How should congregations aiming to initiate or expand their social service programming go about doing so? We recently published The Arc of Faith-Based Initiatives (2018, Springer) and have both examined congregational social services for about two decades. Our research suggests four critical considerations.

  • What’s your programming focus and will it fill a void? The field of faith-based programming is broad and diverse. The Arc of Faith-Based Initatives examines parenting, transitional homelessness, and addiction recovery programs implemented by various types of faith-based organizations and comparable secular agencies. Congregations provide a remarkably wide array of services, including family support, food assistance, rental and utility bill payment, adopt-a-family initiatives, and others. The most effective congregational service programming typically comes on the heels of an assessment of community needs and existing services. There is no substitute for a careful survey of the local landscape of social services and the community itself, with an eye toward identifying a pronounced unmet need identified at least in part by the people to be served.    


  • Does the proposed program fit with your congregation’s mission and priorities? Our research has indicated that effective social service programs align well with the mission and priorities of the organization that provides them. With due credit to Rick Warren, social service programs should be ”purpose-driven.” One parenting program we identified required over two dozen hours of training prior to a mentoring parent being assigned to a menteed family. This agency prioritized the quality of services over the quantity of clients served using only the most highly committed mentors with its rigorous training. Large faith-based organizations that secured sizable government contracts needed to pay attention to numbers of clients served because that benchmark was one of the ways their services were evaluated. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The key takeaway is that programmatic content (services provided) should align with your congregation’s priorities (core values).
  • Should we partner or fly solo? In our research, we found all make and manner of approaches to service delivery. Some congregations and faith-based organizations prefer to operate as a stand-alone service provider. Others collaborate with another faith-based or secular service provider. A lot depends on the human and other resources you have. Some develop referral networks across organizational lines so they can serve a particular set of clients (e.g., those in recovery from addiction) while referring other types of clients to their partners (e.g., those who need treatment services for their active addiction). The phrase ”jack of all trades, master of none” is a good caution against trying to do too much too quickly. Congregations that recognize their specific service niche and excel at delivering those services are often effective and develop a reputation for specialized success. Collaborative partnerships and referral networks are not always the best path forward, but they may help a congregation stay focused on what it does best. And partners often have a great deal to learn from one another.
  • What are holistic services, anyway? Must they include religion? We gained some interesting insights into holistic services from our research, with surprising variety across congregations and even secular organizations. In our view, holistic services consider all the needs people have, including spiritual needs if those exist. Our perspective affirms that some but not all people want religious content in social service programs. Some congregations feel that their service program must have a religious component. Other congregations believe they should not impose religion on those served, especially if program participants already affiliate with another faith or if their preference is for no religious content. The suggestion here is that a congregation offer what they think is right, but be honest and upfront about doing so. Let people know what to expect so they can make an informed choice.

We conclude by offering two observations from historical research on faith-based initiatives, much of which we have read and some of which we have written. First, while the media attention given to faith-based initiatives reached its apex during the George W. Bush administration, social services provided by religious organizations preceded the founding of our nation. Yes, there were ”faith-based initiatives” even during colonial times, and congregations figured quite prominently in these efforts (see chapter 2 in Charitable Choices). To this day, religious organizations remain viable and important service providers to vulnerable populations.

Second, the role of white privilege in the American history of faith-based benevolence is impossible to deny. Faith-based benevolence has often been provided along racial lines that preserved white privilege. Historically, many white Christian institutions protected and justified racial inequality by supporting slavery and legitimizing violence against non-European peoples. Nevertheless, there have also been faith organizations that have worked toward social justice and equity for all and have organized their social services accordingly. As the U.S. continues to grapple with its legacy of racism, faith-based organizations can be an important force for positive and lasting change.

John P. Bartkowski is Professor of Sociology at University of Texas, San Antonio


Susan E. Grettenberger is Social Work Program Director/Professor, Central Michigan University


Faith-Based Programming: Four Tips for CongregationsFaith-Based Programming: Four Tips for CongregationsFaith-Based Programming: Four Tips for CongregationsThey are authors of The Arc of Faith-Based Initiatives