Fully understanding the audience an organization serves is a key component to being effective. With this goal, United Methodist Communications’ Research Team works to gain insights into the needs and interests of our various audiences—church members, leaders, and spiritual seekers.
Knowing more about their attitudes and behaviors helps guide the agency’s work. “Research helps our agency hear the voices from our local churches – pastors, lay leaders, members and seekers – and puts a spotlight on how our audiences feel about current events, both inside and outside of the UMC,” says Teresa Faust, senior manager of research and metrics. “Many of our research projects evaluate our leader platforms and resources, with the goal of improving how we equip our local churches. Our strategic and programmatic research works to strengthen our understanding of the needs and experiences of all our audiences.”
Throughout 2020, the research team persevered through what could be adequately described as an incredibly challenging year, to say the least. Much of the focus for 2020 was geared toward how COVID-19 impacted those we serve and refining the denominational End Racism initiative messaging. Focus groups and surveys aided United Methodist Communications in understanding audience needs in order to provide beneficial resources and content.
COVID-19 dealt an incredibly harsh blow to everyone this year – and this was felt throughout the congregations and people of The United Methodist Church. A series of three studies was conducted to study the impact of the virus on local churches. The insights provided by the studies facilitated the agency’s efforts to create and aggregate the resources that church leaders most need.
“The ResourceUMC.org site is one of the primary channels through which we prepare UMC leaders to be more effective in their ministries,” said Tyrus Sturgis, director of leader communications. “Research helps us to communicate more effectively with leaders by identifying their needs and responding to them quickly. The result is strong relationships and, hopefully, stronger leaders. Research helps to streamline our efforts and increase efficiency, ensuring that our work is both beneficial and reflective of good stewardship.”
Through a study designed to evaluate messaging around the denominational End Racism initiative, the team learned that the messaging needs to clarify the audience, be credible, and demand action. Kalinda Fisher, president of Advocate Market Research, worked alongside the team in their efforts. Fisher says that research can help glean the most effective and efficient path forward. “What I always find most incredible is often we may believe the best path forward is ‘A’ … but in asking those to whom it matters most, it may well be ‘Z.’ Finding the right path, before the energies are spent otherwise, gives us the edge of utilizing resources best.”
So, what’s next for 2021? Projects are constantly evolving. We expect to field 15 to 20 projects, including collaboration with UMC boards and agencies, as well as ecumenical organizations.
The first half of 2021 will be focused on results and implications from a myriad of studies. An evaluation of Zoom grants offered to local churches in 2020 is already complete. We have plans to partner with GBHEM utilizing our Latino Leader Engagement Panel. The team will also field an evaluation of The Source, one of the leader newsletters that was launched in 2019 and has over 13,000 subscribers. Finally, for the first half of 2021, the team will engage a fourth Impact of COVID-19 on UMC Local Churches study one year after the pandemic started.
The second half of 2021 includes two strategic studies among Leaders: a Special Sundays study and a Technology & Communication study. Plans also include a survey of United Methodist members around appropriate relevant topics, as well as additional focus groups among our engagement panels. Finally, the biennial Spiritual Seeker Study with Barna Group is slated for the fall, but may be delayed or canceled based on organizational strategy.
Faust says these studies help to provide a 360 degree perspective of the church. “Through research, we learn from different people in different roles in different locations with different challenges. This helps us tailor the message to make sure it’s relevant to the audience.”
For more than 80 years, United Methodist Communications has been leading the church in telling inspirational stories of God’s work in the world through The United Methodist Church, reaching new people, supporting local churches in vibrant communications ministry, equipping leaders and delivering messages of hope and healing. This essential work requires financial support. If you believe in our mission, consider a tax-deductible donation to the work of United Methodist Communications through its Foundation at ResourceUMC.org/GiveUMCom.
*Aaron Crisler is a senior public relations specialist at United Methodist Communications.