Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ammerman's Congregations

Jackson Carroll and Nancy Ammerman are two central figures in congregational studies. Carroll is one of the founding fathers of the field in the United States. He has served as the director of the congregational research center at Hartford Seminary as well as the Pulpit and Pew Project focusing on pastoral leadership. Ammerman has made her name known among the second generation of congregational studies scholars as well as in the field of sociology of religion. Her work Congregation & Community is well respected. They taught together at Hartford and are currently on the faculties of two schools known for their work in practical theology. Ammerman is at Boston University and Carroll at Duke. Ammerman and Carroll do not represent the breadth of congregational studies but rather the main thrust of the field over the last several decades.
The last posting focused on the work of Jackson Carroll and his focus on pastoral leadership. Rather than focusing on pastoral leadership, Nancy Ammerman’s work focuses on organizations such as denominations and congregations in the midst of cultural transitions. As such, she approaches congregations as more open systems than Carroll. Her view of congregations is similar to Carroll’s in its emphasis on sites of cultural production and the pastor’s role in preserving values and traditions. Her emphasis, though, is on how congregations respond to outside cultural forces and her work includes the entire congregation in the process.
One of her earlier works focused on the conservative shift in the Southern Baptist Convention. While Carroll often relies on surveys, focus groups, and interviews, Ammerman’s work often has an ethnographic emphasis focusing on participant observation. Her work on the Southern Baptists focused on observing several of the Annual Conventions that led to the transition. Ammerman emphasized the intersection of ideologies and structures within the organization. With a focus on ideology, Ammerman’s work has a more theological emphasis than that of Carroll. She considers how theology matters in the choices made by an organization. What she found, though, was that societal factors generally had a stronger influence on people’s actions and positions than that of theology. Theology becomes a cultural construct.
While Carroll is more committed to dominant discourses, Ammerman often focuses on the clash between the dominant and the marginal discourses within an organization. In Congregations & Community, Ammerman focuses on congregations in transitional neighborhoods. In particular, she studies sites where marginal groups are challenging the dominant group. Neighborhoods are seeing an increase in the gay and lesbian community. A new wave of immigrants is moving in. Racial transitions are taking place, communities are shifting from rural to suburban, class conflicts and economic transitions are being faced. Ammerman’s choices to reflect on such neighborhoods reveal her commitment to congregations as places that should embrace those on the margins. As sites of cultural capital, she calls on congregations to help the subaltern communities develop civic skills and built their place within the culture. It is not clear what drives Ammerman’s commitments, but they are central to her work.