USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Good for the Soul Good for the Whole: Faith-Based Community Organizing and the Renewal of Congregations

Good for the Soul Good for the Whole: Faith-Based Community Organizing and the Renewal of Congregations

Hope in turbulent times

We live in a time of enormous cultural change. No one knows this better than America’s faith communities. Many congregations today find themselves struggling with decreasing membership and dwindling budgets, confronting a culture of individualism and tending to the casualties of a market economy. Feeling unable to take on difficult public issues, all they believe they can do is address private pain and their own survival.

A recent study by Interfaith Funders and the University of New Mexico reveals a potent antidote to both the worst inequities of the new economic order and the institutional ills of decline and contraction. It introduces us to 45 of the more than 3,500 faith communities across America that have decided to venture beyond their walls through faith-based community organizing (FBCO) to address the larger causes of the pressures they confront every day.

Faith-based community organizing differs dramatically from “faith-based initiatives,” which emphasize compassion and service but avoid any political engagement with the forces and institutions that leave troubling numbers of people without food, without health care, without homes, and without work. Congregations involved in FBCO have discovered the power of the values and visions they hold in common, and are working to transform themselves and their institutions and communities.

What is faith-based community organizing?

Faith communities that undertake a community organizing campaign seek out the leaders in their midst — and find surprising new talent. Through patient, one-to-one conversations, a community learns to elicit the unvoiced hurt and anger of its members. Clergy, leaders, and FBCO organizers identify people whose capacity to lead may never have been encouraged, offer them training, and engage them in identifying the shared concerns of community members.

Most FBCO groups choose to affiliate with one of the regional or national training networks of faith-based community organizing: Pacific Institute for Community Organization, Industrial Areas Foundation, Gamaliel Foundation, Direct Action and Research Training Center, Regional Congregations and Neighborhood Organizations Training Center, InterValley Project, and Organizing Leadership and Training Center.

With the hiring of trained professional organizers, a steadily widening circle of people then develops strategic plans for action and reaches out to build relationships with other religious communities, unions, community organizations, and schools. Those relationships are channeled into powerful networks for the public good.

FBCO gets impressive results: expansion of health care options, creation of affordable housing, renewal of schools, development of jobs for the people who need them the most. But as this study reveals, this work, done well, can also transform the faith communities themselves. The new leaders developed for public action sometimes offer unexpected new energy and commitment; when this happens, congregations can be strengthened and even transformed.

What we studied

Interfaith Funders was already convinced of the potential of FBCO for societal change, but we were unsure about its impact on congregations. Over a two-year period, researchers and IF members led by Dr. Richard L. Wood of the University of New Mexico observed congregations in action and interviewed leaders, clergy, and organizers across America. We interviewed Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Jewish, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, Unity, Muslim, and non-denominational/evangelical congregations. Some were highly multiracial and others were majority Latino, African-American, black Caribbean, or white European.

What we learned

Nearly all congregations, clergy and leaders alike, reported some benefits from the relationship with FBCO. Where these benefits were most substantial, they included:

  • More and deeper relationships both among congregants and with members of other faith traditions.
  • Leadership development: leaders learned new skills like public speaking, conducting one-to-one meetings, holding one another accountable, selecting a “winnable” issue, and running an effective meeting. They also found their faith enlivened through this new connection to social justice.

After leading her fifth rosary for a young member killed in a gang fight, Lupita Mendiola of St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas asked herself “What am I really doing here? If I just keep on praying these rosaries [and nothing more], nothing is going to change. I need to do something.” Despite a lack of formal education, she attended the national ten-day training of the Industrial Areas Foundation. Once afraid to approach even the priest, she now has the confidence to speak with anyone.

  • Increased lay leader involvement in congregational work and public action.

At New Faith Baptist Church — a primarily African-American congregation in Columbus, Ohio—leaders gained the confidence and skills to carry out a one-to-one campaign that led to a re-visioning of the mission and identity of the church. Grounded in their history of community involvement, these and other leaders are creating a larger public role and more accountability for their congregation.

