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Robert Wuthnow

I Was Thirsty . . .

How Congregations Serve

The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare by Ram A. Cnaan
New York Univ. Press, 2002
328 pp.; $19.50, paper

On August 22, 1996, President Clinton signed into law a welfare reform bill known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The bill included a provision sponsored by Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri which sought to ease restrictions on faith-based service organizations receiving government funding. This Charitable Choice provision, as it was called, prompted a flurry of interest in the role that churches could play in assisting people who were on welfare to become self sufficient. During the 2000 presidential election campaign Al Gore and George Bush both spoke favorably about the role that churches were already playing and promised to pass new legislation to assist in their efforts.

Soon after he was elected, President Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and appointed John I. DiIulio, Jr., an outspoken advocate of religiously sponsored service organizations, as its director. Hoping to pass additional legislation favorable to faith-based efforts, the Bush administration praised social ministries and encouraged the public to become more involved in supporting these ministries. While these efforts were sidelined by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, they left many unanswered questions about what churches were actually doing to provide social services.

Ram Cnaan, who teaches in the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the first to take up the challenge of systematically conducting research among congregations to find out how they were serving their communities. Through a grant from Partners for Sacred Places, an organization concerned with preserving historic church buildings, Professor Cnaan conducted an extensive study of churches in Philadelphia that indicated the important role they were playing in sponsoring programs to help the needy.

The present book significantly expands that earlier research. It is based on information from approximately 300 congregations, 251 of which are located in the United States and 46 in Ontario, Canada. The congregations are not strictly a representative sample, but were chosen from lists of churches in seven metropolitan areas: New York City, Chicago, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Mobile, Houston, and San Francisco. The first wave of research was conducted among historic churches and a second wave included newer churches. A small study was also conducted in Council Grove, Kansas, to provide information about churches in a small town. At each of the churches a member of the research team conducted a three-hour interview in which questions were asked about the congregation's history, finances, activities, and social programs.

The principal finding is that nearly all the congregations in the study provided some form of social and community service. The most common programs addressed the needs of children, the elderly, the poor, and the homeless. Besides formal programs, such as housing projects or neighborhood cleanup activities, churches were involved in a wide range of informal activities, such as pastoral counseling, informal care of the sick or bereaved, referring people to more specialized agencies, and providing space for community groups to meet. Cnaan suggests that were it not for congregations approximately a third of children now in daycare centers would have no place to go, most scouting troops and twelve-step groups would have no place to meet, and large numbers of homeless shelters and soup kitchens would disappear. He also estimates the dollar value of the various services that congregations provide. When volunteer labor is included (at approximately $11 an hour), the average amount per congregation per month is $4,285.78.

Of course congregations vary considerably in how many social programs they sponsor and in the percentage of operating budget devoted to these programs. The primary finding is not surprising. The main factor that determines a congregation's involvement in social programs is its annual operating budget: congregations with larger budgets have a larger number of social programs and devote a larger proportion of their budget to these programs. What is surprising is that none of the other factors considered, such as number of active members, number of clergy, income of members, or "conservative ideology," was significantly associated with the number of or financial commitment to social programs once operating budget was taken into account (the study did not include comparisons among denominations).

Of the factors that did not matter, conservative ideology is perhaps the most tantalizing. Some observers have speculated that evangelical churches are more actively involved in their communities than liberal or progressive churches, while other observers have argued just the opposite, and still others have suggested that the question depends on what kind of community involvement is at issue. I would have liked to see this question explored more fully in the book, especially since it was unclear to me, at least, whether conservative ideology was the same thing or different from being evangelical and, in any case, how this might compare with denominational differences.

By considering congregations in close proximity to one another, the study was able to show that particular churches tend to develop niches in the community and fulfill specialized needs within those niches. For instance, one church may have a thriving day care program while another church is better at meeting the needs of the elderly and yet another church may operate a soup kitchen or specialize in hospital visits or providing pastoral counseling. Apparently this usually happens informally rather than through any coordinated effort and the study suggests that better coordination would probably help.

The case study of Council Grove, Kansas, is especially interesting because we know much less about churches in rural areas than we do about urban and suburban churches. Council Grove, once an important point of departure on the Santa Fe trail, is the seat of Morris County, one of the many counties in Kansas that has lost population (from 11,859 in 1930 to 6,104 in 2000) as a result of agricultural decline in the region. Consulting the county's website, I learned that there were 373 men and 451 women in 1999 whose incomes put them below the official poverty level, that there were 429 people on food stamp assistance, and that there were 823 Medicaid enrollees.

I also learned that there were nine churches in Council Grove. Cnaan's research team collected information from all of them. All but one were Protestant, and all of these, except one, were affiliated with mainline denominations. Each of the churches developed a ministry that filled a special need in the community. The Christian Church committed itself to youth services, the Berean Baptist Church had a popular Kids Club for younger children, the Congregational Church specialized in helping single mothers with children, and so on. Collectively, the churches operated a thrift shop, a ministry to residents of a local nursing home, and a hospitality coalition. Altogether, the research team found that the churches sponsored 27 different programs which on average benefited 32 congregational members and 182 nonmembers.

The positive picture of church-based social services that we see here has been confirmed in recent nationally representative studies. The National Congregations Survey conducted by Mark Chaves at the University of Arizona among a national sample of more than a thousand congregations found that 74.6 percent had participated in or supported "social service, community development, or neighborhood organizing projects" within the past 12 months (www.thearda.com). Similarly, Faith Communities Today, a report from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research based on a national study of more than 14,000 congregations, concluded that "nearly 85 percent of all U.S. congregations are engaged with soup kitchens or food pantries, emergency shelters and clothing pantries, and with financial help to those in need" (http://fact.hartsem.edu).

With all the good things being done by churches, it may be tempting to see them as the solution to the nation's need for social services. If so, we should heed what John DiIulio writes in the book's foreword: "The idea that government can be replaced by religious charities in serving the needy is fanciful at best." Cnaan argues that the churches should be a quiet partner with government, providing a first line of help for the needy, rather than replacing the public programs that serve as a vital lifeline for lower-income families.

Whether congregations should take money from government for the social programs they sponsor is a harder question. In Chaves's study, only 3.3 percent of congregations were currently receiving funds from local, state, or federal government. And in a community study of churches I conducted in northeastern Pennsylvania, only about 5 percent of clergy said they were seriously entertaining applying for government funds under the Charitable Choice provision. Most expressed concern that fiscal ties to government would create endless bureaucratic and regulatory entanglements.

In focusing on congregations, though, we miss the important fact that much of what churches do to provide social services is organized through separate 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations. This is sometimes obscured by Cnaan's emphasis on congregations as service providers, but his data show that churches frequently help to sponsor activities that are administered by independent organizations such as soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or food pantries and by local chapters of such organizations as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services. My research in northeastern Pennsylvania showed that the recipients of these faith-based service organizations were quite different from those who received help directly from congregations: they had lower incomes, lower levels of education, and more varied and more serious needs. The larger 501(c)3 organizations often do receive some of their support from government and are better prepared to deal with the red tape involved.

The other important question that discussions of faith-based social services leave open is the relationship between volunteering to help the needy and engaging in advocacy with and on behalf of the needy. The emphasis on individual responsibility in American religion plays an important role in mobilizing volunteers. But volunteering may also raise awareness of community needs and, when it does, mobilize people to think differently about public policies.

Robert Wuthnow is professor of sociology at Princeton University. He has written and edited many books, including most recently The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism (Univ. of California Press), which he edited with John H. Evans.

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