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date: 29 November 2022

Congregational Social Workfree

Congregational Social Workfree

  • Gaynor YanceyGaynor YanceyDr. Gaynor I. Yancey is Professor of Social Work at Baylor University’s School of Social Work.
  •  and Diana R. GarlandDiana R. GarlandDr. Diana R. Garland is Dean and Professor of Social Work at Baylor University’s School of Social Work.


The social work profession has deep roots in religious practices and organizations. Congregations have served as viable contexts for social work practice from the very beginnings of the profession. In this entry, we examine congregational social work as a field of practice through discussion of definitions, historical development, characteristics of congregations, academic preparation of social workers for this field of practice, review of the literature and research, and ways of strengthening the future of social work in this field of practice.


  • Human Behavior
  • Religion and Spirituality

The church is a unique and distinctive context for the practice of social work (Garland, 1992; Garland & Conrad, 1990). Johnson (1941) refers to the church as the “mother of social work” (p. 404). For centuries, Christian and Jewish congregations have reached out with “quiet care” for persons who are sick, economically poor, imprisoned, hungry, homeless, orphaned, elderly, and widowed (Harris, 1995). They care for their own members as well as for those who live in the geographic neighborhood (neighbors), including those who may be considered strangers to the congregation.


A lack of consistent, universal terminology can result in misunderstanding in this field of social work practice. The terms organized religion, church, faith community, and congregations, for example, are often used interchangeably in the church and in congregational social work literature. The following key words are often used, with some variation of meaning, by authors who are researchers in this field of practice. The explanations and discussions below provide the definitions and clarifications of the terms that are used throughout this entry.


Religion is defined as “a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggle with the ultimate problems of human life” (Loewenberg, 1988, p. 4). Moberg (1984) defines church as “organized religion,” which includes all organizations seeking to develop, renew, and guide persons’ religious lives (p. 1).

The term church social work is professional social work practice in organizations, including congregations, whose mission is to put into action the teachings of Jesus. Garland (1995) explains that church social work is a practice specialization—a context for practice—and not a value and belief system of the professional.


A congregation is a community of people who come together voluntarily for worship and other religious activities at a particular location and who share identity with one another (see Ammerman, 1997, 2005; Chaves, 2004; Chaves, Konieczny, Beyerlein, & Barman, 1999; Garland, 1997). Wind (1990) adds that they engage in “an important type of human behavior which takes place across denominational lines, in synagogues, parishes, and churches as well as other congregations” (p. xvii).

Congregational social work is professional social work practice that takes place in the setting of a congregation. Garland and Yancey (2012) use the term congregational social work in order to be more inclusive of non-Christian religious congregations as well as to distinguish practice in this setting from religiously affiliated social service organizations; the term is congruent with the growing congregational-studies literature in sociology and social work (for example, Ammerman, 1997, 2001, 2005; Chaves, 2004; Chaves & Anderson, 2008; Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001; Chaves & Wineburg, 2009; Cnaan, 1997; Cnaan, Boddie, Handy, Yancey, & Schneider, 2002; Cnaan, Boddie, & Yancey, 2003; Cnaan, Wineburg & Boddie, 1999; Garland, 1998, 2008, 2012; Garland, Myers, & Wolfer, 2005, 2008a, 2008b; Garland & Yancey, 2012; Garland & Yancey, forthcoming; Garland & Yankeelov, 1998; Northern, 2009; Wineburg, 2001). A congregational social worker provides professional services and leadership, part time or full time, in or through a congregation, whether the employer is the congregation itself, a social service agency, or a denominational agency working in collaboration with congregations (Garland & Yancey, 2012).

Congregant or Member

The term congregants refers to the people who attend the congregation, other than those who are congregational staff leaders, whether paid or volunteer. Depending on the religious tradition, a congregant may become a “member” through various defined processes that in different traditions may include religious-training classes, baptism, confirmation, or statement of a religious-conversion experience. “Members of congregations are defined by social identification as those people who regard themselves as participants in a congregation and are regarded by others as such” (Harris, 1995, p. 262).

