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Faith-Based Agencies and Social Work

Abstract and Keywords

This entry presents the history of faith-based services, demonstrating that they are a long-standing component of the U.S. service delivery system. Recently, the reduction in financial support of some government social services and growing skepticism about the effectiveness of government services have led to an expansion in interest and sometimes in financial support of faith-based services. At present, faith-based services are delivered in formal agencies with varying ties to government, and also in many congregations.

Keywords: faith-based, faith-related, charitable choice, community-based services, life span services, sectarian, religious-based services, congregations

Definition of Faith-Based Social Services

Faith-based is a term coined to describe a range of organizations with religious authority and leadership, religious culture and practices, or religious sponsorship and resources. In the past, these organizations were referred to as sectarian, church-based, and religious or religious-based (Cnaan, Wineburg, & Boddie, 1999; Garland, 1998; Netting, 1984). Faith-based is now used as a relatively inclusive and neutral term (Vidal, 2001) that, for example, does not include assumptions about whether public support for the organizations implies government funding of religion. In some cases, the term faith-related is used to capture an even larger group of organizations that can be characterized as being at least somewhat religious on at least one dimension (Jeavons, 1998; Smith & Sosin, 2001; Wineburg, 2007). Faith-based or faith-related organizations often are established with strong religious ties and later lose some of those ties.

Congregations have recently attracted attention as key faith-based/faith-related social service providers. Other entities considered to fall under the faith-based category, when defined broadly, include national networks with affiliation with denominations, like Catholic Charities, and free standing religious organizations like Welfare Reform Liaison Project that have independent status but often have been spun off by congregations (Vidal, 2001; Wineburg, 2007). For-profit organizations like Thrivent Financial for Lutherans are gaining prominence in the faith-based landscape.

Historical Overview

From the 16th century to the present time, faith-based services have been an important part of the U.S. service delivery system. Congregations and other religious organizations provided for the social and spiritual needs of their members, local constituency, and the broader community. Such involvement in health and human services by the religious sector dates back to English Poor Laws in general and England's Speenhamland Act of 1795 in particular (De Schweinitz, 1947). For example, in prerevolutionary Virginia, Anglican church officials were commissioned to care for the old, the sick, the deserted, and the illegitimate children of their communities (Coll, 1969). During the colonial era, the Philadelphia Quakers developed the Friends almshouse for poor relief (Comptom, 1980), the Episcopalians established the Boston Episcopal Society (Axinn & Levin, 1992), the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans established a home for children (Reid & Simpson, 1987), and the government used churches to educate and train Native Americans (Nichols, 1988). Congregations such as the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia organized the Baptist Orphanage and the Philadelphia Home for Incurables (Thompson, 1989). Later these church-based ministries would become independent social service organizations with social workers and other professional staff.

At the end of the 19th century, religiously motivated social services found expression in secular forms of social work. Most notably, the charity organization movement in the United States would be adopted by Rev. Samuel H. Gurteen after his visit to observe the work of Rev. Thomas Chalmers in Glasgow and London (Leiby, 1984; Lewis, 1966). In 1877, Gurteen established the Buffalo Charity Organization Society (COS). Following the European model, the COSs were originally designed to distribute poverty relief services to individuals and communities using local churches and their deacons. The Settlement House Movement also evolved as a practical expression of faith and a desire to create a more just and caring society. This movement was inspired by Rev. Samuel Barnett at Toynbee Hall in England (Addams, 1910). Shaped by her Quaker background and charity work with Rev. Barnett, Jane Addams founded Chicago's Hull House with Ellen Gates in 1889. Many religious groups established settlement houses in the United States—the Salvation Army, the Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian church. Motivated by religious convictions, George Edmond Haynes founded the National Urban League in 1910. These movements, though inspired by a religious sense of mission, later followed a secular pattern of service delivery. (For an overview see Cnaan et al., 1999; Loewenberg, 1988; Netting & Ellor, 2004.)

By the early 20th century, socially oriented and religiously affiliated agencies delivered many services related to social work, encompassing employment services and hospital visitation, joint action with secular agencies such as hospitals and probation offices, training for volunteers, church advocacy for social issues and the promotion of voting, social service experiments such as coffee shops as replacements for saloons, and research studies of crime and other social conditions (Johnson, 1930). Services were delivered by denominations, federated church agencies, and regional and national religious agencies. The Protestant elite used these services as institutional resources to exert moral influence over urban masses (Boyer, 1978). Eventually less overtly religious organizations came to dominate, including the Young Men's Christian Association and the Young Women's Christian Association.

