Academic Programs 

  Understanding Congregations  (AM-540-3)
Winter/Spring 2003

This course is designed for lay leaders who wish to better understand their congregations.  We will look at congregational cultures, the material and human resources that sustain congregational life, and the structures of power and decision-making that mobilize and constrain people in congregations.

In the United States, religious groups of all sorts - Protestant and Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and many others - gather into local communities of faith.  Those “congregations” have enormous impact on their participants and on the communities in which they are located.  Participants, observers, and leaders of congregations often find themselves needing a clearer vision of the complex habits and expectations in which they are enmeshed.  This course will offer students a chance to become disciplined observers, seeking to see congregational life with new eyes.

Dates:   The course will run from Feb. 10th to May 5th.  

Location: All meetings of this class will take place online through email, discussion boards and perhaps even a chat room.  The Course will have its own web site.

Nancy Ammerman

Contact Information:
(860) 509-9500 

Course Information
Class web site
Online FAQ's

Additional Course Information:

The primary text for the course will be Studying Congregations (which students will be expected to purchase for their own use). Students will also have the opportunity to choose two additional books for purchase from a list of recent case studies of diverse congregations such as;

  • R. S. Warner, New Wine in Old Wineskins, a small-town Presbyterian church in California, traditionally middle-of-the-road, but transformed by an influx of evangelicals.

  • S. Freedman, Upon This Rock, a very large, growing, big-city black Baptist church that tackles the many difficulties of its urban neighborhood.

  • N. T. Ammerman, Bible Believers, a nearby growing fundamentalist church and school

  • N. T. Ammerman, Congregation and Community, looks at 23 diverse congregations responding to changes in their communities.

 Articles from journals and portions of other books will be read alongside these texts to deepen our understanding and experience new perspectives on congregational life.  Copies of these materials will be on reserve both electronically on the class web site and in the Hartford Seminary library.

Finally, congregations themselves will be our text.  Each student will select a local physical congregation in which a series of focused exercises will offer an opportunity to build new insight.  The course will require a final paper based on a student's research with this local congregation.

Because this course is a distance education online course, we will make use of diverse online religious events and materials to explore and refine observational and interpretative skills necessary in studying a congregation.   

Additionally, students will post reading reflections, observational notes, and impressions of online religious events.

Tentative topical course outline


Observing Congregations:  How and Why
Introduction to the Diversity of American Congregations

Who are They?  Describing a Congregation

Theological traditions
Worship and ritual and sacred space
Language:  story and history
Worldview and mission:  Use of typologies and surveys

Where are They?

Rural vs. Urban and Parish vs. Niche
Learning about communities
Who lives where (class and ethnicity)
Economic and political actors and issues
The religious ecology/partners and competitors
Member networks

Congregational Resources

Money and space
Skills and commitment

How things get done

Official structures (including denominations)
Types of power and authority:  How things really get done
Pastoral roles
Facing change:  Modes of Adaptation



Hartford Seminary  77 Sherman Street  Hartford, CT  06105   860-509-9500