loren Eric Swanson: The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare

Cnaan, Ram A. with Stephanie C. Bodie, Femida handy, Gaynor Yancy, and Richard Schneider.The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare. New York, New York; New York University Press, 2002

“Thus, the parable of the Good Samaritan is the most common metaphor for the quality of faith-based care.” P. 5

No government can force congregations and religious groups to help the needy. Only the invisible caring motivation that is partly normative, partly religious and uniquely American can describe the work of the religious congregations in ameliorating the pain, suffering, and poverty of millions. P.8

It is estimated that there are more than 350,000 local religious congregations in the United States. They are thus the most common and widespread institution in our society. It is also estimated that more than half the population holds active membership in a local religious congregation (Finke & Stark, 1986)[1] p. 9

As we demonstrate, congregational involvement in a social service delivery way is a phenomenon unique to the United States that began only 150 years ago. While religious organizations—the Church with a capital C—has sponsored many social programs throughout the world, congregation have historically been reluctant to become involved in social programs. After all, the primary mission of a congregation is to provide a religious framework and communal site for worshiping. Its second mission is to sustain the congregation and to guarantee resources sufficient to carry out its primary mission. Social services delivery can come only after these two missions are achieved.
It was only when church and state separated (official disestablishment) that congregations sought to become a more meaningful part of the lives of their members. The result was innovation and public involvement. This change coincided with massive immigration and urbanization and a dramatic increase in social problems, as well as a threat to the Protestant hegemony. Congregations committed themselves to helping the newcomers, hoping to transform them and thus to attract new members to te denomination, if not the congregation. Non-Protestant groups, especially Jews and Catholics, were afraid of losing members and developed parallel services. P. 10-11

This is the first study of the scope, nature, dynamics and variability of congregational social services congregation. We discovered that belonging to a congregation is a powerful prosocial experience, one that overshadows even religious beliefs. Indeed we found that the group dynamics of belonging to a “moral community” brings people to care for others much more than “individual religious beliefs.” P. 11

Members of all religious congregations, regardless of their specific faith traditions, set out to influence their communities by performing activities that add to the quality of life in the community. These activities can be subsumed under the term social ministry… p. 58

One study, of about 1,000 congregations in Californian, found that each and every one of them was engaged in at least one form of social service provision (Silverman, 2000)[2][3] (P 62)

We believe that methodology accounts for the difference in findings between Chaves’s congregations and our own. P. 62

What is evident is that the nation’s congregations are serving in some cases as the first line of the last frontier of social care for those desperate for something to eat, a safe place to sleep, or care for their children. P. 65

Congregations are, as a rule, highly involved in service delivery that helps people solve personal problems and meet material needs. They are less involved in efforts to bring about social and political change. P. 69 Churches find it that it is hard to change the environment but one can change individuals—Illustration of Mariners redefining goals at Mariners.

What the examples of homeless shelters and soup kitchen teach us is that when congregations cannot provide a costly and complex program on their own, they may collaborate with or support others in the delivery of such a program. The power of congregational collaboration is to assist other providers or to enrich the community network of support is a topic we have only started to unravel and that requires further research. P. 71

A third of day care in the United States is housed in congregational properties. This makes the religious community the largest provider/host of day care in the country… p. 72 (Lindner, Mattis, & Rogers, 1983; Trost, 1988). Lindner, E. W., Mattis, M.C., & Rogers, J.R. (1983). When churches mind the children: A study of day care in local parishes. Ypsilanti, MI: High Scope Press
Trost, C. (1988, August 29). Debate over day-care bill spurs odd alliances and raises issue of church-state separation. Wall Street Journal, p. 32.

On the basis of our study of 251 congregations, we identified several characteristics of congregational involvement. First, congregations, with few exceptions, provide some form of social and community service delivery. There services range from large, formal programs to small, informal services. Second, the area most frequently addressed by congregations are services that benefit children, the elderly, the poor and the homeless, as well as the community at large. P. 79

One way to understand congregational involvement in social and community services provision is to imagine the United States without congregations. Without congregations, one-third of the children now in day care centers would have no place to go. Most scout troops and twelve-step groups would have no meting place. Many food cupboards, soup kitchens and homeless shelters would disappear, leaving a large number of people hungry and on the streets. New immigrants and refugees would lose their strongest supporters and their anchor as they move into mainstream American life. Numerous old and sick people would be neglected, and the waiting list for institutionalized care would double. The list goes on and on, underscoring the important fact that the absence of congregations in the United States would create a significant social void, along with the loss of the religious, spiritual, and social support provided by congregations. P. 81

…congregations are a major force in sustaining the quality of life in the community and that they are essential for social stability in urban neighborhoods. P. 82

We then assess the fiscal contribution of congregations to social services by assigning monetary replacement value to the services and financial support provided by the 251 congregations in our study. First, we estimate the percentage of the annual congregational budget allotted to social services programs. We then assess the imputed economic value of the 1,005 programs reported in our study, that is, how much it would cost to replace a faith-based service with a similar secular social service. To determine these costs, we assess the dollar value of clergy / staff / volunteer hours; the value of space used by the program; the value of utilities; and the value of in-kin support. These indirect costs, together with the actual dollar support, are used to determine the average fiscal value of the program reported in our study. By determining the fiscal contribution, we are able to establish a measure of the congregational investment to social programs and community service. P. 83

