How are the Group Character Traits of Christian Churches Related to the Well-Being of Congregants?

T. Ryan Byerly
Saturday 5 June 2021
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion and Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

There are many features of a religious congregation that we might expect to make a significant difference for the well-being of congregants. One such feature is the congregation’s character—the tendencies the congregation has to engage in patterns of action, thought, and feeling out of unifying motives or aims. It is, after all, a fairly commonsensical idea that an individual’s character and well-being depend in part on the character and well-being of those communities, including religious communities, in which the individual participates.

The hypothesis that there are group level (or “collective”) character traits of Christian congregations that may differ from one congregation to another and that are significantly related to the well-being of congregants is one that raises many research questions and demands interdisciplinary study. How, for example, should collective character traits, in general, be conceptualized? What, more specifically, would make a collective character trait of a Christian congregation a virtue or vice? And how might a congregation’s possession of collective virtues or vices be related to various aspects of the well-being of congregants, such as their spiritual well-being, satisfaction with life, and satisfaction with their church? This entry will review research addressing these themes in the fields of philosophy, theology, and organizational psychology, and will propose some lessons to be kept in mind as research in this area continues to develop.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Collective Character in Philosophy

Philosophical scholarship on collective character traits has been an area of growth in recent years. This growth is especially visible in research on collective intellectual character traits—traits that concern a group’s orientation toward epistemic values such as knowledge or understanding. The growth of interest in collective intellectual character is reflective of a broader growth of interest in the field of collective epistemology. For two recent edited volumes that contain representative scholarship in collective epistemology, including scholarship focused specifically on intellectual character traits, see (Alfano et al., forthcoming) and (Lackey 2015).

One question that has received attention in this literature focuses on conceptualizing the basic nature of collective character traits in general. What is a collective character trait? One approach, exemplified by Fricker (2010), follows a joint commitment approach that Margaret Gilbert (2004) developed to conceptualize collective belief. According to this view, a group’s character trait T consists in its members committing together to pursue the virtuous end of T for the right reasons as group members. For example, group-level fairness consists in group members committing together to pursue the aims of fairness for appropriate reasons when acting as group members. One objection to this approach is that it appears to place unnecessarily strong demands on individual group members in order for a group to possess a collective character trait (Lahroodi 2007). Group members must, for example, possess a concept of the target trait in order for the group to possess the trait; yet this is not typically thought to be a requirement  in cases of individual virtue possession. A second approach that places less stringent demands on group members seeks to model the nature of collective character traits more closely on the nature of individual character traits. According to this approach, a group’s character trait T consists in the group’s being disposed to display behaviors characteristic of T out of motivations characteristic of T (see Byerly and Byerly 2016; Byerly forthcoming). For example, group-level fairness consists in the group’s being disposed to act in fair ways out of motives characteristic of fairness.

A second question that has received attention from philosophers concerns the relationship between the character traits of groups and the character traits of groups’ members. When a group possesses a character trait, is this always because (a significant portion of) the group members themselves possess this trait? Summativists answer “yes”; anti-summativists answer “no”. The trend in philosophical work has been toward anti-summativism. One argument for anti-summativism highlights the way in which individuals may behave differently in group contexts than in non-group contexts, thereby leading groups they are part of to have (or lack) a character trait that the individuals lack (or have) (see Lahroodi 2019). Often, this divergence between group and group member character is a result of policies or procedures adopted at the group level, which regulate group members’ conduct when they act as group members but not when they act as private individuals. A second argument for anti-summativism points out that groups may have distinctive character traits that involve the regulation of their members’ interactions; these character traits can’t be possessed by individuals because individuals don’t have members whose interactions need regulation (Byerly and Byerly 2016). For example, one good candidate for a distinctive collective intellectual virtue is a virtuous tendency to divide intellectual labor well (Byerly forthcoming). Traits like this which cannot be possessed by individuals are called “distinctively collective virtues”.

