My Coding Process

The following is a step-by-step description of how I coded the data. Please note that NVivo uses the term node rather than code. I will use the terms interchangeably from here forward.

Step One

I coded each document—audio transcript, email, notebook, and online post with either the node name “Phase One,” “Phase Two,” or “Phase Three” in order to create comparisons over time. I then subdivided Phase One into three sub nodes that represented the three types of meetings and their purposes. Phase 1.1 represented the first two meetings in which we had initial “base-line” discovery conversations to establish a general sense of where the RT was in their perspectives on the topics of Spiritual Formation, the Trinity, and Suburban Issues. Phase 1.2 represented the third and fourth session in which I introduced the social Trinity to the RT. Phase 1.3 represented the final four meetings of Phase One in which the RT planned their action projects for Phase Two.

Step Two

I went through each of the eleven audio transcripts and highlighted every place where each team member spoke and coded it with that team member’s name. I also coded all the emails, notebooks, and online posts with the individual team member’s name. This allowed me to analyze each team member’s responses over time: e.g. How did Phil talk about spiritual practices in phase one compared to his responses in phase three?

Step Three

I created a node for each of the major topics discussed throughout the project:  Dwelling in the Word, Spiritual Formation, Suburban Issues, and The Trinity. I went through each session transcript and highlighted the major sections of the meetings that were dominated by these major themes and attached the corresponding node. These codes allowed me to narrow my queries to examine how the group, and individuals, referred to each topic over time.

Step Four

The first three steps were codes from the “known.” I knew the topics that had organized the discussions, I knew the phases of the project and the intentions of each phase, and I knew the names of each team member. Now I was ready to listen and note topics that emerged from the data. I read through each transcript, email, notebook, and online post and coded topics that seemed to be important to the individual as I read. The hope was to observe a recurring theme in his or her data.

Here I must confess. This process became overwhelming with the amount of themes and sub-themes that each individual covered over nine months. I found myself drowning in seemingly irrelevant codes.[1] I had generated a long list of codes that had only one or two occurrences. This seemed to be a counter-productive process, so I decided to try a different approach.

Step Five

The long list of nodes was cumbersome and overwhelming. I had to find a way to sort through the data and organize it in such a way that it would be easier to discern obvious patterns that addressed the research question. First, I created sub-folders under the Nodes folder based upon obvious categories. The subfolders were: Discussion of Projects, Final Questions, Format (email, notebook, transcript, etc.), Phases, Potpourri Basket (the list of random codes from step four), Prescribed Topics (Spiritual Formation, The Trinity, The Suburbs, Dwelling in the Word), Session, and Team Members.[2]

I then narrowed my searches to focus specifically on the topics of the research question. I was interested to note if the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity had any impact on the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the team members. Therefore, I focused on each individual within the following specific parameters.

First, I analyzed the individual’s statements regarding spiritual formation and spiritual practices from sessions One and Two. I listed his or her stated practices and comments and coded them in one of three possible categories: (1) internally-personally focused; (2) externally-communally focused; (3) blended personally-communally focused.

Second, I noted the choice of action project that each team member created for Phase Two. I also coded the individual’s personal data throughout the course of phase two to detect emerging themes.[3]

Third, I analyzed each individual’s response to the final questions in phase Three, specifically related to the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation and how, if at all, the social Trinity impacted them throughout the course of the project.[4] I noted three categories of responses to this question: (1) no significant change in either ideas about the Trinity or in spiritual formation; (2) moderate change in awareness, but a sense of confusion and a desire to pursue the topics further; (3) a significant change from a sense of internal-personal spirituality to that of communal-relationship based spirituality. I further nuanced these data into a continuum of responses. No two RT members had the same response. Rather, they spread across the continuum where there were some on one end of the spectrum who felt no change and questioned the integrity of the research methodology, to others on the other end who felt significant change and a sense of liberation because of the experience.