…congregations are highly effective in attracting members to volunteer as a group to carry out social programs. Member’s enthusiasm and the nature of the work often attract additional volunteers from the community. P 84

The size of the congregation was not significantly correlated with the percentage of annual budget allocated to social programs. Thus we can assume that, regardless of size, congregations allocate 22.6 percent of their operating budgets to social services. P. 89

It is important to note that in our sample as a whole and for each city, the mean percentage allocated to social programs (22.6 percent) was higher than traditional tithing….whereas American corporations, on average, designate only about 1 percent of their pretax net income for charitable contributions (Gasaskiewicz, 1997). By any of these three measures congregations can be considered the most charitable in supporting social programs that benefit the community. P. 80-90

The key question is: What is the estimated replacement value of all the social and community programs provided by local religious congregations? P.90

Volunteer hours represent the congregation’s most important resource in social service provision. According to Dodgkinson and Weitzman (1993), each volunteer give, on average, 4.6 hours per month. Taken as a whole, volunteer hours account for half of all hours spent in social service provision by congregations. P. 94

We therefore assessed the value of congregational member-volunteer time at $11.58 an hour. This figure accords with the average hourly rate computed in 1992 by the Independent Sector and supported by an economic analysis carried out by Brown (1999) p. 95

While congregations function primarily as gathering places for collective worship, they also function as social safety nets. P. 100

Jackson and his colleagues (1997) found that “belonging to a coalition increased the likelihood of offering programs in each of the eight categories [of service]….Affiliation with a coalition made it more likely for a faith-based institution to offer a program, particularly in the areas of Emergency Services, Housing, Economic Development, and Health and Fitness” (p.9 Jackson) p. 159

According to McGavran and Winfield (1997), viability in congregations—that is, increased membership and sustained income—is linked with active involvement in social and community affairs. P. 178

It is our contention that volunteerism is strongly associated with membership in a religious congregation and that personal religious faith alone is a weaker explanation for the decision to volunteer. Three factors account for congregational membership as a strong motivator for volunteerism. First, congregations are not only religious settings but also social settings that enable people to fulfill their psychological need for meaning, self worth, and love. Second, congregations are small groups that, according to social psychologists, hold significant power over their members. Third member ship in an active group that holds many face-to-face meetings increases one’s chances of being asked to participate in a volunteer activity. P. 212

Our hypothesis is supported by three independent sets of data. First comparative studies of volunteers and nonvolunteers show that religious belief alone is not significantly associated with the decision to volunteer. Second, members of evangelical congregations are less likely or equally likely to engage in social volunteering than mainline denominations because the group culture is more concern with salvation and proselytization than with social service. Furthermore, being “more” religions is not associated with higher rates of volunteer activity. Finally religious people in other countries are less involved in volunteerism than are those in the United States. P. 212

According to the Independent Sector study (Hodgkinson, Weitzman, 1994), one-third of all those who volunteer, or 17.6 percent of the population, volunteer within, and for, religious organizations. P. 213

Two competing hypotheses have been advanced to explain the relationship between religion and social concern (volunteering to help others). The direct-link theory holds that religious people, by theological education or personality, are more concerned with the welfare of others and therefore help the needy more than people who are not religious. The club theory holds that religious people are not more concerned with the welfare of others but that belonging to a congregation that helps others influences them to comply with the group’s norms and culture and to utilize active personal networks to recruit coreligionists to join in volunteer work. Consequently, congregants exhibit high rates of volunteerism. Wuthnow (1991), for example doubts that personal faith alone, without the impetus of congregational membership, would motivate people to help others. P. 215
…religious people do not volunteer more compared with nonreligious people, nor do they give more hours to volunteering compared with nonreligious volunteers. Finally we show that religious people volunteer within the context of a congregation and that this context leads to increased external (communal) volunteerism. Thus religious beliefs, in and of themselves, do not explain the link between religion and volunteerism. P. 216

Hodkinson and her colleagues also found that the average hours of volunteering rose from 1.6 hours for those who do not attend worship services to 3.4 hours for those who attend weekly. The correlation between volunteering and the organized religious community suggests that people who worship together forma community and therefore are more likely to volunteer as a group or as representatives of the group. P. 216

Robert Wuthnow (1994a) noted that ‘religious organizations tell people of opportunities to serve, both within and beyond the congregation itself, and provide personal contacts, committees, phone numbers, meeting space, transportation, or whatever it may take to help turn good intentions into action (pp.242-243) p. 217


However, these authors (Wilson and Janoski 1995)also found that only 38 percent of the conservative Protestants who did not attend church regularly were volunteers for social causes, compared with 71 percent of the conservative Protestants who attend church regularly. This, attendance at services—being part of a religious congregation—is associated with willingness to help others in the community, rather than the liberal or conservative slant of one’s perspective. P. 217

