On Fieldwork in Ministry: Tools for Understanding our Contexts

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Principal Cook, of the West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, had a problem.  Some students resisted when security officers tried to check their bags.  While one might assume they resisted because they were carrying drugs or a weapon, when Principal Cook started asking questions, he found that some students couldn’t afford to wash their clothes and were carrying dirty laundry in their backpacks.  They didn’t want people going through their bags because they were ashamed – in fact, the smell of dirty clothes was connected with bullying which was, in turn, connected with chronic absences.  Aware of the problem, the school addressed it by making washers and dryers available so that dirty laundry wouldn’t get in the way of an education. 

Christian Scharen’s book, Fieldwork in Theology: Exploring the Social Context of God’s Work in the World (2015), examines the relationship between theology and social situation – the connection between the story of the church (ecclesiology) and culture (ethnography).  Scharen summarizes the significance of the task this way: “In order to engage ministry with vitality, perceive the new things God is doing, and ‘participate in God,’ leaders have to get out and learn what’s going on and how to relate to the people and context where they are. Fieldwork in theology is that simple—and that complicated!” (30).  By asking questions and not assuming we know the answers, we may be able to get to the root of what needs to change in our ministry contexts.

Living in Mozambique, Africa, from 2003 to 2018, it was impossible for me to assume that I really understood the culture, the context of my ministry.  This appropriate sense of desperation led me to ask questions to learn their systems and how life worked in “their world.”  I used qualitative interviews to investigate different parts of their culture in order to learn how the gospel can bring good news into that reality.  Over time, that desperation turned into fascination as I began to see not only the problems, but also the solutions or connections that could be made.  In moving back to the United States, I’ve needed help again, and I am now leaning on the university students I work with to help me understand this new (to me) “foreign” culture.   

While Fieldwork in Ministry might be formally described as “qualitative interviews and triangulation of the data in small groups,” in our ministry contexts it may look more informal, although still very intentional.  It doesn’t mean trying to be amateur or armchair ethnographers, but it may look like keeping a notebook with some questions in it and paying attention to the answers we get over a meal or a phone call.  It may mean being purposeful in having conversations salted with phrases like, “I’ve noticed ____ happening… why is that?” and “Tell me more about that…;” “How’s that working for them?… for you?” “I’m curious to hear what you would say keeps _____ from happening?”  A Fieldwork approach can be the right tool in our ministry toolkit when we need to: Revisit a problem; Revamp a program; Augment our preaching/teaching; or Engage a challenge.  Fieldwork may take various forms, but it is effective only when we truly have eyes to see and ears to hear.   

Scharen tells a story of one interviewee, a woman who had a beautiful response to being really listened to, “You heard me. You heard me all the way… I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story. You heard me to my own speech.” (29)  Powerful things, Kingdom of God-type things, happen when people are truly heard – things like clean clothes and an environment where learning and transformation can happen.

For more on Principal Cook’s story, see these links:

CNN – When students were bullied because of dirty clothes, a principal installed a free laundromat at school

NJ.com – Students were bullied because of dirty clothes. Washing machines in the locker room will change that.

NJ.com – Newark vice principal goes ‘old school’ to keep kids out of trouble

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