How Well Do Psychology Classes Prepare Students for Lutheran Ministry?

Mar 2nd, 2020 | Category: Columns, DCE Ministry
By James Bender, Lindsey Bartgis and Mary Abo

Introduction

For students to excel in church-ministry professions, a specific skill set is required. They need strong interpersonal abilities, which can be acquired through training in communication, leadership, and group dynamics. Within the helping professions, individuals engaging in church work also need to be flexible with robust relational skills. Concordia University Chicago (CUC), part of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Concordia University System (CUS), requires two courses (Interpersonal Skills of the Helping Professions and Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills) aimed at addressing these skills for students majoring in ministry work. 

The Director of Christian Education (DCE) major prepares students to work within church congregations leading educational programs, youth ministry, and family ministry, to name a few of the ministry options. Another avenue for LCMS service is the Deaconess Program. Completion of the Deaconess Program leads to a certification in the LCMS. After completing required coursework and an internship, female students are prepared to engage in various types of ministries, such as visiting ill or incarcerated individuals, leading Bible studies and the like. 

According to CUC program directors (Wassilak & Arfsten, personal communications, 2019), 20 Deaconess students and 28 DCE students are enrolled in these program(s) on average, per year, at CUC. There are roughly five deaconess and seven DCE students per year that are completing their programs. There are 308 deaconesses and 847 DCE workers nationwide (LCMS, 2019). These estimates illustrate the prevalence of these professions and support the need to evaluate preparation programs for them. 

There is limited research on the value of university courses on Christian ministry work. However, several studies are tangentially related to Christian education, leadership and pedagogy. For instance, Roso (2019) measured the application of service-learning experiences to real-world problems and their Christian practice. The final project of these experiences required students to connect learning to a real-world problem by implementing a curriculum concept discussed in class to meet an educational need in a low socioeconomic educational setting. Roso had 32 graduate students in a hybrid, online, and in-person “contemporary curriculum” course. The author measured several data points, such as self-reflective essays, observations, and the self-administered Service Learning Benefit (SELEB) scale. Roso found that although service learning in a blended graduate course did include a level of anxiety, students moved beyond the anxiety and found the projects very helpful and personally rewarding. The study argued for inclusion of service-learning experiences to enhance students’ personal Christian faith and to better serve others. While Roso’s study promoted a specific type of course activity rather than an evaluation of the course as a whole, it still suggested the importance of evaluating courses and real-world usefulness goals. 

In a study conducted by Irwin and Roller (2000), 99 pastors of the Northeastern District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) were given a survey questionnaire. The questionnaire aimed to collect data on pastoral satisfaction with ministry preparation as it relates to management issues, pastoral perceptions of church management issues, the role of church management, and pastoral understanding of management systems (Irwin & Roller, 2008). Of the 99 participants contacted, 53 completed and submitted their questionnaire. The researchers’ analysis found that many of the respondents wished they had had better management training before entering the ministry and felt that their current ministry would be improved if the training had taken place (Irwin & Roller, 2000). In addition to that, researchers found that the majority of the respondents felt that issues in management and leadership are highly related to the efficacy of their ministry (Irwin & Roller, 2000). Although this study was conducted with a group of pastors, DCEs and Deaconesses also take on roles related to church governance. In some cases, DCEs and Deaconesses could be considered extensions of pastoral management. 

Chatira and Mwenje (2018) conducted a study in Zimbabwe that sought to evaluate the development of church management skills in pastoral preparation programs. For this study, there were three seminaries, three in-house training churches, and 53 pastors from Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that were considered participants. Respondents indicated a variety of management challenges. According to Chatira and Mwenje (2018), 39% of the participants expressed that they struggled to manage church budgets and leadership development. Only 13.2% of participants highlighted other challenges, which include issues of teamwork, commitment of members to church activities, church growth strategies, retention of members, personnel management and resource management, which can all be classified as church management and administration issues (Chatira & Mwenje, 2018). These results illustrated that pastors appear to be facing greater management challenges than spiritual challenges. Much of this study analyzed how these skills were developed, but it still highlighted that people within the field of ministry feel that being a church leader requires management preparation and training. Understanding the impact of a church worker’s training on their ministry is necessary in order to improve current church-work preparation programs and ensure quality leadership. 