Another key finding by Wilson and Janoski (1995) is that those who attend services are more likely to volunteer than those who do not. Attendance/nonattendance is more important than frequency of attendance. Of those attending worship at least a few times a year, 48 percent reported volunteering, while only 34 percent of nonattenders reported volunteering. P.217

According to the first Canadian national survey of giving and volunteering (Statistics Canada, 1998), those with a religious affiliation volunteered more than those with no religious affiliation (33 percent versus 28 percent). The difference increased dramatically when those who attended church weekly were compared with those who did not attend church weekly (46 percent versus 28 percent). P. 218

Frans Lammertyn and Lesley Hustinx studied 715 students in Katholic University, Leuven [Belgium]. They found that religion and religious beliefs did not significantly impact volunteering. However, church attendance was strongly and significantly associated with volunteering….Belgian students indicated volunteering was twice as prevalent among those who attended church regularly, while religion and beliefs in God were not significantly associated with volunteering. P. 218

Yonish and Campbell (1998), in their analysis of the Independent Sector’s data on volunteering, concluded that those who attend worship services, regardless of religious tradition, are more likely to volunteer than those who do not and that “more frequent church attendance corresponds with a greater proportion of volunteers” (p. 8)…According to these authors, there is no better evidence for the impact of church attendance on volunteering “than the fact that, ceteris paribus, church attendance rivals education as a predictor of volunteering” (p.12) (emphasis in the original) P. 219

Penny Edgell Becker (2000) found that among church members, those who volunteer consider other congregation members among their best friends more often than those who do not volunteer. Moreover, once friendship is considered, the salience of religious loses any predictive power. In addition, Becker found that the relevant group for attenders who volunteer is not neighbors but congregational friends. P. 220


Church attendance is a much stronger predictor than anything else. Put simply, church attendance and participation in church programs are by far the strongest predictors of volunteering. People who participate tend to volunteer and visa versa, telling us that volunteering should be conceptualized as a close cousin to worship attendance and program participation. ON THE BACK SIDE OF PARTICIPATION CONGREGANTS CONSIDER SERVICE TO BE CONSTITUTIVE p. 221

Peter Kaldor and his colleagues (1999) studied church participation in Australia. In a random sample of 8,500 individuals, the authors asked a series of questions on religious participation and community volunteering. Questions about volunteering outside the congregation produced significant findings: “The Australian Community Survey found that 21 percent of church attenders are involved in care, welfare or support groups, compared to 7 percent of non-attender.” P. 222

Most volunteer coordinators now that the best way to recruit volunteers is to approach tem through people they know and trust. Volunteering is social, and therefore, it is the participation in a congregation and the bonding with other congregants that foster volunteering among religious people. It is the social function of the congregation that actualizes the religious teaching of helping others. P. 222

Involvement in the social life of a congregation increases the likelihood that an individual will engage in activities shared by other members with whom he or she has face-to-face contacts. Given that many congregations are involved in carrying out social services, it is likely that congregants will come into personal contact with—and join with—others already engaged in volunteer work. People who join groups, especially religious congregations, are likely to internalize the norms and activities prevalent in these groups. P.225

Findings from our interviews and the literature review support the view that volunteering is not the direct result of religious beliefs and teaching. These finding sow that volunteering is mediated by congregational activity and social connections that channel religious beliefs and teachings into action. P. 227

Volunteerism is enhanced through conformity with group norms that call upon members to come together and help others in need. P. 227

Moreover, retention is higher because volunteer work, when done with friends, provides a basis for social interaction and gratification from significant people such as close friends, relatives, and religious counterparts. We are most likely to be influenced by what significant people think of us and to attempt to meet their expectations. P. 228

As we pointed out in the preface, Americans believe in economic and social self-reliance, yet by age sixty-five, close to two-thirds of all Americans will have experience at least one year of poverty (Rank & Hirschi, 1999). Because the U.S. government doesn’t provide a safety net for those in extreme need, this responsibility has been delegated to local communities and, by default, also to local congregations. When someone is hungry and homeless, help is most likely to come from members of a local congregation. When children of working parents are left alone at home, the local congregation is most likely to offer an after-school latchkey program similarly, when people are discharged from alcohol rehabilitation centers, it is most likely that they will turn for support of the AA group housed in the local congregation. In other works, in America, congregations are the “hidden” safety net p 281


We found that the net value of congregational social and community services averaged $15,306.72 per month, or approximately $184,000 per congregation per year. This contribution is, for the most part, in the form of volunteer hours and other noncash support. The magnitude of this congregational contribution to social services provision can best be appreciated by comparing it to costs incurred by secular providers who must pay for the types of in[kind support that congregations voluntarily provide at no cash cost. P 282-283

[1] Finke, R & Stark, R. (1992). The churching of America 1116-1990: Winners and losers in our religious economy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
[2]C. Silverman, Faithpbased Communities and Welfare reform: California Religious Community Capacity Study (San Francisco: Institute for Nonprofit Organization, University of San Francisco, 200).


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