The Role of Faith Leaders in Influencing Wellbeing: A Qualitative Exploration of the Views of Tongan People Living in Aotearoa to Inform Policy Church Law and Practice

Manukia, Rubinstine
Williams, Margaret
Paterson, Janis
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This doctoral study investigates the role of faith leaders in influencing the wellbeing of Tongan people living in Aotearoa. There is no specific evidence describing the role of faith leaders in the lives of Tongan people. A Pacific worldview paradigm and the key research ethics and values expressed and practised by Tongan people were used to engage with Tongan people (Vaioleti, 2006) to explore the role of faith leaders. The research design used was a qualitative research methodology informed by a talanoa research approach that is inclusive of Pacific knowledge, values, and belief systems (Vaioleti, 1999–2003). This qualitative study employed a Pacific worldview paradigm using a talanoa research approach to underpin protocol and discussion. Twenty-six participants (11 females and 15 males) aged between 25–89 years, actively engaged in their church community, took part in four focus group talanoa sessions. Participants reported mixed wellbeing levels, realities, and experiences. Within the talanoa approach, components of the kakala research framework were integrated. This framework leverages from the talanoa research approach in that it allows the researcher to access and capture the authenticity of Tongan traditional knowledge systems in its intended form, structure, and processes (Helu-Thaman, 1997). That is, to capture the insights of Tongan congregants and parishioners, specifically exploring the experiences of Tongan people living in Aotearoa. The information collection method used was focus group talanoa sessions and the participants were recruited from the Vahefonua Tonga o Aotearoa Synod of the Methodist Church of New Zealand, Te Haahi Weteriana o Aotearoa and faith leaders from other Tongan denominations. An iterative process with the use of the NVivo qualitative analysis software was used to analyse the information by thematic analysis. The analysis identified four themes of enablers and barriers to religious and faith-based community participation. These were: (1) connections and relationships, (2) influence and interests, (3) personal knowledge and awareness of wellbeing, and (4) resources and connection to the land (fonua) and environment. The findings established that wellbeing is a holistic balance of the physical (sino/body), mental (atamai/mind), and spiritual wellbeing (laumalie/loto) – mo’ui lelei, mo’ui lo tolu ma’uma’uluta, potupotutatau and napangapangamālie. Methodist faith leaders and participants (50-89 years) believed the role of a faith leader is an ordained minister or presbyter called to ministry to have a relationship with God. Participants (25–49 years) believed that we are all faith leaders and/or subleaders responsible for our actions, like a mentor or teacher. Non-Methodists believed a faith leader is a supporter and encourager of faith held to higher standard of expectations. Faith leaders influenced wellbeing through a variety of ways. Methodists explored wellbeing through ministry, pastoral care, home visits, leaders’ meetings, information sharing and reporting. Non-Methodists relied on church doctrine through the bible, internal systems, structures, and functions to explore wellbeing. Intrinsic factors such as developing stronger connections for resilience, getting to know the congregants and parishioners better, maintaining stronger relationships (tāuhi vā) and developing essential programmes and resource support were identified as enabling community wellbeing. Barriers identified within this study included unwanted traditions and hierarchy, unappealing cultural influences, and practices, such as having limited opportunity to develop meaningful connections or explicitly targeting the youth and intergenerational gap, disconnection, and a lack of support resources and accessibility limitations. This research contributes to a better understanding of how Tongan people live amidst the leadership of the faith leaders in Aotearoa. Additionally, faith leaders can use these finding to inform and strengthen their role for their congregation or parish by being informed of the realities and experiences of the congregants and parishioners. Furthermore, the church, faith denominations and key stakeholders can be informed by the findings of this research to better enhance its policies, laws and regulations, systems, functions, and structures. Collectively, the relationships in this study were aimed to benefit and improve the wellbeing of Tongans and other Pacific peoples living in Aotearoa. Thus, recommendations were suggested to inform the development of programmes and support resources to increase the community wellbeing among this group.

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