Gardner (2019) wanted to develop a course aimed at enriching students’ public service and professional effectiveness through religious literacy. After course completion, the author administered a qualitative survey to determine how the students viewed the strengths and weaknesses of the class. Gardner had seven students in the graduate semester-long seminar. Six weeks after the semester ended, the author solicited a questionnaire from the students reflecting on the course impact. Gardner’s (2019) article included a qualitative analysis of seminar students’ responses to the survey. The survey responses were coded into themes, and Gardner found that overall, students reported their experience working with the faculty was “great” and “interesting” (2019, p.134). In their responses, students also directed Gardner to areas where the class could be improved in the future. For example, one student explained he had difficulty adjusting to the class because he was expecting a traditional lecture atmosphere. Instead, the seminar was collaborative, with group-directed projects. The professor learned he could help adjust the students’ expectations by spending more time on their initial assumptions at the beginning of the semester. Although the article was concentrated on a small group of graduate students, it highlighted the significance of gathering feedback after a course is completed. 

Our study built on Gardner’s theme of course feedback by connecting quantitative course evaluation responses with real-world usefulness. The purpose of this study was to measure the preparation effectiveness of two courses (Interpersonal Skills of the Helping Professions and Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills) in DCE and Deaconess Programs for real-world church work. These two courses, typically taught by a professor in the psychology department, are degree requirements for students in these programs. 

The Interpersonal Skills course introduces students to the basics of counseling. The curriculum covers a variety of topics, such as establishing a therapeutic relationship with the client, listening and responding to the client, and decision-making. In addition, this course discusses the importance of an individual’s values, both spiritually and professionally, along with the implications of those values for counseling. Students learn about ethical issues in counseling and communication techniques through the use of role play, interviewing practice, listening to audiotapes, and watching video tapes. Interpersonal Skills for the Helping Professions provides the groundwork for the Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills class. The latter course focuses on a variety of group structures and the interplay of communication styles between group members. It also explores an individual’s ability to integrate one’s self within a group. Additionally, the course aims to educate students on assuming leadership roles and managing conflict, specifically within a group setting. Together, these courses provide students in the DCE or Deaconess Program with the groundwork to counsel and lead groups of various dynamics and ministries. 

Previous research has found that church leaders want practical training and that student reflections on the usefulness of their courses helps determine their effectiveness (Gardner, 2019). Our study built on that idea by using reflective quantitative course feedback as a tool for measuring course value. Church work requires excellent communication practices and ideally students are equipped with knowledge and skills for interpersonal relations before starting the required internship. Investigating the effectiveness of courses allows programs to adjust their curriculum, tailoring the material to the practical needs of students seeking DCE or Deaconess ministry. After a thorough literature review using the EBSCO databases, we could not find any study that addressed the utility of specific psychology classes in training future LCMS church workers.

Methods

Participants

Our sample consisted of all students at CUC who completed coursework for either the DCE or Deaconess Program in the past four years (2015 to 2019) and are either current or former DCE or deaconess interns. This four-year window coincided with the third author’s experience as the exclusive teacher of both Interpersonal Skills for the Helping Professions and Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills classes. This eliminated a confound of different teaching styles and different professors. The directors of the DCE and Deaconess Programs at CUC gave the investigators contact information for the 14 people who met inclusion criteria. They were all contacted and invited to complete a survey (see Appendix A). Nine responded, for a response rate of 64.2%.

Instrumentation

The survey instrument used in this study is found in Appendix A. It was administered online via SurveyMonkey.com. The survey covered the main tenets of both classes along with learning activities and it asked how valuable and relevant each was to the job of DCE or Deaconess using a 5-point Likert Scale rating, with 1 being “Not at all useful/waste of time,” 2 being “Not useful,” 3 being “Somewhat useful” 4 being “Useful” and 5 being “Very useful.” The survey then asked for open-ended feedback on the best and worst parts of each class along with suggestions to make each class better. The survey ended with an open-ended question asking for suggestions on how to improve each program. 

Design

Our goal was to determine what aspects of the two classes (Interpersonal Skills for the Helping Professions and Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills) were useful for DCE and Deaconess students as they transitioned into their “real-world” roles of ministry. 

Some respondents took these courses up to four years ago and may not remember them well. To control for that, we asked respondents to rate how well they remembered each course on a similar 5-point Likert Scale. We then weighed their responses for their overall impression of each course by multiplying their reported overall usefulness by the Likert rating of how well they remembered the class. 

