Prestigious National Grant Helps Congregations Flourish
Ambrose University’s Flourishing Congregations Institute (FCI) is leading groundbreaking research into the health of Canada’s churches. Last fall, that important work received critical funding fuel: a major three-year research grant from Canada’s top-tier Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
The “Flourishing Canadian Congregations in Catholic, Mainline, and Conservative Protestant Sectors” project continues the partnership between Ambrose and the University of Saskatchewan. The project is led by co-investigators Drs. Joel Thiessen, Arch Wong, Bill McAlpine and Keith Walker, who is also the principal SSHRC investigator.
The grant is a significant “win” for the FCI, given SSHRC’s rigorous application criteria and the infrequency of grants awarded in this particular field. “This affirms the quality of research being undertaken and its potential to make a difference in the real world,” Thiessen explains, adding that it is a tangible vote of confidence in the group’s work.
To date, the FCI has completed more than 100 interviews and nine focus groups, and the SSHRC grant and nine other partners will fuel the next phases: a national survey with congregational leaders and congregants, to be followed by in-depth case studies of select congregations across Canada.
“The SSHRC grant really accelerates, broadens and deepens the work in this next phase,” Thiessen says. “It enables us to bring students into the project as research assistants, freeing up researchers’ time — initially to design the survey instrument and analyze data, consistent with the latest research and literature — and to expand the sample size with multiple points of contact.
“Using different avenues for gathering data, and surveying more people in different contexts, will give us a better sense of what’s going on; a better picture of what’s taking place.”
Bringing the picture into clearer focus
In late February 2018, the FCI will reach out to churches across Canada with a survey, aiming to garner at least 3,000 responses over three months. “This will help us get a larger-scale picture of traits in flourishing congregations, and to see if there are differences in perspectives between church leaders and congregants,” Thiessen says, explaining that it will also provide large-scale data for comparisons across regions.
Analysis of this first phase of work will take about a year, at which time the research will turn to in-depth case studies with 15 chosen congregations from across the country. At this “labour intensive” stage, the SSHRC grant will be pivotal for enriching research quality because team members will visit each church for about two weeks, attending services and meetings, analyzing documents and websites, and drilling down into congregational processes.
“We will look deeply into mechanisms,” Thiessen says, “so if the survey reveals that something is being done well, we will learn how it is actually being done. Every day, we will interact with church leaders, focus groups and spend time in the neighbourhood, to really understand the strategy and experience.”
The final stage of the project will unfold based on what is learned in the first two phases of the project. “This is intentionally left fluid at this point,” Thiessen says, “and will be a further opportunity to conduct interviews and focus groups that enable us to lean into some things a little more.”
Throughout the project, articles in academic and church publications, an annual conference-style event hosted at Ambrose, and numerous academic and church-based speaking engagements are some of the ways the FCI will share what is learned in the research so it can be transformed into action.
“It is key that this knowledge be mobilized throughout the project,” Thiessen notes, “so the impact and benefits can be realized on an ongoing basis, rather than only at the project’s conclusion.”
Making a difference for students, churches and Ambrose
Launched only three years ago, the FCI is already making a name for itself — and making an impact.
“When we launched, we hoped things would progress quickly, but didn’t anticipate it would be quite this quickly,” Thiessen admits. “It’s exciting to see.”
The SSHRC grant clearly shows the impact rippling from the FCI.
Students who are hired to become research assistants, for example, will have exceptional hands-on learning opportunities, expanding their knowledge and skills. Beyond augmenting their program learning, the experience may inspire some to be part of the next generation of researchers.
A project of this magnitude and profile also communicates clearly that Ambrose and its faculty have the strengths and capacity to engage in nation-leading work, elevating the University’s profile on the research stage. The SSHRC grant further validates the quality of investigations undertaken at Ambrose, which can inspire other funders to step forward as well.
And, of course, at the heart of the research is flourishing congregations.
“Flourishing congregations are like the hub of a wheel,” Thiessen says. “When they flourish, so many other things — individuals, families, neighbourhoods — flourish. Everyone benefits.”
Stay up to date on the latest FCI news
Learn more about the research project and what it means for Canada’s churches and take part in the national congregational survey at flourishingcongregations.org.