Methodology Section Revised

Section Four

Research Methodology and Design


My research will focus on adult spiritual formation in suburban ELCA churches. It will specifically explore how the discussion of the social Trinity might impact the congregation’s understanding and practice of spiritual formation, with the hope that it might move the congregation into a fuller missional imagination. The specific research question is:

How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations?

Methodological Rationale

The methodology for this research is Participatory Action Research (PAR). I will use this method to engage multiple congregations in an educational discovery process over the course of one year. I have chosen PAR for both theoretical and theological reasons. PAR is based upon communicative rationality and seeks the emancipatory transformation of the community it studies through a participatory, democratic relationship between the stake-holders-as-researchers and the professional researcher.[1] This methodology is the praxis of the social Trinity.[2] The process of doing PAR will, in itself, demonstrate the communicative relational ontology that is the core of the social Trinity.[3] The local congregation is the body of Christ, and throughout the New Testament the church is instructed to follow the various “one another” commandments: love one another, pray for one another, teach one another, encourage one another, etc. This is most clearly demonstrated in Jesus’ teaching in John 13-17 where he describes the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the disciples and the world.

Methodological Design

PAR allows for the researcher to be an active participant within the community being studied so that the community can participate in bringing about social change within and through its own system. Therefore, I plan to work within my own context to pursue this research. I am a rostered ELCA pastor serving a call at a suburban congregation (GLC) as the Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation. It is my intention to perform this research with GLC and partner with two other ELCA churches from within the same conference (three congregations in total). The criteria for the selection of these partner churches will be twofold. First, they must be from a similar suburban setting. Second, they must be willing to fully engage in the research process over the course of a year.

I will invite a cohort of eight to twelve people from each congregation to join me as a team of researchers. There are three qualifications for being a member of the cohort. First, the member must be interested in the topic of spiritual formation. Second, the member must be interested in working in a group. Third, the member must be available to invest the time required to engage in the meetings over the course of the year-long research project. A list of these qualifications—along with a time-line and time commitment—will be posted in the congregations via bulletins, posters, announcements, etc. one month prior to the launch of the cohorts. I will also discuss possible candidates for the cohort with church leadership and allow the leadership to invite members they think would work well on the team.

Each cohort will focus on their particular congregation and report back to the larger team with data. I will initially meet with the cohorts from all congregations in a neutral space (library conference room, YMCA meeting room, etc.) for a six-week learning experience. During this period we will explore the topics of social Trinity and spiritual formation in a suburban context. I will lead the group through processes that will attempt to capture a snapshot of their current understanding and practices of spiritual formation and Trinitarian theology. I will also lead the group through a process in which they create ways to research their own congregations through PAR methodologies to pursue the research question within their own congregations over the next several months.[4] At the end of the period I will reconvene the cohorts and debrief the experiences to create meaningful interpretations of the process.

My qualitative research will happen in three phases over the course of one year. Phase one will be the gathered cohorts. Phase two will be the cohorts sent to their local congregations for PAR activities. Phase three will reconvene the cohorts for data analysis and sense-making exercises.

Phase 1

I will engage cohorts from the participating congregations in participatory, experiential learning exercises in which we will explore the topics of spiritual formation, social Trinity, and suburban issues. Cohort members will be encouraged to keep a personal journal, participate in a group blog, and contribute to the large group discussions and collaborative creative activities[5] during the duration of the research. These three forms of narrative will become the core data for the research.

These sessions will happen in January and February of 2014. I will gather data through audio recording the sessions, transcribing and coding them, and my own journals. The data will be entered into[6] The cohorts will also create their own PAR projects to be carried out in their own congregations over the next several months.

Phase 2

The cohorts will create action learning projects for their congregations during Phase 1. These projects will be carried out during the months following Phase 1 (March through November). Various forms of qualitative data will be gathered during these projects, but those will be determined based upon the processes created by the cohorts.

One example of a possible action project is a small group study on the Trinity. I will prepare an initial study guide prior to meeting with cohorts. I will lead the cohorts through this study and invite them to help me co-create a better version of it. This material will be available for the cohorts to invite members of their congregation into the study.

Another example of action projects is the methodology exemplified in Mark Scandrette’s book Practicing the Way of Jesus[7]. Scandrette’s book promotes action learning as the way to grow in the way of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. His theology is christocentric and could be considered a form of christopraxis. I have been in communication with Scandrette and he and I will be working on a way to modify his methodology and create a Trinitarian version of this methodology[8].

One example of his action learning methods is to lead a group on a “resonate walk” in which the group walks through public spaces and seeks to find how God is at work in that space. Another example is “have two, give one” in which the group members sell their possessions at a garage sale and give the money to the poor. These action projects may naturally flow out of the small group study mentioned above, or they may be stand-alone projects that are sparked by the cohorts.