A final question that has received attention from philosophers is the question of what would make a collective character trait a virtue or a vice. In the case of traits possessed by individuals, the most common approach maintains that virtues are traits that make individuals better as people, while vices are traits that make individuals worse as people (Baehr 2011, Battaly 2015). Yet, this approach is not so attractive when it comes to collective character traits, because our evaluations of groups’ characters are not usually performed in order to ascertain how good or bad groups are as people. Instead, we evaluate groups’ characters in order to discern how good or bad they are as groups of their kind. Thus, Byerly (forthcoming) proposes that whether a character trait is a virtue of a group depends upon the nature of that group—what sort of group it is. A collective virtue is a collective trait that makes its possessor better as the kind of group that it is, whereas a collective vice is a collective trait that makes its possessor worse as the kind of group that it is. Byerly and Byerly (2019) suggest applying this idea to congregational character: a virtue for a Christian church is a character trait that makes the church better as a church.

2.2 Collective Character in Christian Theology

The subfield of Christian Theology most relevant for studying congregational character is Ecclesiology. Within contemporary Ecclesiology, there are approaches that are more conceptual, dogmatic, or idealistic in nature and approaches that are more practical or empirical in nature. Both are relevant for studying congregational character.

More dogmatically-oriented Ecclesiology tends to focus on normative questions about what the church should be like, or about what the characteristic functions of the church are. For example, some theologians have argued that one of the central functions of the Church—if not the central function— is to participate in the divine mission, or mission Dei (Collins 2008; Ross 2017). Others have argued that among the distinctive functions of the Church is to serve as an agent of reconciliation, promoting reconciled relationships in a world full of various kinds of alienation (Akinwale 2015). These accounts of the Church’s distinctive functions are highly relevant for conceptualizing collective virtues of congregations if we follow the conception of collective virtues identified at the end of the previous section. For what these accounts help us to do is to isolate specific functions the fulfilment of which would make a church better or worse as the kind of thing it is—a church. Traits that would better enable a congregation to participate in divine mission, for example, or to foster reconciled relationships where there has been alienation, would be candidates for congregational virtues.

More practically-oriented Ecclesiology tends to focus on empirical questions about what individual churches are in fact like in the here-and-now, and about how churches can be injured or improved. For example, Nicholas Healy’s Church, World, and the Christian Life (2001) was an early effort to advocate the use of ethnographic methods for studying the lived reality of the Church, as opposed to idealizations of what the Church should be. Since the time of his writing, practically-oriented approaches to Ecclesiology have grown significantly, with the publication of research volumes (e.g., Ward 2011), textbooks for instruction (Swinton and Mowat 2016), and the scholarly journal Ecclesial Practices: the Journal of Ecclesiology and Ethnography, as well as the creation and growth of professional societies such as the Network for Ecclesiology and Ethnography. In many if not most cases, this research concentrates attention on local Christian congregations, recognizing that these typically do not live up to the normative standard for what the Church should be, with the ultimate aim of helping these congregations better approximate the ideal. As such it represents the potential for interest in and scholarly capacity for conducting research on the empirical relationships between congregational character and congregant experience. Notably, however, this research has tended thus far to focus on specific congregational practices rather than on broader congregational virtues (see Swinton and Mowatt 2016, ch.1).

Finally, also deserving mention here is theological work which has stressed the importance of the role of the congregation as the primary site for the development of the character and spiritual well-being of congregants. This has been an emphasis of the work of Particularist Theological Virtue Ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas (see Hauerwas and Wells 2011; Herdt 2015), as well as  the theological work of Warren Brown and Brad Strawn (2012). In each case, an emphasis is placed on the role of communal church practices and potentially even church character in shaping the character and spiritual experience of Christian congregants. In the case of Hauerwas, a distinctive emphasis is on the idea that virtues as understood from a Christian perspective may be quite different from virtues understood in a secular way.

2.3 Collective Character and Organizational Psychology

A third area of scholarship relevant for studying congregational character is organizational psychology. Specifically, organizational psychologists have developed research methods for studying organizational climates and organizational virtuousness. These methods have been applied to the study of congregational climates and, more recently, congregational virtues. Their continued application represents an opportunity for interdisciplinary scholarship on congregational character.