Ministry or Service

Christian social ministry (Wind & Lewis, 1994), community ministry (Hessel, 1982), and parish ministry (Bailey, 1986; Ferm, 1962; Garland, 1987; Joseph & Conrad, 1980; Taggart, 1962) are terms variously used for congregation-based social services. Ministry is a personal, all-encompassing calling to a lifestyle; it is not a profession that can be limited to workdays and from which one can retire (Garland, 1988). Religious service may be another term that is used alternately when referring to ministry. The vertical relationship of love for God is expressed through the horizontal relationship with others. Congregations provide important channels for engaging in ministerial activities. The terms ministry, community ministry, and social ministry refer to the social services of congregations. Religious beliefs are the motivation for engaging in these acts of addressing the needs of others.

Community ministry includes the programs and services a congregation engages in alone or in partnership with other congregations and agencies to care for individuals and families; services include addressing the needs of persons in need of educational services, housing, health care, and employment services (Dudley, 1991). The terms community ministry and social ministry are used interchangeably.

Although congregations use the terms ministry and service interchangeably, service or services is used in secular contexts as well, referring to the products, programs, or tasks identified in a contractual relationship with entities such as government and other non- or for-profit social agencies.

Parish ministry may be another term used to describe service or ministry. A parish is a designated geographic area to which a denomination, usually Catholic or Anglican (Episcopal), assigns a congregation and its staff. Some writers (Bailey, 1986; Ferm, 1962; Garland, 1987; Joseph & Conrad, 1980; Taggart, 1962) have used the term parish social work rather than congregational social work.

Religiously Affiliated Organizations

Religiously affiliated organizations (RAOs) have one or more of the following characteristics: (a) the mission and values of the organization derive from religious beliefs and practices, (b) the organization identifies with one or more religious congregations or other religious organizations, (c) the policies reflect the organization’s religious mission, and (d) the goal of service is that service recipients embrace religious beliefs and values (Garland, 2008). The term faith-based organization includes both religiously affiliated organizations and congregations. Although many, if not all, organizations have roles and purposes for their work, the term faith-based may imply that the organization practices specific beliefs, tenets, or truths (Jeavons, 2004).

Congregations collaborate with other congregations and social agencies, including but not limited to religiously affiliated organizations. The first national study of congregations to determine their activities and relationships with other congregations and religiously affiliated agencies was conducted by Salamon and Teitelbaum (1984). A more recent study of national study of congregations in the US found that 84% of congregations collaborate with another organization in at least one of the programs they offer, and that 72% of congregations’ social service programs involve collaboration (Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001, p. 674).

Early Religious Concepts of Social Welfare

The desire to help others is not instinctive but learned (Wuthnow, 1995). By valuing care for others, practicing justice for persons who are poor or in need, and establishing a personal model of service as the fulfillment of one’s faith, almost all religions have obligated their followers to engage in acts of service, sometimes only to members of their sect and sometimes to anyone in need (Macarov, 1978, p. 76).

Social Welfare

Ancient Egyptian, Jewish, and Christian perspectives and practices provide the foundations of social welfare thought in the church about who should receive care and how care should be given. This entry will address these three perspectives. The helping tradition starts with ancient Egyptian civilization, which is the earliest society to leave a written record that “illustrates the early development of religious injunctions regarding social welfare” (Popple & Leighninger, 2008, p. 179). Social work has its roots in Judeo-Christian perspectives. The foundation of congregational social work rests in these ideologies. A brief historical overview will be given of each of these perspectives as the context of congregational social work practices.

Early Egyptian roots

Egyptian civilization is the oldest society to have left a substantial written record. Causing no harm to those in need characterized this society. It showed its care for its citizenry by practicing any or all of seven acts of mercy: relief of hunger, thirst, and nakedness; relief for prisoners; help for the stranger; care of the sick; and care of the dead. The Book of the Dead provided documentation of those acts of mercy; it was buried with people as proof in the judgment after death that they had helped those who were poor and needy (Vonhoff, 1960, pp. 1–6). Economic need and the need for assurance of life after death shaped Egyptian social welfare practices (Timms, 1973, pp. 17–18; Weber, 1952). The Book of the Dead contained what is known as the early version of what is now called the Golden Rule, “Do to the doer in order to cause him to do [for thee]” (Morris, 1986, p. 66). The Book of the Dead also contained negative confessions, such as “I have not taken bread from those who are hungry.”