The nature of PAR is that the stake-holders generate their own questions and methodologies. While I will strongly suggest the two examples mentioned above, the process is open to creativity and the leading of the Holy Spirit in many diverse directions. Part of the rich texture of the data collected in this study is to see how each congregation follows the Spirit in different ways.

Phase 3

The cohorts will be re-gathered in November in the neutral meeting space for debriefing. I will present to them my initial findings from the data gathered and allow them to critically reflect on it. I will also invite them to collectively process the experiences they have had over the year and make sense out of what God has done along the way. The data gathered in these meetings will be coded for comparison to the initial data at the beginning of the process in January.

Who Will Be Studied?

There are two types of people who will be studied in this research project. The first type is the member of the cohort. The cohorts will collectively form a group of between twenty-four and thirty-six people. This group will not only be researchers, but will experience, perhaps, the most direct form of interventions regarding social Trinity and spiritual formation during the course of the project.

The second type of person is the individual from the local congregation who participates in one of the PAR activities that is created by the cohort. Each cohort will gather qualitative data along the way to record any changes that may be taking place in the process of the action-reflection-action process.

The data collected from these two types of samples will be robust. It will require an organized coding system to track which data are associated with which category. The thick description and textured data will provide rich insight into the research question.


Accessibility will not be an issue in this study. The participants are members of congregations within the same geographical area as the primary researcher. There are no significant socio-political barriers that would inhibit the congregations from fully participating in the research project. I am in relationship with the pastors of these congregations and will have full access to them.

There are two major types of cost in this project. The first is financial, the second is time. The anticipated financial expense will be accrued in two places. The first will be printing and online data processing fees[9]. The second financial cost will be room rental for the cohort meetings and possible food, refreshments, and office supplies for the meetings. The second cost is time. The cohorts will be asked to invest six weekly sessions in the beginning of the year, several group action projects during the course of the year, and one, two, or three follow-up cohort sessions at the end of the year. This is a substantial commitment for the average busy suburbanite. It will require a clear initial disclosure of the commitment involved at the time of recruitment to insure a successful project.

Anticipated Theory Related to Analysis

The primary theory that informs this study is communicative rationality espoused by Jürgen Habermas,[10] specifically as it is applied to adult learning by Stephen Brookfield.[11] I am also interested in how Robert Kegan’s theory of the five orders of consciousness[12] relates to spiritual formation and the social Trinity as it is described by Jürgen Moltmann.[13] Another layer of theoretical conversation that runs through this research is one that exists between different streams of thought regarding the nature of spiritual formation itself. Is spiritual formation primarily an inward journey that cultivates a personal relationship with God,[14] or is it an external, communal process that builds a better society in harmony with God’s activity?[15]

It is my hunch that most suburban ELCA Christians will lean more toward the inward, individualistic idea of spiritual formation. I will explore whether an interaction with the social Trinity will create a more robust, communicative ideation and praxis of spiritual formation.



This will be a collaborative effort between multiple congregations and pastors. I will strive to follow-up with each congregation.


Each cohort will be trained in leading PAR projects within their own congregation. I will train one member from each cohort to enter the data into the account. Each member will do an initial coding following a line-by-line, word-by-word process.[16]

The data will be analyzed using This is a mixed-methods research software designed to integrate quantitative and qualitative data and report the results visually and accurately.


This will be volunteer participation by those who have a desire to learn more about the Trinity and spiritual formation. There is no reason to question believability. The data collected will be qualitative, representing the focus groups that were involved in transformative learning. This rich texture will avoid any possible tendency toward unnecessary bias.


I will make it clear from the beginning that this is an exploratory process and there is not a pass/fail evaluation to it. I will make myself available to the cohorts and encourage them to create a relaxed atmosphere of transparency for the groups throughout the process. All data and results will be made available to participants for review and revision.

[1] The Action Research: Church and Society project (ARCS) at Heythrop College, University of London is an excellent example of this. Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, and Catherine Duce, Talking About God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (London: SCM Press, 2010).

[2] This is the argument I hope to make as a result of this research.

[3] Moltmann; Zizioulas and McPartlan.

[4] Please find specific examples of possible PAR projects in the qualitative protocol design below.

[5] I am a visual artist and the process of visualizing theoretical and theological information is vital to my own understanding. Thus, I plan to utilize visual and interactive learning modalities for the learning process with the cohorts. This will be present both in the live group setting and online. I will create a collaborative blogging space as part of my research website

[6] is a web-based mixed-methods research software designed by sociologists at UCLA. It allows for qualitative coding of manuscripts and video footage, as well as integration with quantitative data.

[7] Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

[8] It is not that Scandrette is not Trinitarian. His spirituality is influenced by Dallas Willard and the evangelical/emergent conversation. Part of my study will be in conversation with this and the process of how the social Trinity might impact Scandrette’s praxis.

[9] For accounts.

[10] Habermas.

[11] Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching.

[12] Kegan, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.

[13] Moltmann.

[14] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002).

[15] Sheldrake, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God.

[16] Kathy Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory (London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006), 42ff.