THE BLOG

A Scholar Who Changed Lives: The Grace of Deborah Bruce

07/27/2012 01:12 pm ET | Updated Sep 26, 2012

In a world where humility is considered more a weakness than a virtue, she was self-effacing and dedicated to serving others.

In a profession where information can be guarded to serve institutional or personal concerns, she leaves behind a rich collection of data on American religion that she shared with the world.

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.

A lot of us are going to miss Deborah Bruce.

The project manager of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, who also supervised hundreds of research projects for the Presbyterian Church (USA), died earlier this month at her home in Louisville, Ky. She was 57.

Her friends and colleagues lift up both her generous spirit and her commitment to applying research to change lives, whether it was helping pastors cope with clergy stress or challenging congregations to make their churches welcoming to people different from themselves.

"When I think of her face, I can only see her smiling," said Cynthia Woolever, her close friend and partner in leading the congregational life survey. "She had a heart for people, and for helping them."

Informing the World

Hartford Seminary sociologist Scott Thumma laments that too often scholars studying religion remain in an academic bubble where they become "doctors who refuse to treat any patients."

But that was not true of Deborah and her colleagues in the research department at the Presbyterian Church (USA), he said.

"Everything she did was with rigor and social science authenticity ... but it was really to help congregations," Thumma said.

The sharing of data from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey and Presbyterian Panel surveys on topics from giving to sexuality to spirituality and health on the Association of Religion Data Archives is one example of the commitment to make the research available to a worldwide audience.

But Deborah Bruce and her colleagues went further. They made the complex data from the congregational life survey understandable to general readers in a series of books, including "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who's Going Where and Why" and "Beyond the Ordinary: Ten Strengths of U.S. Congregations."

In the congregational life survey blog "Beyond the Ordinary," Woolever and Bruce tackle topics such as the consequences of clergy turnover and ways to help people feel they belong in congregations.

The results were not always comforting.

In one of her last public talks, Bruce confronted the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with some hard facts. She noted the denomination has been losing members at a rate of 3 percent annually in recent years. The median age of worshippers is 61; today for every Presbyterian worshipper under the age of 25, there are six worshippers older than 65.

Bruce made it clear the church needs "to go out and reach people who are not like us," said the Rev. Marcia Myers, director of the Presbyterian Office of Vocation.

Myers estimates hundreds of thousands of Presbyterians benefited from Bruce's work. One can add tens of millions of more Americans who are being served by the 2001 and 2008-2009 waves of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, which gathered information from more than 500,000 worshippers in more than 3,000 congregations across the nation.

Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study, said the survey led by Bruce and Woolever will be a lasting contribution to our understanding of religion in America.

"The U.S. Congregational Life Survey will be a resource forever," Chaves said. "That's a really important legacy."

An Inspiring Voice

Like Woolever, I cannot help but picture Bruce with a smile. Whenever I saw her at professional meetings, she seemed happy to renew friendships. Professionally, she was gracious not only in discussing her work, but affirming your interest in her research.

Her death also brought to mind the loss of another researcher who was a leading figure in the field of American religion both because of the integrity and depth of his research and his humble, generous nature with colleagues.

Catholic University of America sociologist Dean Hoge died nearly four years ago. But I still feel an empty space every time I attend a meeting of religion scholars, and am unable to visit with that gentle individual who with the perpetual hint of a grin always seemed to be offering encouraging words to someone else.

There will be a certain sadness in the hearts of many of us at this year's joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and Religious Research Association, knowing that our friend Deborah Bruce will not be there, either.

But Bruce and Hoge remain sources of inspiration..

The grace of these individuals is that they show us -- amid all the pressures and fears and doubts we face -- that we can stay true to our better selves, that we can change the world with humility, trust, respect -- and a sense of humor.

The latest book by Woolever and Bruce, "Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation," was scheduled to be published Oct. 31. The women joked about being perceived as two witches.

Woolever's voice broke as she remembered, "We were going to ask them to delay it a day so it would be on All Saints Day."

Not that Deborah would have considered herself saintly.

Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said of the pursuit of personal glory: "All is ephemeral, fame and the famous as well."

In the case of Deborah Bruce, someone who put service ahead of personal recognition, we will remember her for more than her research.

What also endures is the warmth of her smile -- and her spirit.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.