“Sanity hangs on the thin thread of conversation,” wrote the poet W.H. Auden. Nothing beats a direct one-on-one interview for learning about the community and building relationships. Calling it an interview implies something more disciplined than a simple conversation, though it need not necessarily more formal. Interviews serve a purpose.
Doing a set of one-on-one interviews may offer a reliable way to listen to your community’s heartbeat. Yet Joy Skjegstad, in Seven Models of Community Ministry, observes that some people prefer to skip the listening step because it takes so much time and they would rather roll up their sleeves and get right to work. Others find it intimidating to meet people they do not know, especially those from a different ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic or religious background. Still others may unconsciously fear having their assumptions challenged, with the change in approach this may require.
Despite the challenges, community listening may be yield important insights into the surrounding community. The case of Holman United Methodist Church shows why the neglecting the listening step. Located on the west side of Los Angeles, the congregation saw itself with pride as representing the African American community. Then in 1992, after the riots in response to the police beating of Rodney King, the church felt caught up short in its understanding. Leaders began discussing the need for a more intentional strategy to learn more about the surrounding community.
The church had thought of itself as a community center, but leaders had to ask which community or communities it served. A researcher wrote, “Holman members actually find their immediate neighbors rather mysterious. Almost everyone I talked with said that they did not know much about who was now in the neighborhood, that they were pretty sure that their neighbors were different from themselves and had different needs, but that they were not quite sure what those needs might be.” Listening to the community, whether through one-on-one interviews or other means, can play a big role in getting to know the neighborhood.
Dennis Jacobsen, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor and organizer, stresses the importance of interviews to faith-based organizing. Perhaps not surprising, many organizers tend to focus on mobilizing others to take action rather than listening for understanding. Yet organizing efforts can falter without relationship building, and the one-on-one interview provides a key tool. “Organizing misses its calling,” Jacobsen writes, “when it becomes a swirl of frenetic activity, addicted to issues and actions, running past and over human beings. One-on-ones slow things down, restore needed focus, serve as a reminder of the human dimension of this work.”
Interviews come in three flavors. If you want to get to know a person or community, try an unstructured interview. Start with a broad question about the other’s experience and let the conversation flow in whatever direction it will. Yet if your needs are more specific, such as assessing a community’s needs or analyzing a particular problem, a structured interview may work better. Here the interviewer asks questions about specific issues, possibly limiting the options yes or no answers. In some cases the structured interview may resemble a verbal questionnaire more than a free flowing conversation. The semi-structured interview strikes a compromise between the two, using pre-determined questions but allowing respondents to use whatever language they are most comfortable with, or allowing them to wander from the topic as it suits them.
For those lacking expertise in conducting face to face surveys, an unstructured interview may better fit the bill. Most unstructured interviews require seven steps.
- Access the setting. How do you “get in” to wherever the interview will take place? The question must be asked because interviews typically do not take place in on your own turf but “in the field.” In writing a book about nude beaches, researchers disrobed and stroll casually on the beach to access the site, while another researcher bought a motorcycle and frequented seedy bars where Hell’s Angels were known to gather. How easy is your setting to access?
- Understand the language and culture. Hiring an interpreter may help you with the language, but it provides no guarantee that you will unlock the culture. An Anglo interviewer may completely misread the Hispanic subjects many questions about marital status, number of children until that person understands how central family life can be in Hispanic culture. Translation problems can by either linguistic or cultural.
- Decide how to present yourself. Do you dress up or dress down? Be aware that how you dress may be subject to misunderstanding. Among undocumented immigrants dressing up might raise fears that you represent the federal government, while failing to dress up for an interview with worshippers after a service in the Black church might be seen as disrespectful. Common sense might suggest dressing to match your interviewee, or asking someone who knows the setting.
- Locate an informant. You may need someone who can act as a guide to local culture and its distinctive idiom. In a low income urban neighborhood, Esther was known as “the mayor” of the neighborhood because she knew everyone, took in young persons temporarily needing a bed, and welcomed gatherings on her front porch. She would qualify as a good informant.
- Gain trust. Gaining trust can serve as an essential first step to getting someone open up about personal matters such as sexual behavior or personal finance. On the other hand, trust may not be such an issue for someone known to be outspoken on public issues. It all depends.
- Establish rapport. How important is it to experience a strong bond, even a sense of friendship, with the one interviewed? If the purpose is deep understanding of that person’s life, then rapport might be essential. On the other hand, rapport might not be so with a neighborhood survey where the goal is to hear from as many people as possible.
- Collect the data. How will you record what you find out? If you consider intrusive techniques, such as video or audio, be aware that no everyone will feel comfortable enough to cooperate. Trying to be minimally intrusive, some interviewers fall off the other end of the pier, taking mental notes and writing it in private soon afterward. The best practice might be a middle route: 1) taking notes regularly and writing it down immediately, 2) writing everything down even if it seems unimportant, 3) trying to be inconspicuous in taking notes, and 4) analyzing your notes often.
By giving thought to the steps outlined above, church leaders may feel equipped to get into the neighborhood and begin talking to people. Some churches might choose to follow the example of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, which hired a “roving listener” to wander through the neighborhood and spend time with others. The interviewer focused not on the person’s needs but on their gifts, passions and hopes for the community, asking the following questions:
- “What three things do you do well enough that you could teach others how to do them?”
- “What three things would you like to learn?”
- “Who, besides God and me, is going with along the way?”
Interviewing can be disciplined and purposeful without being overly formal or stuffy. It might even offer the opportunity for others to express their faith in personal, direct terms. One research, who volunteered to conduct one-on-one interviews for a faith-based community organizing effort, describes a prayer offered at the end of the conversation. “Lord Jesus, help us work together to change things here. Thank you for this new friend. Give us your Spirit and your power, and we will turn this city around for [his son] and for everybody.”
 Joy F. Skjegstad, Seven Models for Community Ministry (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2013), 12-13.
 Nancy T. Ammerman, Congregation and Community (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 142.
 Dennis Jacobsen, Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 60.
 Scott Thumma, “Methods For Studying Congregations,” in Nancy T. Ammerman et. al., eds. Studying Congregations: A New Handbook (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 206.
 Andrea Fontana and James Frey, “The Interview,” in Norman Denzin and Yvonne Lincoln, eds., Handbook of Qualitative Research, Second Edition (Thousand Oaks, CA, 2000), 654-656.
 Paul Nixon, Fling Open The Doors: Giving the Church Away to the Community (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 22-23.
 Richard Wood, Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 165).
Source: Felipe Cabrera, 10.15.2011. Flickr Creative Commons.