The Hartford Institute for Religion Research

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR) studies and communicates what is happening in religious life today and since 1971. From groundbreaking studies on the movement of women into the role of clergy to the timely assessment of trends in church membership – the Hartford Institute explores how people of different faiths are forming and reforming their institutions.

The Institute’s projects and research findings have appeared in books and news outlets such as the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and hundreds more. The work of the Institute includes pioneering creative methods for the study of congregations through a national multi-faith survey that has gathered unprecedented, comprehensive data on the nation's congregations.

Gregg Brekke
Executive Director
Associated Church Press

Gregg Brekke is an award-winning visual journalist and writer dedicated to creating photo and video stories that inspire, transform, and cross boundaries to introduce new audiences to the incredible people and experiences our world has to offer.

Assignments have taken him around the world to produce stories on global health, economic development, migration, disaster response, humanitarian assistance, religious expression, and outdoor adventure.

Dr. David Dault
Host and Executive Producer
Things Not Seen: Conversations About Culture and Faith

David Dault is a writer, media professional, and educator. He is the host and executive producer of Things Not Seen: Conversations About Culture and Faith, an award-winning radio show and podcast. David began the show in Memphis in 2012, and it now airs weekly on WCPT in Chicago. It is distributed nationally through the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), and has listeners around the nation and the world. Along with Father Daniel P. Horan, OFM, and National Catholic Reporter executive editor Heidi Schlumpf, David is the co-host of The Francis Effect, a popular podcast that features commentary on news and events from a Catholic viewpoint.
Deborah D Douglas
Director of the Midwest Solutions Journalism Hub
Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University

Deborah D. Douglas is co-editor in chief of The Emancipator, a collaboration between Boston University and The Boston Globe that centers critical voices, debates and evidence-based opinion to reframe the national conversation on racial equity and hasten racially just outcomes.

Ms. Douglas has served as the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project, leading fellowships and programs that include the University of Texas at Austin, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, Urgent Action Fund in South Africa and Kenya, and Youth Narrating Our World (YNOW). While teaching at Northwestern University’s Medill School, she created a graduate investigative journalism capstone on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The founding managing editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, Douglas has been working on her book, U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places and Events That Made the Movement. (Moon Travel, 2021).

Michael Duerksen
Founder & CEO

Mike is a fundraising strategist that has helped nonprofits in Canada, USA, Germany and South Africa increase their revenue through direct-response fundraising and marketing. He’s on a mission to help nonprofits build predictable fundraising success by focusing on donor needs, identities and values. He’s the host of The Build Good Fundraising Podcast and co-host of the Donor Growth podcast.
Greg Dunn
Senior Counselor
Kurth Lampe Worldwide

D. Gregory Dunn possesses deep strategic communications, integrated marketing and issues management experience earned at the highest levels of the public relations agency world. His background includes senior roles with some of the largest multi-national and domestic public relations firms, in disciplines including corporate reputation, consumer marketing and healthcare.

Dunn spent the majority of his career working for major multi-national public relations agencies including Burson-Marsteller, Edelman and rapidly growing Allison+Partners, for whom Dunn opened a Chicago office. In more recent years, Dunn has focused his work in the boutique PR agency setting, which has allowed him to counsel an array of faith-based organizations about the importance of storytelling in building a brand and reputation, as well as providing crisis communications counsel. He is a graduate of a Seventh-day Adventist-affiliated school, Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Teresa Faust
Senior Manager, Research & Metrics
United Methodist Communications

Research is a navigation tool to guide strategy. Teresa consults and collaborates to design methodologies to answer business questions and make actionable recommendations. She attends and presents at professional events to further understanding of marketing, research and innovation. Her emphasis is on continuous development of citizenship, critical thinking, problem solving, oral & written communication, personal & professional development, and leadership.

Teresa is the vice president of the Nashville chapter of the Religion Communicators Council, and a member of its national Board of Governors.

Rev. Brian Fesler
Religion Communicators Council

Rev. Brian Fesler is national president of the Religion Communicators Council and chair of the DeRose-Hinkhouse Memorial Awards program.

Rev. Fesler has been with the Church of Scientology since 1990, and an ordained minister of the church since 2005. In addition to his duties as senior pastor for the Nashville church, he is national president of the Religion Communicators Council. He has served on the executive committee of the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce Education Report Card Committee, the organizing committee for the MLK March and Convocation, and the advisory councils for the National Museum of African American Music and the Faith & Culture Center. Rev. Fesler is on the board of directors of the Nashville chapter of Citizens Commission on Human Rights, and he is regional coordinator for the Foundation for a Drug-Free World (an international drug-prevention program). He chairs the annual Tennessee Celebration of International Human Rights Day because he stands for freedom of religion and the right to think and communicate freely.

