Academic Programs 

Understanding Congregations (RS-541)
Summer 2007

Your congregation is a spiritual entity, but it is also a social organization, made up of human beings, with conflicts and habits, and grounded in a particular context. The more you know about the many dimensions of the congregation, the better you can make decisions, plan ministry and envision its future. This course is designed for pastors and lay leaders who wish to better understand the dynamics of their congregations. We will use a combination of lectures, readings and practical hands-on experience to study one congregation during the class meetings and then each student will explore his or her own congregation as the final assignment. We will look at the congregation’s identity and culture, its context, the material and human resources, the structures of power, the implicit theology and the leadership dynamics in an effort to understand this complex spiritual entity that is the congregation.


Meeting Day, Time and Dates: 
Thursday, June 21 – Monday, June 25, Intensive day and evening sessions

Scott Thumma
Professor of Sociology of Religion and Web and Distance Education

Contact Information:
(860) 509-9571


Course Syllabus

Note: This syllabus may be adjusted to accommodate the needs of the course.

Course Requirements:

1) The primary text for the course will be Studying Congregations, which students will be expected to purchase and have read, in its entirety to discuss in class, prior to the first day of the course. (All students – whether for credit or audit – should read this.)

2) Students are also asked to read prior to the first class Open Secrets a book about the author’s first year in ministry. This is an entertaining introduction to the necessity of understanding the social dynamics within church life and their impact upon a pastor’s ministry and leadership within a church. (All students – whether for credit or audit – should read this.)

3) **(IF you are taking this for credit) Students will also choose one additional book for purchase from a list of recent case studies of diverse congregations to read prior to the class sessions;

• R. S. Warner, New Wine in Old Wineskins, a small-town Presbyterian church in California, traditionally middle-of-the-road, but became transformed by an influx of evangelicals.
• D. Miller, Reinventing American Religion. Description and exploration of three contemporary religious movements – Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Fellowship and Hope Chapel.
• 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, written in the 1980’s.
• N. T. Ammerman, Congregation and Community, looks at 23 diverse congregations responding to changes in their communities.
• S. Thumma, The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory: A story of one megachurch. – electronic copy of dissertation that is being rewritten into a book. Social history of the birth, development and near collapse of an Atlanta megachurch. (Contact me for the files if you are interested in this book.)

**(IF you are taking this for credit) Students will be responsible for a 2-4 page book report on the book they choose from the above list. See the book report requirements.

4) For all students (audit and credit) I expect active participation in class, in our activities and our fieldwork. We will participate in diverse religious events and examine materials from one local church. We will study this congregation in order to learn and refine the observational and interpretative skills necessary in understanding a congregation. Additionally, students will report on reflections, observational notes, and impressions of the classroom field activities and religious events.

5) Two in class group or individual presentations will be required of all students, whether taking the course for audit or credit, based on our fieldwork and observational/ interview tasks chosen during the week of the course.

6) Finally, a congregation of your choosing will also be your text. Each student taking the course for credit 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 of 15 pages based on a student's research with this local congregation, much like the study we do of the congregation during the class sessions. This paper is due by August 24th.

Tentative course outline

Thursday, June 21 – 9:00 – 12:00 at Seminary lecture and exercises- observation on video, content analysis of church materials

12:00 -1:30 lunch break in the location,
1:30 – 3:00 driving and walking tour, debrief
3:30 - 5:00 conversation with someone from the church.
Optional: Dinner and Jazz informal evening

Friday, June 22 –

9:00 -10:15 – lecture class at Seminary entire day
10:30 – 2:30 groups gather demographic info, news info, budget analysis, more extensive content analysis, and begin to prepare reports.
3:00 – 5:00 ½ hour reports from each group

Saturday, June 23 –

9:00 –12:00 Activities at the church? Or at Seminary class lecture and discussion.
In the afternoon - Set up some individual interviews with lay leader, financial person, new members person, education director, and others??
5- 7:30 or later - We will arrange with the church to gather about 8-16 folks from the church to participate in a pot luck with us providing part of the dinner. And do a timeline and informal sharing time with members to learn more about their church.

Sunday, June 24 –

8:00 – 1:00? Attend church services, Sunday school services, adult education, etc.
Optional, Lunch in the area around the church.
2:30 – 4:30 – at Seminary - What did we see and hear, learn
Monday, June 25 – 9:00 – 4:00 at Seminary in class
What did we learn, how do we make sense of what we saw, how do we use it, convey it?
Additional questions - strategies

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