When we think about relationships in congregational life, we often think about relationships between attenders within a congregation. But what about relationships between congregations as organizations? These relationships can involve friendships between ministers, joint events, collaborations, and other partnerships. And different kinds of relationships can have different consequences.


My research has looked at two kinds of relationships that have been identified in past research.

  • Bridging relationships bring together otherwise disconnected organizations. They tend to provide organizations with wider ranges of information and possibilities, but they can sometimes divide organizations and prevent cooperation between them.
  • Tight-knit relationships involve friends who share mutual friends. They tend to create trusting, supportive, and cooperative environments, but they can limit the ideas and resources that organizations can draw on and discourage innovation through peer pressure.

That is, there’s evidence that both bridging and tight-knit relationships have the potential to help — or hinder — organizations, but it’s not clear which type of relationship is more beneficial or more detrimental and for what.

What the Research Says

Congregations that have more bridging relationships tend to have better community vitality. When they partner with a variety of other organizations that are not otherwise connected – other congregations, nonprofits, etc. – in doing community service, they gain bridging relationships. Those ties then provide access to a wider range of community partners and help them hear about even more opportunities to minister in their local communities.


Congregations that have a mix of bridging and tight-knit relationships tend to have better staff/volunteer sustainability. Here’s why I think a balance of tight-knit and bridging relationships are most helpful for staff/volunteer sustainability. Many congregations are quite small, and it’s common for them to struggle with finding the staff and volunteers they need for ministry. Having some bridging relationships can provide congregations with a wider range of resources and information about new strategies. The tight-knit relationships increase trust and allow members to acknowledge difficulties. Having a mix of bridging and tight-knit relationships gives congregations the best of both worlds as they navigate challenges with sustainability in their staff and volunteers.


So, how do congregations’ networks help or hinder them? It’s important for congregations to build the types of relationships that provide them with the support they need—friendship, information, advice, collaborations, and trust—and different types of relationships can provide different kinds of support.

“Both bridging and tight-knit relationships have the potential to help – or hinder.”

Questions to Consider:

  • What opportunities and challenges is your congregation facing?
  • Think about the other groups your congregation has relationships with. Do you tend to have more bridging or tight-knit relationships?
  • How have these relationships helped or hindered your congregation in navigating these opportunities and challenges?
  • What other resources are perhaps hidden in plain sight?


See a fuller report of this research in the Review of Religious Research: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1007/s13644-022-00496-z