Building on the New Deal legacy of government financing of services, the 1962, 1976, and 1974 amendments to the Social Security Act formalized public financing with nongovernmental social service organizations including faith-based ones like Catholic Charities (Lynn, 2002). In many cases, the state and federal government continue to work in partnership with religious organizations to meet the demand for local social service. One reason is that social needs have markedly increased (for example, homelessness and AIDS) at a time when funding for public welfare has significantly decreased (Wineburg, 2000, 2004). For example, over the last 30 years Catholic Charities has received 65% of its budget from public funding—approximately $2.3 billion (Anderson, 2000). As the political tide has changed between the 1980s and 1990s, interest in faith-based organizations has broadened to include attention to congregations, which arguably are the most pervasive and community-based type of faith-based organization.

New Policy Context

Increasing opposition to big government, particularly spending on social programs as well as opposition to abortion sparked a new conservative religious movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Wineburg, 2007; Wuthnow, 2004). Opposition to government spending for social programs gained greater momentum during the Reagan administration (1981–1989), and faith-based organizations became viewed as one option for mending the U.S. safety net. National government administrations, and scholars supporting social change, came to propose ways of including faith-based organizations in service delivery. For example, beginning with the Reagan administration, the failure of the income-maintenance welfare system to solve the problems of poverty over the 20 years after the launching of the War on Poverty (Gilens, 1999), coupled with the economic downturn in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Katz, 2001) led some policy makers and scholars to look for poverty solutions that addressed the individual inadequacies and culture of the poor (Lewis, 1966; Mead, 1986). Faith-based organizations were viewed as effective agents in helping vulnerable groups to address attitudinal and skill deficits by building human capital and assisting with job placement. The term compassionate conservatism was coined in 1982 when President Reagan said that “churches and voluntary groups should accept more responsibility for the needy rather than leaving it to the bureaucracy.” This set the stage for expanding the reach and responsibility of faith-based organizations that would also be endorsed by both Bush administrations.

Transforming Institutions

Under the Clinton administration (1993–2001), Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 dismantling 60 years of entitlement programs. This legislation also boosted efforts to expand privatization and create market competition among service providers (Gibelman & Gelman, 2002). Section 104 of this legislation, also known as the Charitable Choice provision, allowed pervasively sectarian organizations like congregations to compete for government contracts. Senator Ashcroft introduced the Charitable Choice provision with the idea of placing a larger responsibility of caring for the poor on faith-based providers. President Clinton advocated for church involvement with people receiving welfare assistance and focused on the role of churches in influencing institutions (Associated Press, 1996). His position also emphasized extending the type of service choices offered to the poor.

Established by laws during the period of 1996–2000, Charitable Choice was applied to several programs. These programs are Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) programs (both overseen by the Administration for Children and Families at the United States Department of Health and Human Services [HHS]); programs for substance abuse and mental health (overseen by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] at HHS); and the Welfare-to-Work program (overseen by the Department of Labor). Despite such bipartisan support for Charitable Choice legislation, this policy was hotly debated among religious leaders. Conservative religious leaders supported this policy as a means to expand faith-based services to the poor. On the other hand, religious liberals feared the potential negative consequences—church and state entanglements, the erosion of the prophetic voice of the church, and the overestimation of the capacity of churches to provide services. Many of these views were also shared by secular opponents of the Charitable Choice provision. (See John DiIulio's The Godly Republic for a more detailed discussion of the development of the Faith-based Initiative and the Charitable Choice legislation.)

Transforming Individuals

Embracing the views of advisors like Marvin Olasky and Stephen Goldsmith, President George W. Bush (2001–2009) viewed faith as a missing element in effective social service delivery to uplift the poor (Stoesz, 2002). In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Olasky (1992) argued that welfare payments and bureaucratic support for people who are poor are ineffective, and religious transformation could bring about greater responsibility, better discipline, and work ethics among the poor. However, advancement of the faith-based agenda has been stalled in the legislative branch under the Bush administration.

To institutionalize Charitable Choice as a national policy, President George W. Bush exercised his authority to use executive orders, regulations, and discretionary grants to broaden the National Faith-based agenda. The following six executive orders began to provide infrastructure to facilitate the funding for faith-based and community-based organizations: Executive Order 13199 created the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives on January 29, 2001. Executive Order 13198 created five Centers for Faith-Based & Community Initiatives on January 29, 2001. Executive Order 13280 created two Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives on December 12, 2002. Executive Order 13279 requires equal protection for faith-based and community organizations as of December 12, 2002. Executive Order 13342 created three new Centers for Faith-Based & Community Initiatives at the Departments of Commerce and Veterans Affairs and the Small Business Administration on June 1, 2004. Executive Order 13397 created a new Center for Faith-Based & Community Initiatives at the Department of Homeland Security on March 7, 2006. Overall, these executive orders established the means to eliminate regulatory, contracting, and programmatic barriers for the participation of faith-based and community-based organizations, to coordinate efforts to include faith-based organizations, and to design innovative pilot and demonstration programs to increase participation of faith-based and community-based organizations in public-private arrangements (Gibelman & Gelman, 2002; White House, 2001).

