USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Faithful Action

Types and Tiers of Faith Communities

Similar to the assumptions noted previously, most discussions of the potential role of the faith community to act in various public capacities assume that there is a singular entity made up of religious congregations, judicatory bodies and other FBOs. This assumption also takes as the normative model those faith organizations—whether congregations, judicatories or FBOs—that are able to act successfully in different ways that benefit the public good, despite the fact that there are relatively few of these groups compared to the larger landscape of the faith community. For example, there are approximately 345,000 religious congregations101  in the United States, over 23,000102  in California alone, but the number of congregations that have responded to disasters such as Katrina is quite small in comparison to entire population of religious congregations.

Further, there is tremendous variation in how congregations are organized, with as much as half of U.S. congregations being independent entities, while others are organized under the authority of a judicatory (denomination, association, or some other governing body). These can be as varied as formal bodies at the national level that also has regional authorities, or local or national networks of congregations, and even ministerial alliances and interfaith groups, which are all voluntary organizations. Thus, the faith-based world can be quite complicated to understand and to navigate due to numerous denominational structures and qualities. Each faith community has its own organizational structures and nomenclature. Furthermore, some non-hierarchal organizations lack a single comprehensive authority to interact with government. Based on his interaction with DHS and FEMA officials, Hull (2006) argues that the faith-based world, with all of its varieties and dimensions, is difficult for government personnel to fully understand. Some within DHS and FEMA may have personal knowledge of one aspect of the faith-based world given their own affiliation and practices, but the range of organizations is immense. The differences are not well understood by a faith community’s own members, let alone those on the outside attempting to get a good understanding of how these organizations work.103

This can lead to confusion about how an agency might interact with these groups, and also to a general lack of understanding of what religious groups believe and how they are perceived by the broader public and government officials. Matthew Ball, director of public affairs, North America West, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), says that much of his work is spent helping people realize that there is more to the church than missionary activity. He says,

There is such confusion about who we are and what we really believe, the way in which we can dispel misunderstanding and eliminate fear is to help people know who we are. When I meet with foreign diplomats that are here stationed in California, one of the things I like to do is take with me a written report that shows how much humanitarian aid and assistance has been given to their country over the last five years. It’s oftentimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it itemizes detail work, from the delivering of wheelchairs to the digging of wells in foreign villages to the delivery and air drop shipment of hygiene kits, so many different things…when I take that report, it helps the diplomats understand that I am not there to proselytize and I’m not interested in proselytizing, I’m only there to help them to see the Mormon church as more than just a missionary effort.

The large number of congregations and faith-based organizations creates the challenge of including them all in risk communication efforts and determining which group(s) might be able to contribute in a significant way to disaster preparedness, response and/or recovery, and community resilience. There could be any number of ways to organize thinking about what segments of the faith community might be most capable of participating in the disaster response process. Thus, the authors of this report have developed a four-part typology, comprised of tiers of groups, each tier indicating a different level of capacity and willingness to be a part of the disaster response process. This typology provides a way for public agencies to think about how best to focus their attention when seeking out participants from the faith community in disasters. The result is a template through which public entities can categorize congregations and FBOs in terms of their potential contributions, and manage their relationships with different types of organizations and congregations. This template can also help public entities identify the most fruitful FBOs to work, how to work with them, and how to assist different types of organizations as they show interest and ability to participate in the disaster process. Finally, the template can establish the groundwork for networking groups so that they can complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.104

Four Tiers

The first tier of congregations and FBOs are what we call “have it all” organizations that are Fully Capable of inclusion in the disaster response, mitigation, and recovery process. These organizations have physical assets (including a kitchen, parking lot, and indoor space) and they also have active congregations and a pool of volunteers, organizational capacity, sufficient staff, and niche leadership capable of managing various types of programming. They already have a range of social programming, community programs in place, an ethic of civic engagement, and a supportive board and general operations capability. These organizations, while valuable in many ways, will still view disaster related activities as secondary or tertiary activities until a disaster occurs. Thus, relief groups should work to have structures in place at these congregations, which can then be activated when needed.

The second tier consists of congregations that want to “do something” in emergencies and disasters. We classify these as Interested with Potential. These congregations and organizations have an interest and passion to be involved, but may have limitations in space, resources, capability, and programming.

Congregations in the third tier tend to be Internally Focused. Their primary interest is “doing our own thing for own people.” These congregations and FBOs may have capacity, space, and resources, but they lack an active ethic of civic engagement. They seldom move beyond caring for their own congregation or a specific small community.

The fourth tier includes congregations that are either Unprepared (limited capability and little initial interest but potentially helpful congregations) or Uninterested in any sort of disaster preparation or response. Unprepared congregations may be storefronts, temporary, or small groups, but they have some value to disaster relief. These small congregations may serve as a place to access harder to reach communities and serve as a place to distribute important material and information. Uninterested congregations would be difficult, if not impossible, to mobilize in effective ways,
but they can still be utilized to effect some level of individual preparedness among their members.

Using Imperial County as an example, the authors divided congregations into tiers. The following chart provides an overview of the county.