Rev. Donna Frischknecht Jackson
Vice President
Religion Communicators Council

Donna was born and bred in north New Jersey where she grew up with a view of the New York City skyline greeting her everyday. Early on, that skyline shaped her dreams of someday being a fashion editor in Manhattan.

Her dream eventually came true, having graduated the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in advertising and communications, and spending a brief stint or two in public relations before landing a job at a fine jewelry trade publication as associate fashion editor.

It was at the magazine, Donna honed her reporting and writing skills, traveled the world and interviewed the most amazing people. She worked her way from reporting on fashion to covering the retail jewelry industry and eventually was named editor in chief.

However, while living the dream and calling her one-bedroom co-op in Manhattan’s historic Murray Hill home, she began to feel there was more to the life she was living.

When she returned to church after many years of being a Christmas/Easter Christian, something happened. Donna felt a call to use her love for writing and communicating to tell the story of an incredible God at work in our lives.

While she wrestled with whether she could leave corporate America for the unknown world of ministry that was tugging at her, a major life event shoved her to take the scary of leap of faith she had been contemplating.

One winter night, news came that her then boyfriend was killed in a jeep accident in Africa. Donna soon realized life was too precious to waste on playing it safe and left the world of magazine publishing to enter seminary.

She graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2007 and was ordained in the Presbyterian church that same year. Packing up all she knew (along with her jewelry wardrobe and cute shoes and handbags!), she began her journey as an “accidental country pastor,” serving in the most unlikely place she ever thought she would serve—rural upstate New York. It was there, though, her heart healed as in the midst of challenges, changes, questions and doubt, she saw God at work in the most amazing ways.

In 2011, ten years after the death of her boyfriend, Donna met and married Paul Jackson, a local boy from the rural village she served. The two purchased an old house in Vermont with the most beautiful views of the neighbor’s cows from the back porch.

After what Donna describes as her time of “exile,” that is, serving a church in Maryland for a while, she moved back to Vermont in 2016 without a church, deciding to trust God all the way with this crazy and wonderful journey.

As an advocate for rural communities, much of her writing is on the challenges and opportunities these communities face. Her “Rural Realities” series in Presbyterians Today, which covered topics such as food deserts, obesity among youth and opioid usage, received the top award in reporting in 2019 from the Religion Communicators Council. She also received several awards the same year from the Associated Church Press for in-depth features and her editorials. In 2020, her editorial, “The Holiness of Mud Season,” won the award of excellence from the Religion Communicators Council. Two other stories also received honors.

In her free time, she leads retreats and is a guest speaker on the topic of listening to one’s heart and daring to follow those big, scary dreams. She admits she is still trying to create an 18th century kitchen garden, but the weeds are currently winning. She is now dabbling in the art of 18th century cooking, using the tools and techniques of the time. Her husband, Paul, keeps the number to the local pizzeria on speed dial.

Chris Herlinger
International Correspondent
Global Sisters Report

Chris Herlinger is a journalist and poet who lives in New York City. He holds graduate degrees in theology, international relations and creative writing, the latter from the University of Edinburgh. He was a Collegeville Institute short-term scholar in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Chris is a New York-based international correspondent for National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report, focusing on the work of Catholic Sisters globally and at the United Nations.
Dartinia Hull
Managing Editor
Presbyterian Outlook

Dartinia Hull is the managing editor at Presbyterian Outlook.
Charissa Johnson
Photographer, Editor
Charissa Johnson Photography

Charissa has been a professional photographer for over fifteen years, photographing families, newborns, weddings, dancers, individuals, and events in Chicago and abroad. Her photographic work has won national awards and been published numerous times. Her love for celebrating and honoring one’s story has also given her a background as a licensed counselor—she received her master’s in counseling in 2013—and as an editor.

Charissa has published, copy-edited, and/or designed upwards of forty manuscripts, in addition to authoring “Sevruguin’s Approach to Photography,” in Antoin Sevruguin: Past and Present, 7–30, edited by Tasha Vorderstrasse, Oriental Institute Museum Publications 40 (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 2020). When she’s not busy photographing, she continues to contract editorial work, enjoying the way both mediums incorporate design elements, enhance one’s living, and tell individual and collective stories.