Results

Five respondents (62.5%) reported being a current DCE, two (25%) reported being a current Deaconess, and one (12.5%) reported being a former DCE intern but not currently serving as a DCE. One person did not answer the question. 

Interpersonal Skills of the Helping Professions

Overall, respondents considered the Interpersonal Skills class to be highly useful, with a weighted mean of average usefulness of 18.5. Every student rated the class as either “very useful” (62.5%) or “useful” (37.5%). There were three main aspects to the class that were surveyed. The first aspect was three individual therapy sessions each student role-played with another member of class. These sessions required the student to practice a particular therapeutic technique, such as reflective listening, paraphrasing, and asking open-ended questions. The mean usefulness of this activity was rated 4.5 out of 5 (SD=.54). 

The second aspect of the class that was surveyed was a reflective listening exercise. In it, the student practiced reflective listening with an unsuspecting friend or coworker. The student engaged in a normal conversation, but refrained entirely from asking questions. They did nothing more than paraphrase content, reflect feelings and purposefully use silence. The mean usefulness of this activity was rated 4.5 out of 5 (SD=.76).

The third aspect of the class that was surveyed was a presentation. In it, the student researched a particular therapy modality or way to treat a particular disorder and then gave a 10-minute presentation on it during class. The mean usefulness of this activity was rated 4.25 out of 5 (SD=1.04).

Table 1, Table 2, and Table 3 show each response to the open-ended questions regarding Interpersonal Skills of the Helping Professions.

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Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills

Overall, respondents had a generally favorable view of Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills, even though it was rated as significantly less useful than Interpersonal Skills of the Helping Professions. A paired sample t-test found the Group Dynamics class had weighted mean average usefulness of 9.64 (SD=6.64), compared to the Interpersonal Skills class, which had a weighted mean average usefulness of 18.5 (SD=4.0); t(7)=-3.44, p=.011. The survey asked questions about each main part of the Group Dynamics class.

The most useful aspect of the Group Dynamics class as reported by the respondents was how to manage conflicts, with a mean score of 4.38 out of 5 (SD=.92). Tied for the second most useful aspect of Group Dynamics were leadership (types of leaders, personality styles of leaders, traits good leaders have in common) and communications (communication styles of different people, “masculine” and “feminine” communications styles, the dangers of email). Both aspects had a mean rating of 4.25 out of 5. 

Tied for the third most useful aspect were power and social influence (types of power, types of influence, informal and formal power and authority), problem solving (ways to select solutions from a list of possibilities, factors that help and hurt problem solving), diversity (pros and cons of diversity, types of diversity, how to manage diversity) and team, organizational, and international culture (different types of organizational culture, liking vs. avoiding risk-taking, ,individualism vs. collectivism). These aspects had a mean rating of 4.13 out of 5. 

Tied for the fourth most useful aspect were case studies, (brief examples of an issue regarding group dynamics that were discussed in class), cooperation and competition (pros and cons of teams competing with each other and competition within a team), creativity (pros and cons of being creative, how to foster a creative environment, factors that make people creative), and evaluating and rewarding teams (how to determine if your team succeeded, how to reward a team). These aspects had a mean rating of 4.0 out of 5.

Tied for the fifth most useful aspect were basic team processes (what a team is, when to use it, when not to use it) and decision making (different ways to make decisions, such as majority voting, survey technique, consensus). These aspects had a mean rating of 3.88 out of 5.

The sixth most useful aspect reflected two articles students read and wrote about regarding positive psychology and social loafing. That aspect had a mean rating of 3.63 out of 5. The seventh most useful aspect was watching and discussing the movie “12 Angry Men”. It had a mean rating of 3.38 out of 5. The least useful aspect was an in-class assignment where students visited different departments at CUC and assessed each department’s institutional culture and made comparisons. This had a mean rating of 3.13 out of 5.

Tables 4, 5, and 6 show each response to the open-ended questions regarding Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills.

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Finally, we asked a general question, “Is there any other way we can improve the DCE or Deaconess Program? All responses are listed in Table 7. 

