Factors Related to Choosing Materials for Small Groups
Results of a Survey of Pacific Northwest UM Clergy
Ken Bedell
May 2000


During the summer and fall of 1998 the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church cosponsored with the Forum Foundation a program of small group study of the Social Principles and the Book of Resolutions. The program was established by a resolution at the 1998 Annual Conference. The Forum Foundation developed materials and Annual Conference staff promoted the program.

It became clear in the late summer of 1999 that only a very small number of congregations were responding to the opportunity to participate in the program. A random sample survey was initiated to determine what were the factors influencing the decisions on the part of congregations not to participate in the program. This report discusses the findings of that survey.

Clergy are Difficult to Reach

A random sample of 30 was drawn from the clergy list in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference 1998 Journal. Six of the people in the sample were dead, had moved away or were impossible to reach for some other reason. Information was collected by following a script in a telephone interview. Several of the questions were very open ended, so the length of interviews varied greatly. However, most interviews lasted between ten and fifteen minutes. Interviews were only conducted with clergy.

I collected information from 20 respondents from a potential list of 24. This is equivalent to a response rate of 83%. Most of the ministers were extremely difficult to reach by telephone. The argument can be made that because all of the ministers were difficult to contact, the 17% who were not reached can be assumed to be similar to those who were. Or one might expect that those who were the most difficult to reach might also be less likely to start new groups in their churches or to give serious consideration to using the Social Principle's study. However, with most of the general conclusions of this report, if all of the non respondents had taken a minority position on any of the questions, the final outcome would not be changed. In other word, the general consensus of 83% of the respondents was so conclusive that we can assume that the results are valid for the total population of United Methodist Ministers in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.

Although the clergy in this sample were difficult to reach, they were very friendly and helpful when I did reach them. Their positive response to telephone interviews suggests to me that it might be a good idea to experiment with using telemarketing to promote programs to United Methodist clergy.

Twenty percent of the clergy said that they have never heard of the Social Principles Study Project. This is not counting those who at first said they did not know about it and then, when it was described, said that they did remember hearing about it. This is probably the key to understanding why it is so difficulty to gain acceptance of a new program in a short time. That one out of five ministers did not know anything about the program is a symptom of the fact that they are overwhelmed with information. Each of these ministers had received two mailings that described the project in detail. They also received the Conference Coordinated Mailing that had four prominent items about the project. Then they received a letter that offered to send them an introductory audio tape prepared by the Bishop. That one in five clergy could receive all of this printed promotion and not have it make an impression highlights the challenge of trying to communicate something to all of the clergy.

Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said that they considered using the materials and one minister in the sample was from a congregation that uses the materials. This 5% usage of the materials is very close to the actual use across the Conference.

Used Program 5
Considered Program 60
Heard about/Did not Consider 15
Did not hear about 20
Total 100

Congregations Have Study Groups

One might guess that the reason congregations did not choose to participate in the Social Principles Project is because it was designed to be used with a small group. Possibly congregations do not start new small groups or they already have groups started that are firmly committed to a curriculum or approach. If this were true, then a new program that encourages the formation of small groups would first need to convince congregations that there is a benefit to doing all the work to establish and promote small groups. Then a particular curriculum would need to be promoted.

It turned out that 75% of the surveyed ministers said that their congregation had established at least one new small group during the time that the Social Principles program was being promoted. Just over half of those surveyed said both that they were familiar with the program and new groups were started in their congregations during the period when the program was being promoted. Of these ministers all but one said that the Social Principles program was considered.

As noted before one congregation in this group did use the materials. So another way to look at the acceptance of the materials is to say that close to 10% of the congregations that started new groups and considered the materials chose to use the Social Principles program.

What Makes Particular Materials Attractive?

After conversations with Conference staff, eleven possible factors were identified that might influence the decision to use particular materials. Respondents were asked to rank each item from 1 to 5 to indicate how important each item is. One indicated that an item is extremely important while 5 indicates that it is not important at all. Below is a chart with the average response give to each item-listed from most important to least important.

Question Average
Subject Matter 1.1
Spiritual Development 1.8
Recommendation of Friend 2.2
Social Action 2.4
Little Preparation 2.5
Includes Video 2.6
Denominational Sponsorship 2.7
Recommendation of Bishop 2.8
Conference Sponsorship 3.3
Non controversial 3.5
Glossy Materials 4.2

Standard deviation is a simple statistical test that indicates the extent of consistency on each particular question. If everyone were to give exactly the same answer then the standard deviation would be zero. The larger the standard deviation the greater the diversity of responses.

Question S.D. Range
Subject Matter 0.30 1-2
Denominational Sponsorship 0.71 1-4
Recommendation of Friend 0.75 1-4
Social Action 0.80 1-4
Little Preparation 0.81 1-4
Glossy Materials 0.85 3-5
Conference Sponsorship 0.90 2-5
Includes Video 0.97 1-5
Recommendation of Bishop 0.99 1-5
Spiritual Development 1.04 1-4
Non controversial 1.07 1-5

This table shows that with the exception of the subject matter, there is a diversity of opinions about the relative importance of the various factors. For example on the question of whether it is important that materials be non-controversial, some respondents said that it is extremely important while others said that it is not important at all. The same is true regarding whether video is used and whether the materials are recommended by the Bishop.

While there clearly is a great deal of diversity in the way clergy ranked the factors, several observations can still be made.

1) The subject matter of materials suggested for use by small groups is the single most important consideration when a decision is being made about what resource to use. This study did not attempt to discover what particular subjects are more attractive than others. However, two items listed in the possible factors are related to content. Respondents were asked about spiritual development and social issues. In both cases there were divergent opinions about their importance, but both were seen as important factors to be considered by most respondents.

2) Having glossy or expensive printed materials is not a critical factor when materials are considered. None of the respondents saw the high quality printed materials as important.

3) Two factors, Annual Conference sponsorship and insuring that the materials are non-controversial are not important. This is a particularly interesting finding because the promotion of the Social Principle study focused on both of these issues. The fact that the study was sponsored by the Annual Conference and supported by a resolution at Annual Conference was prominently announced. Also the claim that the study provided a way to deal with social issues in a non-controversial way was a prominent part of the promotion of the program

4) Sponsorship by the Denomination, the recommendations of friends and the recommendation of the Bishop are all helpful in encouraging a congregation to use particular materials.

5) Although not universally important, it is generally seen as a positive factor to use video and to have materials that require little preparation to use with a small group.


Getting the attention of clergy is extremely difficult. Therefore, if the goal is to encourage them to use a particular set of materials in small groups, it is important that the materials are presented in a way that the clergy can immediately recognize the importance of the subject matter. Because avoiding controversy is not important in selecting material, the Social Principle study might have had more appeal if it had been presented in the context of United Methodist controversy over social issues.

Since Pacific Northwest clergy appear to be more inclined to take seriously endorsement by the denomination than endorsement by the Annual Conference, it makes sense in the future to focus on developing a denominational program of study of the Social Principles. This is currently being pursued by working with Tim Moss at the General Board of Discipleship to develop a churchwide program to examine issues raised by the Social Principles and the Book of Resolutions.

This churchwide study will also build on the success in 1992 and 1994 when a program was available that focused on specific issues.

With the great diversity in criteria used to choose what materials will be used by small groups in a congregation, it is unlikely that any one small group study material will be used by a majority of congregations.