Beyond Information Collection – Using Surveys


“And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” (Acts 2:43)


Discover the many additional benefits of utilizing surveys in parish development. This is leveraging – using one tactical method to achieve several things simultaneously.

Internet survey tools make it remarkably easy to gather and analyze information and opinion. But surveys can do much more important things than that in developing connections with parishioners.

Surveys can be scientific instruments offering statistically reliable guidance for important decisions. However, this article is not about that. It is about communication.

Parishioners are a vital resource of talent (special skill), energy (time) and treasure (funding). Engaging them meaningfully is essential to securing their engagement, commitment and support in fulfilling the mission of the parish.

One of the most powerful tools in working with parishioners, and especially in involving them more closely in parish life, is listening. While a comprehensive listening-based planning process takes considerable time and effort, a survey can be a low-level maintenance dose of planning.

Listening and acknowledging are most effective when done person to person. This is why every parish should have an ongoing major gifts program to cultivate prospective major donors as well as pastoral care, of course. One important element in launching a new program, adding needed staff or addressing capital needs beyond the operating budget is funding.

In a parish there are plenty of opportunities for one-to-one contact among parish council members, heads of organizations or ministries, staff, and key leaders within the community. In most parishes there are also large groups of parishioners or loosely affiliated Orthodox with whom there is little direct contact. The interest, support and enthusiasm of these constituencies can be vital to the sustained vitality, or even viability of the parish.

The two primary means of effectively serving parishioners are (1) providing programs, ministries and services of the highest quality and (2) making parishioners feel that their opinions and concerns are important to those in charge. And not necessarily in that order!

Since the priest and parish council members are not likely to be able to meet with or telephone each parishioner individually, a well-crafted survey can serve to establish a baseline level of communication. Unlike a newsletter, or other one-way means of communication, which may or may not be read, a survey offers many advantages:

  • Goodwill: The very notion of a survey is premised on asking rather than telling – always a good start for communication. The simple act of asking parishioners for their opinions and ideas creates good will.
  • Engagement: Simply by answering, responders are taking an active, if perhaps small, step into participation in the parish. If the survey is part of a planning process, it prepares parishioners who might not otherwise be engaged for their sense of ownership and support of the plan once it is complete.
  • Consensus: By participating, they are, to some extent, buying in to the objectives on which they are commenting.
  • Shaping perception: This must, of course be done convincingly. A good survey does not merely ask for free-ranging opinions and preconceptions. “Do we have the right mission?” or “How do you like x, y or z?” are not likely to offer useful insights or convey to parishioners that they are being taken seriously. However, a survey can frame questions to inform parishioners and adjust perceptions as they respond – e.g. by asking for ratings of importance of, and satisfaction with, specific programs, services, or aspects of mission.
  • Evaluating communication: Beyond informing parishioners about the parish’s values and accomplishments, it is also important to find out whether messages are getting through, and which communications work for various purposes and audiences. While survey responses may affect programs and services, sometimes feedback simply indicates where you aren’t communicating very well – either about achievements or about the importance of them. If you ask about issues at the core of your mission, and you get answers that surprise you, there are three possibilities: needs may have changed, your mission statement may need to be revisited, or you may need to refocus your communications to better educate your parishioners.
  • Segmentation: Perceptions may be very different among different demographic or geographic subgroups of parishioners, or across other categories (roles, duration of connection, interests). A survey may give some very clear information about the perceptions of, or what needs to be done better, or communicate more effectively to, subgroups you may not have thought about independently.
  • Support: By means of all of the above, a survey can help to prepare parishioners to contribute more generously to stewardship and other fundraising efforts.

Sometimes parish leaders say that they did a survey a couple of years ago and don’t want to impose on their parishioners again so soon. This hesitation is based in a misunderstanding. The old, long paper survey – or the commercial online customer service or market research survey that has 17 questions on subtle distinctions that you didn’t notice and couldn’t care less about – could indeed be an annoyance or a burden. But if you are surveying parishioners about some aspect of parish life with which they have already developed some level of commitment, and you are using simple online tools, the rules are different. If your surveys are reasonably brief, and if they seem meaningful, regular or even frequent surveys can be an asset.

In order for these objectives to be achieved, surveys must be carefully constructed and analyzed, and the parish must report back to the participants about voices heard, as well as lessons learned and actions taken from them. If the parish fails to report back to parishioners messages heard, lessons learned, and perhaps misconceptions clarified or little known facts conveyed, the net effect of a survey will be to reduce, rather than increase, the sense of transparency and responsiveness.

The value of these ideas about surveys can be corroborated from another perspective. While surveys play a very different role, they share a good bit with the phenomenon of social media in terms of the critical importance of engaging parishioners.

The leadership of a parish is likely to be more knowledgeable about the attitudes, interests and concerns of people like themselves than of those with a different interest in the parish and its programs. Often interesting issues pop out when we compare survey responses of new, medium-term, and long-term parish members; members of different ages and life stages, and members who participate primarily in different aspects of the parish, among other variables. This information can help the parish to tailor programs, services and communications to enhance value and involvement.

A parish council self-assessment can be another good use of online survey tools. This can be an effective way to start a comprehensive planning process. A self-assessment focuses parish council members on the council’s performance as a whole, and on their personal performance within that context. This prepares members to approach parish planning with the requisite self-awareness.

There can be an advantage in using a third party to shape, conduct and analyze a survey. Expertise in constructing questions and analyzing answers will make it far more likely that the data will be meaningful, and that parish leaders will use the survey most effectively to convey information and start a two-way conversation. A third-party e-mail address as the survey’s source will often get more honest answers, as well.

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