In fiscal year 2002, the administration established a discretionary grant program called the Compassion Capital fund (CCF). The first special appropriation of $30 million established the Demonstration Program. This program was designed to increase the effectiveness of faith-based and community organizations to serve those most in need by providing technical assistance though intermediaries as well as distributing small grant awards. In the following year, the Compassion Capital Fund expanded to include a Targeted Capacity-Building Program that awards $50,000 to faith-based and community-based organizations. To date, this fund has expanded the funding of grants to larger faith-based organizations such as Neuva Esperanza and Operation Blessings as well as providing capacity and sub-grants to smaller faith-based and community-based organizations. Under CCF, the Cherokee Nation Compassion Project of Oklahoma received $724,080 in 2004, $965,440 in 2005, and $965,440 in 2006. This fund has provided incentives for community and faith-based organizations to spur new types of partnerships and build local capacity among grassroots organizations (Reynolds, 2006). Since its inception in 2002, $264 million has been given to more than 4,500 organizations including sub-awards from intermediary grantees (Health and Human Services/Govnews, 2007). Other feature programs under the National Faith and Community-based agenda are: Mentoring Children of Prisoners, Access to Recovery, and Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative.

Under the Bush administration, congregations are regarded as one of the central players augmenting social-service delivery. Those in favor of the Bush administration faith-based initiative hold several assumptions:

  1. 1. Located in communities, congregations are more responsive, flexible, and less encumbered by bureaucracy;

  2. 2. Congregations are better positioned to recruit and employ volunteers and therefore provide social services at a lower cost;

  3. 3. Congregation donations that currently support social services will increase in response to demand for services;

  4. 4. Legislative reforms related to charitable giving will provide incentives to increase giving (Gibelman & Gelman, 2002; Wineburg, 2007).

Whether or not the assumptions are valid, the over 400,000 U.S. congregations have a pervasive presence in local communities, particularly those located in urban and rural areas (Cnaan et al., 1999). Of U.S. residents, 57% of Americans find their faith to be important to them (Newport, 2006). Republicans are more likely to attend services “almost every week” (45% compared to 30% for Democrats). When race is considered, blacks who are Democrats attend church “almost every week” (65% as compared to 24% of whites who are Democrats) (Newport, 2005).

Congregations as the New Focus of Faith-Based Service Delivery

Faith-based services are typically organized in a variety of ways including informal services offered upon request to more formal mutual aid and self-help to formal, institutionalized projects and programs sponsored by congregations as well as nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

The mandate of many communities of faith gives priority to feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and caring for the sick, widows, and children. Therefore, it is not surprising that most congregations provide basic needs such as food, clothing, and emergency financial assistance. Findings from surveys suggest that from 57% to 92% of congregations provide some type of social services (Billingsley, 1999; Chaves, 2004; Cnaan et al., 1999; Cnaan, Boddie, McGrew, & Kang, 2006; Hodgkinson, Weitzman, & Kirsch, 1988; Wuthnow, 2004). Most congregations provide short-term episodic aid such as meals programs, clothing closets, and services to the homeless; others also provide services involving youth development, senior services, health, education, advocacy, community development, and economic development (Chaves, 2004). Few congregations reportedly engage in economic development (Billingsley, 1999; Chaves, 2004; Cnaan et al., 1999; Cnaan et al., 2006; Wuthnow, 2004). Congregations may also provide informal services through members and clergy support (Cnaan et al., 2006) or provide space and volunteers to such groups or agencies as Alcoholic Anonymous, Boy Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, or Amache. Religious social support and coping assist those confronting personal and family crisis, illness, disability, chronic pain, serious accidents, disaster, caregiving, loss of loved ones, and substance abuse. Congregation members and clergy often provide the needed affirmations, advice, support, and the specific actions to address problems and concerns. For example, black churches have been found to operate as a therapeutic community that offers mental health and health resources (see Taylor, Chatters, & Levin, 2004). Congregations have also been found to play a significant role in preserving cultural and ethnic identity while assisting immigrants to adapt to U.S. society (Ebaugh & Chafetz, 2000; Kim, Warner, & Kwon, 2001). With demographics shifting to increased numbers of Latinos and more multiethnic environments, Latino, Asian, and other ethnic congregations serve as important resources for children, youth, seniors, and families (Tirrito & Choi, 2004; Boddie & Im, 2007).

