. Even though churches aren’t required to get IRB approval because they are not federally funded universities, I’d like to ask them to gather information in a way that respects the autonomy of the people they’re talking with.

How do you do that?

For me, it starts by thinking of each interview or questionnaire as a partnership. The interviewee or person completing the questionnaire has information that the church needs. So view it as a privilege when people entrust you with their time and their stories. Let people say what they want to say for themselves. This approach has potential to shift power dynamics. Then, once you receive the information, you have to handle it ethically. You meet with people, do the interview, write it up, return it to the community, and then sit with them again to test the validity of what you think you’ve heard in what they shared. If it is a questionnaire, you can summarize the data, then send it to the community so they can check it. Then, together, you find ways to partner so that the people who were interviewed or completed the questionnaire feel vested in the project.

All these steps slow down the research process and can make waters murkier. But they foster and deepen partnerships and relationships. And it’s so important for research to be a partnership when you’re in a neighborhood where people feel they’ve been burned before. Too often “experts” come in, ask questions, don’t check their conclusions with the people they’ve interviewed, and then do whatever the experts planned on doing anyway. The church might start an after-school tutoring program that it decides the neighborhood needs—but no one comes.

What else should researchers consider?

Whether they are doing systematic academic research or a less formal study, interviewers should engage in reflexivity. That means being attentive to your biases in relationship to the people you interview because your biases have the potential to influence the interview process. So if I’m a white man doing work in a gentrifying neighborhood and I haven’t reflected on my white privilege and how I see people of color who happen to be poor, then I might not get the 360-degree picture on the redevelopment that is occurring in that neighborhood.

Reflexivity also applies to co-ethnics. I’m a Jamaican American who studies Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the United States and Great Britain. Still, I need to be aware of how I react (positively or negatively) to the information that is being shared with me and to remember that I’m there as a listener. Without practicing reflexivity, I may give off nonverbal cues that can potentially interrupt the interview. Church leaders need to do this internal work as well. Sometimes, even in a church, you can get the answers that people think you want to hear and not how they really feel about a topic.

Do scholars need IRB approval to research a congregation?

Scholars don't need IRB approval to get informal feedback from a congregation. But it’s better to have it but not need it than to need it but not have it. I like to have research guidelines in place even if I’m just doing a church workshop where I will be asking participants to complete a survey or give me feedback. If I end up getting more formalized feedback from the workshop and want to publish it, then I need an IRB. If scholars will interact with children in the congregation, it’s important to follow federal guidelines for conducting research on vulnerable populations and to do everything within the congregation’s Safe Church guidelines.

How might scholarly research of a congregation harm a congregation or its members?

If you’re researching immigrant trends in a church, you might talk with people who don’t have authorized documents to be in the country. So if you don’t keep their identities anonymous, you could put them in jeopardy with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). If you’re researching domestic violence or sexual abuse, identifying people you interview puts them at risk of even more harm from their abusers. Or say you’re studying women in ministry, and you record comments from a woman who disagrees with the church leadership stance. If you don’t redact her name and identifying factors, you might endanger her career. Remember that published research can harm people in many ways, including physically, spiritually, and professionally.

Websites often require commenters to use their real names. Why shouldn’t researchers do so?

When you promise interviewees that they will remain anonymous, for some it gives license to speak freely. If you reveal their identity after all, then you have broken trust in a supposedly safe space you created for people to share their stories. Of course, some people want to be identified.

What does it mean to take a pastoral approach to conducting academic research?

It means you care about the person you're interviewing, not just as a story, statistic, or case to further your academic career. Taking a pastoral approach means you don’t objectify their personhood for your scholarly purpose. You stay aware of voices you haven’t heard. The church may have a gatekeeper that selects who you’ll talk with. But, hopefully, you can also make time to talk with those not selected, like maybe the grandma or teen who’s always sitting in the back corner. As one of my PhD supervisors often says, there’s always more than one side to the story and doing good research requires giving adequate coverage to the different sides of the story.

Doing research pastorally involves things we’ve already talked about, like having counselors on hand and using reflexivity to check your biases. Where you can, it’s pastoral to tie the outcome of the interviews, such as published research, to advocacy and empowerment. So, for example, if I’m doing immigrant research, I think not just about where I can publish it, but also how I can become involved in advocacy work for immigrants.

What life experiences have shaped your pastoral approach to doing research with human subjects?

I was born in Jamaica, and my husband’s parents are from Trinidad, so I have a natural research interest in Caribbean immigrant communities, especially the experience of Afro-Caribbean peoples in churches. I’ve explored this topic in London and New York. When I look back on my early research on Afro-Caribbean immigrant youth in churches, I wish I’d been more vocal about changes that need to be made. I wish I’d been able to maintain more relationships over the long term. After my research, I was able to affirm in print that the churches were implementing features that were having positive, long-term impact on the churches. It was a way to encourage their work.

How has your advocacy developed along with your scholarly endeavors?

Immigration isn’t just academic to me. It’s a justice issue. In some of my classes at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, I include a section on immigration where I have students deal with immigration theories and issues. This theoretical engagement is then coupled with a practical dimension. My urban ministry class went to a pro se clinic [for people who represent themselves in court without an attorney’s assistance] to observe the asylum application process. The organization trains people to accompany asylum seekers—called friends, not clients—to their ICE interviews. I plan to take this training.

How might people in other fields combine research and advocacy?

People who research human subjects can ask themselves, “Given what I’m learning, what are my possibilities for advocacy? How can I do this research better by embodying the issue?” Someone in disability studies can start with reflexivity, asking, “What are my biases about what this person can or can’t do?” Without doing your own internal work on ableism, you may not do the best research you can do. Nor will you be able to interrogate and address prejudices that make a congregation or other institution an unwelcoming place.

But if you have considered how many things are designed with non-disabled people in mind, then you can write about your research in ways that help raise sensitivity. You can help churches see how they could use universal design and become more open to people with disabilities. The more I’ve learned about universal design, the more I see that it aids everybody to worship more effectively.


Apply for a Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Teacher-Scholar Grant. Read Janice McLean-Farrell’s book West Indian Pentecostals: Living Their Faith in New York and London. Use online resources from Studying Congregations to better understand your faith community.