Step Six

I realized that there was a parallel question/theme taking place within this project that did not necessarily relate directly to the interface between social Trinity and spiritual formation. It is the topic of suburbia. I analyzed the sections of data in which the RT discussed suburban issues and looked for ways in which the team believed that living in the suburbs was helpful to spiritual formation and ways in which it was a hindrance to spiritual formation. The team indicated a list in both categories. Their answers correspond to the meta-theory of radical individualism, isolation, and the demands and pressure on time and allegiances. However, they also noted the benefits of suburban living and the affluence, freedom, and privilege that it brings. These are assets that can be leveraged to help those who do not have these same privileges.[5]

Step Seven

It occurred to me that the codes noted in step three—Dwelling in the Word, spiritual formation, suburban issues, and the Trinity—revealed an important factor. Three of those topics—spiritual formation, suburban issues, and the Trinity—were similar in that I predetermined them as team leader. However, Dwelling in the Word was of a very different species. I did frame the Dwelling by choosing the text, but, because of the nature of the exercise, I was not able to direct what topics the team members would discuss. We spent 45-55 minutes out of each two-hour session practicing the Dwelling exercise, therefore, this specific data comprised a large portion of the overall data. The open-ended nature of these discussions, and the themes that emerged from these data, served to open the imagination of the RT to experience the indwelling of the Trinity without an overt, instrumental move on my part as the leader.

I was curious to know how the RT felt about the practice of Dwelling in the Word, so I asked for their reaction to the practice on three occasions during the course of the project. I noted their responses and gathered three major themes. The Dwelling exercise: (1) Helped the team to connect with strangers and learn the art of listening; (2) Gave everyone a chance to be heard; and (3) Helped the team to center and focus on the topic at hand.

Step Eight

It became evident to me that the most helpful data to make sense out of the project were the responses to the list of final questions. These questions created open space for the team members to address the research question itself.[6] I did a data analysis of the responses to these questions for frequently occurring words and noticed three dominant themes throughout the conversations. The first was centered on the word relationship. The data indicate that the RT focused on the importance of relationships between the persons of God, the individual with God, and the individual in relationship with the neighbor. The second recurring theme was reflection. The RT noted that the introduction of the praxis cycle was helpful for them to understand the importance of reflective thinking, journaling, and intentional conversation—both in the group and with friends—for spiritual formation.[7] The third recurring theme was that the RT noticed an increased awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the world. They indicated that the process of experiencing this project gave them new language to articulate their experience of the Holy Spirit.

Final Question Data Findings

Figure 14. Major Themes from Data

Table 2. Final Questions

1.      In what ways, if at all, did the conversation about the social/relational/entangled Trinity change the way you think about and/or practice spiritual formation?
2.      What part of the Deep in the Burbs Project surprised you, and how?
3.      What have been your significant take-aways from this project? In other words, what have you learned from this experience?
4.      How did Dwelling in the Word either enhance or deter from the project?
5.      If we were to do this project again, what would you do differently?
6.      What advice would you give to suburban ELCA Christians regarding spiritual formation in light of your experience in this project?
7.      What advice would you give to suburban ELCA pastors and ministry leaders regarding spiritual formation in light of your experience in this project?
8.      What questions do you think should be asked about the project that have not been asked in questions 1-7?


[1] That is not to say that they were unimportant topics. They were irrelevant in the sense that they did not contribute to a dominant theme or to the main idea of the research project. I must note that the data created by the RT was rich and wonderful in its own right. Some of the journaling that was created fed me spiritually and I feel privileged to have read such intimate thoughts. While the specific data may not make its way into the dissertation, the process of having generated the data is the rich soil from which the findings were grown.

[2] These folders are organized alphabetically, not in order of frequency or importance.

[3] These codes went into the potpourri basket and made it possible to find emerging themes later in the analysis.

[4] See table 7 for the list of questions.

[5] See table 9.

[6] See table 7.

[7] The praxis cycle was introduced both explicitly and implicitly. I explained the definition and implications of praxis at different points throughout the project. This was the explicit introduction. The team implicitly learned praxis through the action of the project itself. They recognized this as they reflected on the experience.