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The power of surveys: Discover needs and opportunities

By Eric Seiberling

Surveys can provide a way to listen to what motivates respondents and to get honest, open feedback from those who regularly attend your church and from your surrounding community. Surveys, better than hearing individual opinions and generalized statements, help provide unbiased data to inform the discussions of your church leadership team.

Identify the goal of the survey.

Start by asking, “What is the objective of the survey?” The target and questions you ask will differ based on your objective. A survey to understand the local community’s needs to aid the marketing planning process will be different from assessing program effectiveness, membership satisfaction or the worship needs of the congregation. Write a clear statement of the objective of the research to help guide who should be the target of the survey, what questions to ask (as well as not to ask) and potential ways to examine the data.

Decide whom to survey.

Surveys can focus on the regular attendees of the church or the community as a whole. Get clear on whose opinion is needed for the decision. Be careful in using the same survey for both congregants and community members as it may make the survey longer and not quite as relevant to the target group. Consider creating two surveys, but create the questions in a way that you can compare one group to another.

Carefully design the survey questions and then prune mercilessly.

Crafting excellent survey questions can significantly influence the response rate and the quality of the results. Start by brainstorming the types of questions on which you would like to gather data. Create the list of potential questions and ask how each specific question will help answer your research objective.

Next, turn the question topics into specific questions. Questions must be worded very carefully to avoid creating a bias in the response. Make them brief and easy to understand. Each question should have one answer (to make coding easier). Take care to avoid leading (based on the phrasing of the question) or “twofold” questions (containing two or more questions but only allowing for one answer.) Create ranges that do not overlap and provide for one clear answer. Rating scale questions can help in determining attitude, opinion, knowledge or behavior and generally use a 5-point or 7-point scale. Try to avoid “yes-or-no” questions.

Question order is also very important. Start by asking easy, general questions that take little thought and then get into more opinion-type questions. Save personal questions like age, income or education status for the end of the survey. Finally, always make sure to include a final, open-ended question.

Test the survey with five to 10 people and ask about their experience. How long did it take? Did they understand all of the questions? Where were they confused? How did they feel after they took the survey?

Ideally, surveys should take no more than five to 10 minutes to complete. The shorter and simpler the survey, the more likely the respondent will complete the full survey. Constantly prune the questions by asking how the requested information will answer the research objective and eliminate any question not critical to informing the decision you are trying to make.

Use the right tools to analyze the results.

Once the survey has been completed, it is time to analyze the results. You can analyze the results using Microsoft Excel, open-source analysis tools like SOFA (Statistics Open for All) or other advanced analysis tools. Tabulate the data for each question by showing the number of responses for each answer and computing the percentage.

Here are links to examples of frequency counts measuring the current satisfaction of the worship service and preferred worship style.

You can also combine two tables into one comprehensive chart that shows the relation between both sets of data. This is called cross-tabulation. Use this technique on sets of questions that you consider most important.

Here's a cross-tabulation of the worship charts above. It shows the satisfaction level of individuals with different worship styles. This shows how people who prefer contemporary worship are less satisfied than the other groups.

Online survey tools can automate much of the analysis, but be careful in using them for churchwide research. It will shift the response to individuals that are “plugged in” and comfortable with technology, which may leave out parts of the congregation. The advantage of using online survey tools is that they can automatically tally the results and provide graphics for the reports. If you go this route, offer both a paper-based and an online survey tool and then have someone from the survey team enter the paper-based responses to get all of the data into one system.

Compare results over time.

Survey results provide a snapshot of the attitudes and behaviors – including thoughts, opinions and comments – about your target survey population. This valuable feedback is your baseline. Conduct surveys on a periodic schedule and compare results over time. This can provide perspective on the impact of different changes on satisfaction, behaviors and attitudes.

Check out a worship survey example from a midsized church.

First United Methodist Church of Wapakoneta, a midsized congregation in Ohio, recently underwent a pastoral change. During listening sessions, it was determined that changes needed to be made to worship, but there was a lack of consensus on what to do. A 14-question survey was created, fielded over three weeks and analyzed to help guide the worship committee’s decision process. Not only did the worship committee receive guidance on the thoughts and feelings of the congregation, but the survey also helped the congregation to consider how the church could change and opened a broader conversation about change in the church to reach more adults, ages 19 to 49. The church became more open to the possibility to changes in worship times and launching a new service based on the survey results.

Use surveys wisely.

Surveys can be a powerful tool for churches to seek to understand the thoughts and feelings of the church. Be careful to limit the amount of surveying to ensure high response rates and quality data to make decisions.