Imperial County

Total Population    174,528
Population Density    2499
Number of Congregations    123
Number of Adherents    67,372
Religious Adherents as Percent of Total Population    38.6
Unemployment Rate    13.9
Percent Male    51.9
Percent Female    48.1
Median Household Income    $40,976
Percent Population Below Poverty    21.5
Percent Employed    53.4
Percent of Homeowners    58.1
Percent White     70.7
Percent Black or African American    12.5
Percent American Indian
and Alaska Native     3.7
Percent Asian    8.5
Percent Native Hawaiian
and Other Pacific Islander    2.8
Percent Other Races    9.5
Percent Hispanic or Latino    12.5

The map on page 28 demonstrates what this tier system would look like, using the congregations in Imperial County as an example. Fully Capable Congregations are identified by red dots.

Interested With Potential Congregations are identified with yellow dots. We placed congregations in this category if we found information indicating disaster related interest or programming but they do not have a website or other public information about ministries and facilities.

Internally Focused Congregations are identified with green dots, and were placed in this category if they have a website or if we were able to find information about them publically, such as the name of the pastor or a listing of ministries and programs, but with no indication of interest or involvement in any emergency or disaster efforts.

Unprepared Congregations and Uninterested Congregations are identified by blue dots. These two categories are difficult to disaggregate and include congregations do not have a website or if we found no information about them publicly, other than a listing on the internet or in the telephone book.

In each of these tiers, it is important to note that not only are there congregations of varying sizes and religious traditions, but also that are representative of different social classes, racial/ethnic makeup, relative isolation of a group or community, and many other considerations. Given the range of theological, political, social and asset based differences between and among congregations, how should outreach to these congregations be organized? Should government agencies focus resources on the most equipped congregations or should they attempt to reach as many as possible? Focusing on each and every congregation, even focusing on only one or two of the tiers identified above, is the wrong approach. Rather, the best way to access and leverage the potential contribution of the faith community to the disaster response process is through representative or intermediary organizations that stand between congregations and public agencies, and serve to organize and manage the multitude of congregations and their pertinent information. In this regard, Peter Gudaitis argues that,

I don’t think it’s important to get everybody with deployable assets at the table, but I think it’s important to get everybody at the table with a sense that they all have an equal voice within an effective partnership…. New York Disaster Interfaith Services is not a coalition of congregations. It’s a coalition of judicatory bodies. So the congregations are represented by their judicatory bodies… ministerial associations and federations.

The point here is not to duplicate NYDIS for California, especially since denominational relationships to congregations are quite different in the Northeast compared to the Pacific region. Rather, it is to emphasize the value and importance of inclusive, competent and functional coordinative organizations whose sole purpose is to work with all faith traditions and their partners in developing their disaster mitigation, preparation, response and recovery roles. These types of agencies would sidestep issues of trust between public agencies and the faith community, and also reduce the number of entities that public agencies, such as Cal EMA, must interface with in a disaster or emergency.

Thus, agencies must value each tier and type of congregation differently and approach and partner with them in specific ways based on an understanding of their strengths and limitations. Yet the best organizational strategy for both the faith community and public agencies is not to have the 23,000 California congregations interfacing directly with government agencies. Rather, congregations should be classified first in terms of the four tiers described above, and then brought into existing intermediary faith-based or community organizations oriented toward sustainable disaster work in all phases of the disaster lifecycle—whether the Citizen Corps Council, local VOADs, national VOAD, or another group. These intermediaries can manage the information on resources, abilities and interest, and then serve as the points of contact for public agencies during a disaster. It is also important, when using a community-based or whole community approach, to assess the field in order to recognize the entities that are already working. Once players are identified, groups can be networked to avoid unnecessary duplication.

Finally, given the wide range of congregations and FBOs, approaches to outreach should vary based on the tier in which particular groups can be categorized, and the geographic (and political) landscape of the territory, whether city, county, or state. Peter Gudaitis offers the following recommendation:

One of the things that we advocate through NDIN is that every community in the U.S., at least every state, and preferably every locality, either a county or a city, should have some sort of a “disaster interfaith” group. These coordinative groups could be an interfaith disaster council like San Diego, or a fully functional nonprofit disaster human service agency like New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS). Or it could be a group of volunteer long-term recovery committees like Florida has, called—Florida Interfaith Networking in a Disaster, which supports and trainings the efforts of every county-based Long-term Recovery Committee to have a faith-based caucus. But every community should have some FBO coalition that congregations connect with.

Brandy Welch, partner services manager for the American Red Cross in Los Angeles, says that the Red Cross recognizes the importance of understanding and working with faith groups, and has recently hired a faith-based coordinator for Los Angeles County, whose sole responsibility is to take over outreach activities to faith communities. NDIN’s Peter Gudaitis adds,

Most FBOs involved in National VOAD are trying, and I think in a lot of ways they offer some interesting tools. But at the end of the day, the disconnect is that National VOAD agencies are temporary partners establishing relief and recovery projects as long as their resources for any particular event last. They’re not long-term providers, and they don’t do long-term recovery—that get the process started. Local congregations and FBO/CBO do long-term recovery. So resiliency—that is, mitigation, education, and preparedness training—really needs to come from the ground up, not from the top down, because mitigation, education, and preparedness training at its root is about local resiliency, partnerships and building sustainable local recovery capacity.



Brie Loskota is the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.

Hebah Farrag was the assistant director of research of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture through 2023.

Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.