Congregations also are regarded as a primary source of charitable giving. Estimates of the total giving to U.S. congregations range from $82.83 to $86.28 billion (Brown, Harris, & Rooney, 2004). Black mega churches like Houston's Windsor Vilage United Methodist Church allocate over $500,000 annually for social services (Boddie, 2005). In Chicago, St. Edmunds Episcopal Church aligned with businesses, activists, and government agencies to form a redevelopment corporation that channeled $40 million into the community. Although congregations like these receive media attention, these examples are not the norm. The average annual congregation budget is relatively low. Many congregations have annual budgets less than $100,000 (Ronsvalle & Ronsvalle, 2003).

Another way to consider the financial contribution of congregations is to measure the value of the public goods produced by congregations—the average financial value of a congregation-based program. One such measure is called replacement value for service programs (Cnaan et al., 1999; Cnaan, Handy, Yancey, & Schneider, 2002; Cnaan et al., 2006). To calculate this value, respondents were asked to report their five flagship programs and the total value of their operating cost including direct and indirect expenses. This value captured the financial support by the congregation, in-kind support, value of utilities, estimated value of congregational space, clergy, staff, and volunteer hours, and external funding and other income. The findings and other from a census of Philadelphia congregations (N = 1,392) estimate the monthly replacement value for social programs at $10,076.61 and overall estimated replacement value for Philadelphia's estimated 2,210 congregations at a quarter of a billion dollars. One fifth of this amount is provided as cash. On average these congregation allocated 22.7% of their annual budget for social services (Cnaan et al., 2006).

Conclusions: Opportunities and Challenges

In this new policy context, social work offers practice knowledge and skills that are important for the faith-based context, particularly congregations. This knowledge and skills are particularly important as researchers begin to assess the distinct service niche and value added of faith-based providers. Recent assessments of faith-based social service providers typically examine their capacity, trustworthiness, effectiveness, and the replacement value of programs (Billingsley, 1999; Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001; Cnaan & Boddie, 2001; Farnsley, 2003; Kennedy & Bielefeld, 2003; Monsma, 2004; Monsma & Mounts, 2002; Owens & Smith, 2005; Reingold, Pirog, & Brady, 2007; Wuthnow, Hackette, & Hsu, 2003). Primarily, researchers have quantified the type and number of services (output) and resources of these services (Billingsley, 1999; Chaves, 2004; Cnaan et al., 2006). Few studies have focused on outcomes of congregation-based services (Wuthnow, 2004). Congregations are found to be effective and trustworthy by those clients when they seek help with emotional and spiritual distress related to financial and health problems. On the other hand, the good intentions of faith-based providers often outweigh the financial resources and administrative expertise (Sinha, 2007). Not all clients are satisfied with the involvement of churches. In some cases, low-income residents have greater interest in partnering with church leaders to engage in social change efforts and less interest in small scale congregation-based services (Boddie & Smith, 2004). In other cases, the brand of religion offered will elicit negative responses from those being served. This was the case for two-thirds of the homeless people who disliked the sermons and prayers that were part of services at a faith-based shelter (Sager & Stephens, 2005). Overall, researchers have concluded that congregations, like formal agencies that are religiously affiliated, are important to the system of private and public sector social services (Chaves, 2004; Smith & Sosin, 2001; Wuthnow, 2004). It is possible that social workers will come to provide more guidance for faith-based providers that seek to develop staff and volunteer training programs, advance programmatic efforts to independent organizations, and evaluate their service outcomes. Social workers can also assist these providers to balance their dual identities as religious entities and service providers in this changing social welfare mix.


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                                                                                                                        Further Reading

                                                                                                                        Abell, A. I. (1943). The urban impact on American protestantism, 1865–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                              Boddie, S. C., & Cnaan, R. A. (2006). Faith-based social services: Measures, assessments, and effectiveness. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Pastoral Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                Boddie, S. C., & Thirupathy, P. (2005). Way to give: A guide to connecting, giving and asset building. Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  Cnaan, R. A., & Boddie, S. C. (2002). Charitable choice and faith-based welfare: A call for social work. Social Work, 47(3), 224–235.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                    DiIulio, J. (2007). The godly republic: The centrist blueprint for America's faith-based future. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                      Sherwood, D. (2003). Churches as contexts for social work practice: Connecting with the mission and identity of congregations. Social Work and Christianity, 30(1), 1–13.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                        Wallace, J., Myers, V. L., & Holey, J. (2004). Holistic faith-based development: Toward a conceptual framework. The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. Albany, NY: Rockefeller Institute of Government.Find this resource: