Three rules on seeking opinion

In a congregation getting started on a Church Wellness Project, teams are preparing to gather information from their fellow members. They will interview young adults, newcomers who joined, visitors who didn’t stay, former members, current and former leaders, and people engaged in various ministries, as well as staff.

They approach these interviews with these guidelines in mind.

Rule #1: Be random

People who do interviewing and polling professionally say the best data always comes from a random sample. One method is to print out an alphabetical list and select every tenth name. If that person is unavailable, go to the next name, and then resume counting to ten. It’s time-consuming and will result in some odd conversations — “Why are you calling me, of all people?” — but the results will be more reliable than a mailed survey, in which self-selection plays too large a role in who responds and you tend to keep hearing from the same people.

Another good method is a focus group. Even though that might sound like a “product launch” or political ploy, a well-run focus group can yield important narrative and intuitive data.

The least reliable data comes when study group members simply talk among themselves and then project their opinions, observations, and feelings onto others. It is a rare leadership group that truly reflects the full range of attitudes, yearnings, and needs of the larger constituency.

Rule #2: Shut up and listen

The best interviewer asks a leading question and then listens to the answer. When the subject pauses, the interviewer remains silent. Let the subject fill the silence. This sounds simple, but it requires a self-denial that many have a hard time mustering.

Rule #3: Listen openly

Nothing derails an interview faster than an interviewer who argues back, disputing the subject’s observations, or, equally, an interviewer who harvests the subject’s words as proving the interviewer’s bias. Just listen openly, not defensively or aggressively. There will be a time later to reflect on what was said, whether it was accurate or fair or worth taking seriously. The point now is to let people say whatever they need to say.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.