Celeste Kennel-Shank
Associated Church Press

The Rev. Celeste Kennel-Shank is a bi-vocational pastor and award-winning journalist. She has been a member of the editorial staff of several ACP member publications. She is the author of What You Sow Is a Bare Seed: A Countercultural Christian Community during Five Decades of Change in the Church (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming).
Danielle Klotz
Executive Director
Anabaptist World

Danielle Klotz is executive director of Anabaptist World. She lives in Goshen Indiana with her partner Nata and their sons Francesco and Willow. Dani previously worked in marketing, communications and development at Mennonite Mission Network. She is an alumna of both Hesston College and Goshen College, and served for a year with Mennonite Mission Network in Brazil.
Bekah McNeel

Bekah Stolhandske McNeel is a native of San Antonio, Texas, where she has been a reporter for nine years. Her work has appeared in print with Christianity Today, The San Antonio Current, and the Public Justice Review, as well as online with the Christian Science Monitor, Sojourners, the Texas Tribune, the Hechinger Report, The 74 Million, and numerous local outlets.

Known for her ability to communicate the high stakes of education and immigration policy and bring clarity to complex systems, Bekah keeps the human beings most affected at the front of her coverage.

Bekah is a graduate of the London School of Economics, where she earned a MSc in Media Studies. She is married to Lewis McNeel, an architect with Lake | Flato. They have two young children who, while they do not yet have careers, are very busy.

Dr. Allison Norton
Faculty Associate in Migration Studies and Congregational Life
Hartford International University

Dr. Allison Norton is the Faculty Associate in Migration Studies and Congregational Life at Hartford International University, where she directs the Pastoral Innovation Network of New England. She teaches courses in sociology of religion, immigration, and multicultural and intergenerational ministry. Her research and publications explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on US congregations, the rise of megachurches in West Africa, the transnational dimension of African Pentecostalism, the role of migration on the worldwide expansion of the Christian faith, and the religious identities of the “new” second generation. Her forthcoming co-authored book, “Migrant God, Migrant Faith” (with Matthew Krabill, IVP Academic) provides a historical and contemporary exploration of migrant Christianity in the United States.
Brad Pomerance
Senior Vice President, News & Programming
Jewish Life Television

Brad Pomerance joined Jewish Life Television in 2008 and currently serves as its Senior Vice President, News & Programming and Host of its highly-rated weekly news magazine, The J Report with Brad Pomerance. Brad has headlined JLTV’s international travel series Air Land & Sea, its coverage of the “March of the Living” from Poland, the “Maccabiah Games” from Israel and the network’s live Election Night coverage.

Brad also anchors the newly-minted California Edition, broadcasting on The California Channel and HLN in California. In this capacity, Brad interviews politicians at the local, state and federal level and countless celebrities about their favorite causes.

Previously, Brad worked as an Anchor and Reporter for LA City View/Channel 35 and KDOC’s Daybreak OC. Brad has been nominated for three Emmys – two for his work on Channel 35 and one for hosting Local Edition.

A licensed attorney, Brad received his Bachelor's Degree in International Relations, Cum Laude, from The University of Southern California, and his Juris Doctor, with High Honors, from George Washington University’s National Law Center.

Rose Schrott Taylor
Digital Content Editor
Presbyterian Outlook

Rose Schrott Taylor is the digital content editor at Presbyterian Outlook. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and loves to bake, fuss over her houseplants and spend time with her husband Christopher and their dog Huebert.
Tracy Simmons
Writing and Social Media Consultant
Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations study

Tracy Simmons serves as a writer and social media consultant on the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations study led by Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Tracy is the Executive Director of, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She is also a Scholarly Assistant Professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and writes for the Religion News Service, as well as The Spokesman-Review.
Bob Smietana
National Reporter
Religion News Service

Bob Smietana is an award-winning religion reporter and editor who has spent two decades producing breaking news, data journalism, investigative reporting, profiles, and features for magazines, newspapers, trade publications, and websites.

Most notably, he has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for Religion News Service, and contributor to OnFaith, USA TODAY, and The Washington Post.

He is best known for his coverage of Islam and Islamophobia, including his comprehensive reporting on the Murfreesboro mosque conflict, and on evangelical Christianity.

Heidi Thompson
Senior Consultant
Shanley + Associates

Heidi Thompson is a senior consultant with Shanley + Associates and specializes in data-driven, digital marketing for publishers.
Steve Thorngate
Managing Editor
The Christian Century

The Century managing editor is also a church musician and songwriter. He released the album After the Longest Night in 2018.
Scott Thumma
Professor of Sociology of Religion
Hartford International University

Scott Thumma is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Hartford International University (formerly Hartford Seminary) and the Director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. He serves as the Principal Investigator of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project, Co-Chair of the Faith Communities Today initiative, on the steering committee of the US Religious Census, and as a research advisor for several other projects and organizations.

Throughout his 30-year career he has participated in many congregational study projects and national religion research efforts. He has written widely about megachurches, gay religious life, congregational dynamics, and nondenominational churches and has published three books [Gay Religion, Beyond Megachurch Myths, and The Other Eighty Percent: Turning Your Church’s Spectators into Active Disciples], many research reports, and managed over a half-dozen websites.

2023 Presenters