One commonly used research method in this area requires members of organizations to respond to questions or items referring to the typical patterns of behavior of their organization, rather than their own patterns of behavior as individuals (see Chan 1998). Using this methodology, researchers can study the relationships between group members’ individual perceptions of their group’s climate or character and their own individual experiences. They can also aggregate the perceptions of multiple group members to create a measure for the group’s climate or character, thus enabling them to study relationships between the group’s climate or character and group performance, group member experience, and other variables.

This kind of methodology has been used to study various kinds of “focused” organizational climates (Schneider, Erhart, and Macy 2013). For example, researchers have studied the service, safety, and diversity climates of businesses. Even more relevant for our purposes here is the research of Kenneth Pargament and his colleagues on congregational climate. Pargament and his colleagues developed the Congregational Climate Scales (1983), which are used to measure ten dimensions of the climates of religious congregations, such as emotional expressiveness and autonomy. They found that congregations do differ in their climate features, and climate features are significantly related to other features of the congregation and its members, such as the congregation’s size and denomination and members’ self-esteem and satisfaction with life (Pargament et al. 1983; Pargament et al. 1987).

Climate features of organizations, including congregational climate features, are not conceptualized as character traits, however. They are thought of more as organizational personality traits rather than character traits (Pargament et al. 1991). Yet, in addition to studying organizational personality, some researchers have shown interest in studying organizational virtue. The best examples of this work come from Kim Cameron and his collaborators. Cameron et al (2004), for example, found that employees’ perceptions of five dimensions of organizational virtue were significantly related to organizational performance, while Cameron et al (2011) found that nursing units’ levels of six dimensions of organizational virtue were significantly related to their employee turnover and patient satisfaction. The dimensions of collective character analysed in the 2004 study included organizational forgiveness, trust, integrity, optimism, and compassion; while the dimensions analysed in the 2011 study included caring and kindness; compassionate support; forgiveness; inspiration and transcendence; meaning and meaningfulness; and respect, integrity, and gratitude. Since this time, other researchers have called for further empirical research attending to organizational forgiveness (Fehr and Gelfand 2012) and organizational gratitude (Fehr et al. 2017).

Recently, Byerly, Edwards, and Hill (forthcoming) have sought to employ this kind of approach to develop a questionnaire specifically designed for assessing congregational character. The questionnaire aims to measure twelve dimensions of congregational virtue derived from a reading of New Testament texts that either evaluatively describe a congregation (e.g., Acts 2:42) or provide instruction to a congregation (e.g., 1 Thess 5:12. The researchers refer to the dimensions measured as “clinging to apostolic teaching”, “honouring teachers”, “prayerfulness”, “hopefulness”, “discipleship”, “emotional supportiveness”, “material supportiveness”, “spiritual equality”, “unity”, “submission”, “peace with the world”, and “spreading the faith”. They found that congregants’ perceptions of the total twelve dimensions of their congregation’s character were significantly correlated with their satisfaction with their church (Silverman et al. 1983), frequency of participation in church, and their own spiritual well-being (Paloutzian and Ellison 1982), satisfaction with life (Diener et al. 1985), and presence of meaning in life (Steger et al. 2006). These relationships remained significant when controlling for other variables such as congregants’ sex and age and the size and denomination of the congregation. Notably, the twelve dimensions of congregational character measured were themselves highly intercorrelated, making it difficult to ascertain which features of congregational character are most significant for which outcomes, though there was some evidence that “upward” dimensions such as “clinging to apostolic teaching” and “prayerfulness” bore a stronger relationship to congregant participation and spiritual well-being, while “inward” dimensions such as “spiritual equality” and “submission” were more strongly related to satisfaction with church, satisfaction with life, and presence of meaning in life. A similar finding regarding the high intercorrelation of virtue subscales was reported in (Cameron et al. 2004).