  • A heightened public profile for the congregation within the community

Clergywoman Bernadette Anderson from Sword of the Spirit Christian Church in Camden, New Jersey spoke of her leaders’ increased skill in building relationships with political figures and about the victories they have won (including working with Camden Churches Organized for People to secure $175 million in state funds for economic recovery in Camden).

  • Deeper understanding of the faith tradition’s call for social justice.

“The [FBCO group’s] work is making me see life differently because where before, working in the charismatic movement was a spiritual movement; I saw it more as prayer and renewing lives. But with [the FBCO group] it’s more looking outward…It’s going out from the church and into society. It’s not only the piety to pray, but also to reach out.” —ROSEL LEBRETON, NOTRE DAME D’HAITI CATHOLIC CHURCH, MIAMI

  • In some cases, an increase in congregational membership.

Using the principles and practices of FBCO in order to draw new members, Bishop Roy Dixon and lay leaders like Cookie Hassan and Elder Duret Gray of Faith Chapel Church of God in Christ in San Diego increased the membership of their congregation from six to 1,500 over the past 17 years.

We also learned that FBCO principles and practices can strengthen congregations.

If clergy and leaders creatively link such key FBCO tools as accountability and one-to-one meetings to their own vision and internal culture, congregational development is further enhanced.

Leaders at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Boston, not all of them literate, carry out congregation-wide one-to-one meetings, sometimes done as ice cream socials, and hold house meetings to discuss what they’ve learned. They have hosted accountability sessions with political leaders and participated in actions on affordable housing. “It’s one thing to explain the theory, but for someone to spend an hour and a half with the president of the synod, or the mayor…they just get it much more quickly.”

What It Takes

Faith-based community organizing takes work, and while congregational development may follow, it is not automatic. We found that it requires:

  • ongoing implementation of FBCO principles and practices by leaders;
  • active participation by clergy — providing entrée to their congregations, legitimizing the organizing effort, and infusing a sense of spiritual meaning into the work;
  • experienced, sophisticated organizers who approach congregational development with creativity and a rich understanding of the congregation’s vision; and
  • relationships of trust, collaboration — and challenge — between organizers and clergy.

No Simple Matter

Not all congregations reap such obvious benefits. None comes by them easily; there can be obstacles and resistance. Many clergy are overburdened or distracted; families are under extensive pressures and the demands on their time are overwhelming.
Successful faith-based community organizing requires sustained, patient, hard work and sufficient resources in both time and people. There is a shortage of organizers who can focus equally on external campaigns and on the slow work of deep congregational development. Sometimes an organizer works with so many congregations that it is difficult to focus on each congregation’s development.

Worth the Effort

Congregations in many faith traditions today are struggling to make community worship meaningful and, sometimes, to survive. One response is to focus on “church growth” at almost any cost, with the key to growth found in internally-focused programs and therapeutic ministries. Such an emphasis can make religious leaders feel forced to choose between building strong congregations and living out the call to work for justice

Our study supports a powerful counterclaim: community organizing, when done well by leaders, clergy, and organizers, can be an instrument of transformation. It is democracy in action and democracy at its best. Grounded in traditions that call them to humanity’s highest ideals, people are asked to find their own powerful voices and to act as citizens in the largest sense of the word. This citizenship is not narrowly defined by cards of any color, but by participation in the public arena. Insisting that the institutions that are intended to serve them must do just that, congregations find that their sacred texts live in a new way, that the words of their clergy resonate in action, and that the artificial separation between the life of a citizen and the life of the spirit is healed.

Click here to read a PDF of the full report.

This report was published by Interfaith Funders in 2003. Though the network is no longer in operation, Interfaith Funders transferred several of its reports and articles, including this report, to the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture to preserve and push forward the insights gained through its work.