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Discussion

One advantage of our small sample size is the ease of analyzing qualitative data with a small sample. Every response to the open-ended questions has been given verbatim, making it easy for readers to draw their own conclusions. It appears the respondents wanted more training in interpersonal therapy (which is closely aligned with the Interpersonal Skills course). Specifically, they seemed cognizant of their training limitations and wanted to know when and how to refer to a higher standard of psychiatric care. This conclusion is consistent with the third author’s experience teaching the class. 

Individual therapy is a skill that takes several years to hone and perhaps longer to master. Imparting a level of expertise at the undergraduate level while still allowing time for other coursework is simply impractical. However, adding another therapy course to the required curriculum might be worth consideration. 

The Group Dynamics course does not seem to have a place in the training for future church workers. Perhaps these students would be better served with a class that emphasizes conflict management, leadership skills, and communications, with less emphasis on institutional culture and social psychology tenets like social loafing. 

The obvious weakness in this study is the small sample size. This made externally valid comparisons between DCE students and Deaconess students impossible. We invite others in the CUS to survey their former church-work students to see how the undergraduate psychology curriculum prepared them for ministry. The authors would be happy to collaborate and allow use of the same survey instrument as a way to increase sample size and facilitate comparisons. Strengthening DCE and Deaconess training programs can help to strengthen ministry in the LCMS overall. LEJ

References

Chatira, F., & Mwenje, J. (2018). The development of management skills for effective church management in pastoral preparation programs in Zimbabwe. African Journal of Business Management, 12(5), 103–120.

Gardner, R. S. (2019). A student-faculty collaborative journey toward transformative religious and secular worldview literacy. FIRE: Forum for International Research in Education,5(1), 126–144. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezp.twu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=136760197&site=ehost-live

Irwin, C., & Roller, R. (2000). Pastoral preparation for church management. Journal of Ministry Marketing & Management, 6(1), 53–67.

Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (2019). Locate a worker. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from http://locator.lcms.org/nworkers_frm/worker.asp 

Roso, C. G. (2019). Faith and learning in action: Christian faith and service learning in a graduate-level blended classroom. Christian Higher Education, 18(4), 316–331. https://doi-org.ezp.twu.edu/10.1080/15363759.2019.1579118

Mary Abo, a recent graduate, received her B.A. in Criminal Justice and Psychology at Concordia University Chicago. She currently holds a position as a research assistant at DePaul University’s Center for Community Research. In addition to that, she works as an ABA therapist, serving children with Autism. Mary plans to continue to contribute to the existing body of knowledge through research.

Lindsey Bartgis has a PhD in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies from Texas Woman’s University. She has her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Roosevelt University in Chicago. Her research interests include male-on-male sexual assault, masculinity studies, popular culture, and psychology of gender. She’s been a rape crisis advocate in three states and currently teaches in the psychology department at Concordia University-Chicago.

James Bender holds a PhD and is a licensed psychologist and a professor at Concordia University Chicago.  James has been active in the training of future DCEs, deaconesses, and pastors through his undergraduate teaching at CUC. A US Army veteran, his other interests include the intersections between psychology and military/national security.

Special thanks to Kristin Wassilak, head of CUC’s Deaconess Program and Debra Arfsten, head of CUC’s DCE Program for their insights and support.

Appendix A

Thank you for participating. Your participation is completely voluntary and your answers will be kept strictly confidential. All answers will be reported in group and aggregate formats only, meaning there is no way you can be linked back to your answers. Completion and submission of this survey constitutes your consent to participate.

I am a (chose one only): 

  • current DCE intern
  • current Deaconess intern
  • current DCE
    • How many years have you been a DCE?
  • current Deaconess
    • How many years have you been a Deaconess?
  • former DCE intern but not currently a DCE
  • former Deaconess intern but not currently a Deaconess 

The following items refer to Interpersonal Skills of the Helping Professions. In this class, you learned the fundamentals of psychotherapy and counseling. You practiced therapy on each other for 3 sessions. You also conducted interviews on each other as both “patient” with a mental illness and as a therapist, and did presentations on specific therapy techniques. For each item, please rate how useful it was for your job as either Deaconess or DCE on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being not at all useful and 5 being very useful. By “useful,” I mean did the skills and knowledge you gained from that aspect of the class help you in your ministry. 

  1. How useful were the 3 individual therapy sessions you conducted with another member of class? 
  2. Not at all useful/waste of time
  3. Not useful 
  4. Somewhat useful
  5. Useful
  6. Very useful 
  7. How useful was the reflective listening exercise? In it, you practiced reflective listening with an unsuspecting friend or coworker—someone with whom you were not that close. You engaged in a normal conversation, but refrained entirely from asking questions. You did nothing more than paraphrase content, reflect feelings and purposefully use silence. You then wrote a 2-3 page reflective paper.
  8. Not at all useful/waste of time
  9. Not useful 
  10. Somewhat useful
  11. Useful
  12. Very useful 
  13. How useful was the presentation? In it, you created a presentation on a particular therapy modality or way to treat a particular disorder and then presented it during class.
  14. Not at all useful/waste of time
  15. Not useful 
  16. Somewhat useful
  17. Useful
  18. Very useful 
  19. Overall, how useful was the class to your job as a DCE or Deaconess?
  20. Not at all useful/waste of time
  21. Not useful 
  22. Somewhat useful
  23. Useful
  24. Very useful 
  25. What did we not cover in class that you wish we did?
  26. How could the class be improved?
  27. What was the best part of the class?
  28. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = not at all, 3 = somewhat, and 5 = very well), how well do you remember your Interpersonal Skills class?
  29. Not at all 
  30. A little bit
  31. Somewhat
  32. Fairly well
  33. Very well 

The following items refer to Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills. In this class, you learned about work teams, the basics of how groups work, managing conflict, and decision-making. For each item, please rate how useful it was for your job as either Deaconess or DCE on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being not at all useful and 5 being very useful. By “useful,” I mean did the skills and knowledge you gained from that aspect of the class help you in your ministry. 

  1. How useful were the articles you read and wrote about regarding positive psychology and social loafing?
  2. Not at all useful/waste of time
  3. Not useful 
  4. Somewhat useful
  5. Useful
  6. Very useful 
  7. How useful were the case studies, (brief examples of an issue regarding group dynamics that we discussed in class)?
  8. Not at all useful/waste of time
  9. Not useful 
  10. Somewhat useful
  11. Useful
  12. Very useful 
  13. How useful was the movie we watched, “12 Angry Men,” which was about minority influence?
  14. Not at all useful/waste of time
  15. Not useful 
  16. Somewhat useful
  17. Useful
  18. Very useful 
  19. How useful was our “field trip,” where you walked around campus and assessed the culture and subcultures of various departments at CUC?
  20. Not at all useful/waste of time
  21. Not useful 
  22. Somewhat useful
  23. Useful
  24. Very useful 

Of the following topics that we covered, please rate the usefulness of each using the same 1 to 5 scale

  • Basic Team Processes (what a team is, when to use it, when not to use it)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful
  • Cooperation and Competition (pros and cons of teams competing with each other and competition within a team)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Communications (communication styles of different people, “masculine” and “feminine” communications styles, the dangers of email)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Managing Conflict (where conflict comes from, how to manage it, why it happens)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Power and Social Influence (types of power, types of influence, informal and formal power and authority)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Decision Making (different ways to make decisions like majority voting, survey technique, consensus)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Leadership (types of leaders, personality styles of leaders, traits good leaders have in common)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Problem Solving (ways to select solutions from a list of possibilities, factors that help and hurt problem solving)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Creativity (pros and cons of being creative, how to foster a creative environment, factors that make people creative)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Diversity (pros and cons of diversity, types of diversity, how to manage diversity)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Team, Organizational, and International Culture (different types of organizational culture, like risk taking vs. risk avoidance, individualism vs. collectivism)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful 
  • Evaluating and Rewarding Teams (how to determine if your team succeeded, how to reward a team)
    • Not at all useful/waste of time
    • Not useful 
    • Somewhat useful
    • Useful
    • Very useful
  • What did we not cover in class that you wish we did?
  • How could the class be improved?
  • What was the best part of the class?
  • On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = not at all, 3 = somewhat, and 5 = very well), how well do you remember your Group Dynamics and Leadership Skills class?
    • Not at all 
    • A little bit
    • Somewhat
    • Fairly well
    • Very well
  • Lastly, is there any other way we can improve the DCE or Deaconess program?

Thank you for your help!

All correspondences should be addressed to James Bender at: 

james.bender@cuchicago.edu | 708.209.3179

Concordia University Chicago

7400 Augusta St, River Forest, IL 60305