Jewish roots

In Egyptian life, belief in life after death motivated charitable behavior. Jewish thought, however, had no concept of an afterlife. Instead, Jewish understanding of the Day of Atonement, when God determines and seals a person’s fate for the coming year, instead served to encourage Jewish society toward charitable behavior (Morris, 1986; Popple & Leighninger, 2008).

Judaic charity was based on society’s relationship with God and a God-ordered responsibility for self and others (Weber, 1952). Need was the only requirement for aid; help was a duty for those who could give aid and a human right of those in need. “In this tradition, helping others is based on two concepts: tzedakah, a mixture of charity and justice, and chesed, loving kindness. Honor to the poor and needy was honor to God and oppression, conversely, was blasphemy” (Dolgoff & Feldstein, 1984, p. 32).

At the heart of Jewish theology, God, whose primary concern was for mercy, justice, and love (Jeremiah 5:25–20; Ezekiel 18; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21–24; Micah 6:6–8, New Revised Standard Version) is seen as absolutely ethical. The Hebrew philosopher Maimonides codified more than a thousand years of Hebraic tradition into what are known as the “Eight Degrees of Charity,” which range from giving grudgingly to preventing poverty (Morris, 1986; Popple & Leighninger, 2008). An examination of the Hebrew Bible reveals that there are 105 references to justice, 32 to compassion, and 21 to kindness, and many of these specifically refer to actions toward those in need (Keith-Lucas, 1989).

Christian roots

It was into this world of thought concerning social responsibility that the early Christian church entered. Christians added an emphasis on love to the Jewish system of justice. The Apostle Paul admonished the Christians at Corinth to practice faith, hope, and love (charity), with charity being the greatest of the three (1 Corinthians 13). Christianity not so much replaced the old symbols with new ones as it changed the relations between these symbols (Hamel, 1990). Through stories such as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), Jesus taught his followers to value and care for the needs of others, regardless of their worthiness or social status (Handel, 1982; Keith-Lucas, 1989).

The Early Christian Church

Members of the early Christian church expressed their care in ways consistent with Jesus’s example and teachings. Members sold their property and gave to those who were in need (Acts 2:44–45). Paul admonished those with resources to help those with needs without being judgmental (Romans 15:1–2; Galatians 6:1); by doing this, they were fulfilling the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

This new Christian church had a twofold attitude toward charity. First, it had a general, philanthropic, and exemplary disposition, which was the spontaneous outcome of rejoicing in faith. Second, it had a specific servant and missionary intention (Van Peski, 1969). Since its earliest days, the church has engaged itself in at least 12 areas of social welfare provision: care of the widows, orphans, sick, poor, disabled, prisoners, captives, slaves, and victims of calamity; burial of those who died in poverty; provision of employment services, and meals for the hungry (Brackney & Watkins, 1983).

In the middle of the second century, Christian charity moved from being an informal, albeit important, function of the church to being centrally organized. Each church member was expected to give a regular donation to the poor box. In addition, contributions of food and wine were collected at the Eucharist, and a chosen officer, often a bishop, distributed the excess to the poor. Although this distribution was originally limited to members of the congregation, it was soon extended to those who were poor, regardless of religion (Handel, 1982, p. 48).

Christianity became legal in CE 313, becoming the state religion of Rome in CE 361. “When the Empire became Christian, the churches stood in a stronger position to provide for the unemployed; the monasteries gave employment to many; work and prayer were seen as the twin pillars upon which communal monasticism rested” (Hinson, 1988, p. 238).

The early church’s doctrine about helping the poor developed two schools of thought. St. John Chrysostom (347–407) wanted no restrictions for helping the poor. In contrast, St. Ambrose (334–397) taught that it was important to know whether people were really needy. Ultimately, St. Ambrose created the first administrative system for distribution of relief (Loch, 1910). These different responses remain important today; they serve as two ideological perspectives in how various churches respond to human need.

Other Institutions

Early congregations were the centers of care in their communities. They functioned as multipurpose agencies that provided social services. Their monasteries and abbeys evolved into the medieval hospitals; they cared for travelers, widows, orphans, the aged, and the destitute (Day, 2009; Fichtenau, 1991; Trattner, 1981). It was taken for granted that the church would care for the poor (Greenslade, 1948, p. 22).

