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Research Team Missing Member as Latest Book Comes Out

By Norman Jameson, Special to The Columbia Partnership

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When Chalice Press releases a new book from research and writing partners Deborah Bruce and Cynthia Deborah Bruce Woolever November 1st, only Woolever will be on hand to mark the achievement.

Bruce, a committed fitness devotee who worked out at 5 a.m. virtually every day, suffered a massive stroke July 11 and never regained consciousness. When her husband found her, she was dressed for the gym.

She served as Research Manager for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) research department and, with Woolever, conducted the monumental U.S. Congregational Life surveys in 2001 and 2008-2009. Through the largest congregational survey ever conducted, Woolever and Bruce measured and analyzed significant changes in congreg Woolover Bruce Book Coverational life in this country.

Bruce and Woolever’s newest book, Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation was finished just 10 days before Bruce died. Chalice Press is releasing the book on All Saints Day to honor Bruce. Three other books were released over the past decade by Westminster John Knox Press.

The book recognizes that congregations have to make decisions, sometimes tough decisions. Woolever and Bruce believe the more information a congregation has, the better decisions it will make.

They encourage congregations to identify and leverage their strengths.

“Sometimes,” Woolever said, “congregations spin their wheels trying to be something they’re not, ignoring Cynthia Woolever 2012 the strengths they have.”

In something of a surprise to them, Woolever and Bruce discerned that congregations often are well aware of their weaknesses, but they don’t know their strengths.

They’ve set up a process by which congregations can use results from their own self-survey to educate themselves.

Bruce addressed 3,000 at a national Presbyterian conference just one week before her death, making it clear that the church needs “to go out and reach people who are not like us,” said Marcia Myers, director of the Presbyterian Office for Vocations. As always, Bruce was not afraid to point out uncomfortable facts, saying the denomination is losing three percent of its membership a year and that only one person under 25 years old worshipped in Presbyterian churches for every six over age 65.

Bruce’s death shook her friends and coworkers, especially Woolever. The two met in 1996 when Woolever joined the research office of the Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., where Bruce had worked since 1993.

They were different, but drawn magnetically. Bruce was the psychologist; Woolever the sociologist.

They knew each other’s styles and foibles. They might be working on chapters 1, 7 and 11 and the appendix at the same time “and it didn’t bother us,” Woolever said. “I knew this relationship was very special and when you lose it so suddenly, it’s tough.”

When they came up with a research idea too big to be contained by one denomination, they sought and shared a Lilly grant in 1999 to do research on church vitality and health, to learn how laypeople experience church and ministry. The duo surveyed more than 500,000 worshippers in more than 5,000 congregations. It was the largest congregational survey ever conducted and provided the data for their books.

Their 2008-09 follow-up study of U.S. congregations revealed many changes in that short period.

Congregations “really stepped up to the plate in terms of reaching out to their communities,” Woolever said. Congregations were “doing more mission with fewer dollars.”

Their research noted the average age of worshippers going up; more churches using technology with twice as many having websites; small groups or a soloist replacing a choir, and overhead projection has replacing.

While their collaborations started while both worked in Louisville, Woolever said they teamed up from a distance for their later works. She thought their department was going to be eliminated so she took a job at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

When she learned the department was safe, she and Bruce both cried at their unnecessary separation. But they still had the grant from Lilly for the national research and they felt “if anybody can do it from a distance, we can.”

Their newest book “is particularly important,” Woolever said, because it’s about the pastor, and stress and what brings the pastor satisfaction in ministry.

Other publishers were interested in the Woolever and Bruce book. But they sought out Chalice Press because this book fit so well in the Chalice Press TCP Leadership Series with The Columbia Partnership

George Bullard, executive editor of the series, was supportive immediately. “He talks about things nobody else even seems to even think about,” Woolever said.

Writer David Briggs shared the following in a memorial piece for Bruce: “In a culture where polarization can lead to despair for those committed to sharing uncomfortable truths, she responded with respect and good humor, from insisting on cartoons in her books to threatening to retain departing staff unless they could pass her oral ‘EXIT quiz’ consisting of a set of hilarious questions with no right answers.”

“When I think of her face, I can only see her smiling,” Said Woolever. “She had a heart for people, and for helping them.”

Their other books:

  • A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who’s Going Where and Why. 2nd edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)
  • Beyond the Ordinary: Ten Strengths of US Congregations (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
  • Places of Promise: Findings Strength in Your Congregation’s Location (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)

Norman Jameson, a ministry colleague with The Columbia Partnership at, is assistant dean of development at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

News Release from The Columbia Partnership at E-mail: Voice: 803.622.0923. Book may be ordered at Chalice Press at