3. Discussion and Conclusion

Research on collective character in general is growing. This represents an opportunity for theologians and other scholars of religion to study the collective character traits of religious congregations, drawing on a developing area of scholarship. As this entry has highlighted, this kind of study is best conducted in an interdisciplinary way. To study congregational character traits effectively, researchers need a conceptualization of the relevant traits as well as measurement instruments and research designs whereby they can study their relations to other variables of interest. Theological and philosophical research is foundational for developing conceptualizations of target traits, while methods employed in organizational psychology and ethnography are required for conducting relevant empirical research.

In conceptualizing and measuring congregational character traits, there are several points researchers should keep in mind. First, as noted above, which traits are virtues or vices for a group depends upon the nature of that group. When it comes to conceptualizing congregational character traits, researchers need to have an informed conception of what congregations are supposed to be, or of what their distinctive functions are, which can be guided by theological or biblical research. Importantly, given the unique nature and functions of congregations, it may be that there are key traits that are virtues or vices of congregations that would not be virtues or vices for other groups. For instance, “prayerfulness” or “discipleship”, as studied by Byerly, Hill and Edwards (forthcoming), are unlikely candidates for virtues of most businesses, but are more reasonable candidates for virtues of churches.

Second, even in cases where there is a trait that is studied in both ecclesial and non-ecclesial settings, such as “organizational forgiveness” (Cameron et al. 2004), it is possible that this trait may need to be understood in a unique way in the ecclesial setting. Recently, in the study of individual character traits, some authors have proposed that religious traditions provide distinctive perspectives on character traits that also appear as important in non-religious contexts, with the result that there are distinctively religious conceptions of character traits. For example, Hill, Dunnington, and Hall (2018) have argued that there is a distinctively theistic conception of intellectual humility, which differs in salient ways from non-theistic intellectual humility, and they have developed an approach to measuring it. A similar lesson may need to be applied to the conceptualization and measurement of organizational virtues when these are studied in the context of congregations. Reflecting this kind of point, Byerly and Byerly (2019) argue that one distinctively collective virtue of churches may be a kind of tendency to promote reconciled relationships among congregants, and they argue that while this trait overlaps with the kind of excellence of managing conflicts that is desirable in workplace settings, it may go beyond the latter by including an active tendency to uncover relational rifts.

Third, when it comes to conducting empirical research on congregational character, it is important to recognize that there are different approaches that can be used for this purpose, and it may be possible to use these approaches in a complementary way. The methodology employed by Byerly, Hill, and Edwards (forthcoming) is a quantitative methodology using a survey instrument. As noted, this kind of methodology has been used to good effect in studies of organizational climates and organizational virtuousness. Yet, more labour-intensive and detail-oriented qualitative approaches using interviews, document analysis, and group discussions have also been used to study organizational climates (e.g., Lilius et al. 2011). Given the clear interest among contemporary practical ecclesiologists in using such qualitative methods as noted above, it would be reasonable to recommend expanding their use for the purpose of studying congregational character. Using quantitative and qualitative methods in tandem may even provide a source of cross-validation for each. Whereas survey instruments can provide a kind of self-report of the congregation’s virtuousness, the assessment of a qualitative researcher can provide a kind of other-report of the same. A parallel kind of validation of self-reports by other-reports has been very important in the study of individual personality (Widiger 2017).

Finally, it is important to recognize that the interdisciplinary study of congregational character is at an extremely early stage of development. As indicated above, initial research does suggest that congregational character traits may be important for congregants’ well-being—their satisfaction with their churches, satisfaction with their own lives, and spiritual well-being, for example. But this initial research is very limited, and there remain many unanswered questions. Is it perceptions of congregational character that influence congregant well-being, or the other way around? Which character traits exhibit the most variation across churches? Which traits are most predictive of which outcomes for congregants? What are some good examples of congregational vices, and how are these related to congregant experience? Can congregations’ characters be improved through interventions? These are all questions to which future research in this area should attend.


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Cite this article

Byerly, T. Ryan. 2021. “How are the Group Character Traits of Christian Churches Related to the Well-Being of Congregants?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 2).

Contact the author

T. Ryan Byerly
[email protected]