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Leading Questions: On Transparency

Leading Questions is a series of short essays on leadership from provost Janel Curry.

February 4, 2013

I have come to believe that transparency around the question—how do we know what we know?—is essential for building effective organizations.

Theological truths are supported through the use of biblical texts, interpreting their relative significance and using both the accuracy of interpretation and the weight of a theological tradition to ground the claims. For example, within this tradition of truth seeking, the church emphasizes the unity created in marriage that should not be broken as well as the intention of God that marriage be permanent.

But what happens to this type of truth claim when it meets social science? As a very general finding, social research shows that children do better when they are raised in two-parent homes. What this means is that in large survey data sets, children from homes that have experienced divorce do not do as well in particular ways as do children from homes with the parental marriage intact, at a statistically significant level—beyond what we would randomly find in the population. The research shows a statistical relationship between two factors in a large data set, and is not a claim on what any one individual child experiences.

How do faith-based organizations misuse the results of this methodology? Christians tend to over-generalize social science findings—they take narrowly defined quantitatively measured relationships and apply them beyond what has been asserted, often to back up theological truths. The result is that program evaluations are not appropriately constructed or used. What lies at the heart of these mistakes are, I believe, a naiveté about the methods of social research, a desire for “numbers” to overcome insecurity about theological truth claims and thus the use of social research to back up theological positions, rather than its use as part of an honest, transparent learning process related to the effectiveness of practice.

What does this discussion on how we know what we know mean for models of ministry? Henri Nouwen describes what I see as appropriate integration: Christians must first articulate the truth of the pain and suffering in the world, grounded in a theological understanding of the nature of reality—that we are in a world that is fallen, yet we hope for the coming shalom with the return of Christ.

We must next be transformed by the stories of people’s lives through entering into their suffering. Third, we must reflect on the situation until emotion can be transformed into intellectual understanding. We must understand the larger context of society and societal structures around us. And this is where positivist social science might be helpful—it can help us understand the larger context in which individuals exist and the context for the framing of a program or ministry. It helps us respond wisely, appreciating the nuances in programs and ministry.

Finally, we move from understanding to action and again use social research to measure whether programs or ministries are working the way they are envisioned. Effective ministries embody all these ways of knowing in their organizations and embed them into all aspects of planning, evaluations, and institutional life.

Janel Curry, Provost