Dr. Lowell Livezey (1943-2007)

Dr. Lowell W. Livezey studied, taught, and wrote about the agency of religious organizations—especially churches, synagogues, mosques, and other worship centers—in large urban areas. Using ethnographic data assembled in collaboration with colleagues and students in Chicago and Boston, he argued that the “religion factor” is more salient than often recognized in the economic, demographic, and spatial restructuring of modern industrial cities. Livezey was a lecturer on ministry at Harvard Divinity School and director of the Metropolitan Congregational Studies Project. Before coming to Harvard in 2001, he was director and principal investigator of the Religion in Urban America Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was editor and an author of Public Religion and Urban Transformation (2000), author of Neighborhoods in Change: Congregations Making a Difference (2002), and, before his death in 2007, had begun co-authoring Religion and Community in the New Urban America (Paul D. Numrich and Elfriede Wedam, 2015), which examines the roles of religion in the reconfiguration of Chicago from a classic industrial city to an “informational” and “global” city. Livezey organized a conference on “Faith in Boston” at Harvard Divinity School in April 2004 as an initial public presentation of research on how religious organizations contribute to the future of Greater Boston.

The Metropolitan Congregational Studies Project

The Metropolitan Congregational Studies Project was a study of Boston-area congregations and related faith-based organizations and of their interaction with their neighborhoods, municipalities, and the metropolitan system. The project examined the activities, cultures, and local ecologies of selected congregations in Boston neighborhoods, suburbs, and edge cities in order to analyze how they impact their communities and how they are affected by the other institutions and populations. The project was intended to contribute to scholarly writing on urban religion, to teaching for ministry in urban and metropolitan contexts, and to the role of congregations and other faith-based organizations in civil society.

Harvard Divinity School initiated the Metropolitan Congregational Study Project in 2001 as a “teaching laboratory” for a course Lowell Livezey offered when he came to Harvard as the Luce Lecturer in Urban Ministry. The project continued with additional support from the Center for Research on Religion and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania where Livezey was a non-resident senior fellow. This research provided data for a book on religion in Boston as well as for comparisons between Boston and Chicago, where Livezey has been studying urban religion since 1992. In turn, the project provided the institutional sites for field-based teaching in urban theological education at the Divinity School.

The Metropolitan Congregational Study Project employed a “grounded theory” method (cf. Anselm Strauss, Corbin and Strauss, and their “Chicago School” predecessors), emphasizing field research, especially participant observation and open-ended interviews. The research team moved relatively late and slowly from data collection to formulation of hypotheses, interpretations, and causal inferences. In taking this highly inductive approach, they sought to avoid assumptions derived from industrial-era cities and Protestant hegemonies in “urban ministry,” and to maximize openness to the “whole new image” of religion in the post-industrial metropolis. However, certain themes have emerged as important so, in addition to open-ended investigation of congregations and their ecologies, they investigated the following:

  • How and to what extent congregations form and sustain social networks. Within that framework, they attempted to determine whether and in what respects these networks function as “communities,” whether they can be considered “moral communities,” and whether the evolving concepts of social capital help discern what these networks contribute to civil society and the public good.
  • How congregations participate in shaping and/or accommodating to the racial characteristics of the society. They presupposed that congregations, like other institutions and groups, participate in the “racial formation” of the society and thus contribute to the particular form of “racialized society” that exists at any given time and place.
  • Intersecting with the other two, the spatial—especially the geographic—characteristics of congregational life, including the patters of commuting or walking to worship and other congregational gatherings; the locations of all the mission and outreach activities relative to the gathering sites; and the locations of the places (some of them globally dispersed) and peoples that recur symbolically and discursively in the common life of the congregation. Using the GIS-based software, ArcView, the team mapped these variables as an aid in analyzing their impact on religious capacities and contributions.

The geographic focus provides an important take on the other two foci-community and race-because these factors have been historically associated with place and continue to be affected by the ways the restructuring of the metropolis plays out in the life and work of religious congregations. Moreover, since the metropolitan restructuring is partly a function of globalization and the revolution in technology and information systems, the geographic focus helps us begin to relate changes in congregational life to global and technological change.

Work Plan

In addition field research conducted by Dr. Livezey himself, a great deal was done by graduate students working under his supervision, either for their field education placement at HDS, or as members of his course, HDS 2967, “Religious Agency in the Metropolis.” Field education students devote about 15 hours per week for two semesters to the project, whereas course students devote 8 – 10 hours per week for one semester. The number of research sites and the depth of the investigations each year, therefore, depended in part on the number of students.

Congregations and other faith-based organizations, and the neighborhoods (or other locales) in which they are situated, are the primary units of study. The team selected and negotiated these congregations/organizations for study with the goal that the list as a whole represents a reasonable measure of the religious, ethnic, and racial diversity of the Boston metropolitan area. These included multiracial congregations, uniracial congregations, immigrant congregations and those with large immigrant component, congregations of many of the religions present in Boston (i.e., churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras, etc.,), territorial parishes and neighborhood congregations, commuter and “niche” congregations, a variety of faith-based social service and activist organizations.

Neighborhoods/locales included a multiracial neighborhood (Dorchester), an economically poor, inner-city neighborhood (Roxbury), a neighborhood or suburb/city with a “blue collar” population and suffering from the impact of deindustrialization but has not been destroyed by it (South Boston, Lynn), an edge-city area participating in the high-tech and financial services economy (MetroWest Sub-region), and a traditional, comfortable suburb.

The project began mainly with congregations in Dorchester and Roxbury, with a few additional congregations in adjacent parts of South Boston, South End, and Jamaica Plain. In 2002-2003 the team continued the inner-city focus while adding one congregation in Lynn and one in Lexington. In 2003-2004, they focused increasingly on congregations in the MetroWest Sub-region (and in the adjacent SouthWest and Minuteman Sub-regions), all of which extend westward to I-495. With this expansion they hoped to implement their commitment to investigate religion in the Boston metropolitan area as a single urban system.

Selected Links and Publications