Women increasingly served the poor under church auspices, and some convent orders pioneered in nursing elderly and indigent patients (Gies & Gies, 1978, p. 65). Semi-conventional orders, such as the 12th-century Beguines, took temporary vows and cared for the poor, ill, aged, and prisoners in both cities and rural areas (Day, 2009, p. 98). By the 14th century, social action had become the norm (Hinson, 1988, p. 240). Issues of poverty, social welfare, and family life all continued to be the concerns of churches during the Reformation and to the present. Leonard says “Changing politics, economics, and social theories, however, led the church to reevaluate its understanding of its social responsibilities in the world” (1988, p. 243).

Major societal abuses toward those who were poor characterized the 17th century. In response to those abuses, to two English groups—the Puritans and the Quakers—had great influence on the thoughts and practices of early American society. The Puritans condemned “landlords who charged excessive rents, merchants who overcharged customers, and wealthy persons who ignored the needs of the poor” (Leonard, 1988, p. 243). The Quakers believed that every person was a dwelling place for the divine and no one was considered to be second class. They supported pacifism, prison reform, care for the poor, and opposition to slavery (Leonard, 1988).

Voluntary Societies

During the 18th and 19th centuries, denominations, congregations and individual Christians formed voluntary societies and agencies that addressed the needs of those in poverty, including poverty, hunger, mental illness, disability, deplorable prison conditions, city slums, child labor, and unsafe practices in industries. For example, in 1819, Joseph Tuckerman, a Unitarian clergyman, started such an agency in Boston that he directed until his retirement in 1833. Tuckerman focused on housing issues, fair wages, education, the prevention of delinquency, and poor relief. He sought contributions from wealthy supporters to fund his work (Bremner, 1956). Many of these societies cooperated and coordinated their services (Magnuson, 1977).

The “social gospel” movement brought a new perspective on poverty. The term was first used in 1866 by Charles O. Brown, who was a Congregationalist minister (Marty, 1986). Walter Rauschenbusch, a 19th-century German Baptist evangelical pastor in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” became an early leader of this movement. The social gospel movement motivated congregations to advocate for social reforms made necessary by the industrial age.

Professional Social Work

State institutions represented a progressive experiment in a scientific, state-supported response to the needs of dependent groups (Popple & Leighninger, 2008, p. 63). These institutions were the products not of any religious basis but, rather, of the emerging social sciences. Early social reformers, such as Dorothea Dix, who led the way in bringing out reforms for the mentally ill, for example, helped to highlight the importance of regulations, staff development, and the creation of professional conferences where people could share about their experiences (Popple & Leighninger, p. 63). The National Conference on Charities and Corrections was one of the initial professional meetings of these early workers. By the late 1800s, 18 state governments had established boards and regulatory groups to monitor and coordinate the work of so many state charitable institutions (Katz, 1986; Leiby, 1978; Rothman, 1971). Leiby (1978, p. 344) indicates that “Their growing professional identity was one contribution to the development of social work.”

Ultimately, disillusionment occurred with the state charitable institutions and their attempts at reform (Popple & Leighninger, 2008). Coinciding with the decline of the state charitable institutions, The Charity Organization Society (COS) and the settlement house movement emerged as responses of religious groups to the growing social problems of the industrial age. Considered the beginnings of professional social work, both adopted scientific methods and practices for addressing human needs.

Although begun by ministers and staffed by clergy, the COS movement has always viewed itself as secular and put its faith in science and professionalism, rather than in religion, as the solution to social problems (Popple & Leighninger, 2008, pp.183–184). The Neighborhood Guild and Hull House, like many settlements in the United States, were secular from the beginning, with a focus on social change rather than on spiritual goals. Other settlements, such as Chicago Commons, had religious roots (Popple & Leighninger, 2008, p.184). Some Christians chose to become social workers as an expression of their faith and their calling. For women who were denied other roles, such as clergy, social work was a religious vocational option. Jane Addams, for example, considered becoming a missionary but became a social worker in the settlement house movement (Garland, 1995).

The relationship between the social work profession and religious institutions became characterized by mutual skepticism. American Jewish social services operate as separate entities from the synagogue, whereas it is not unusual for social work helping practices to be strongly connected to congregations in the Christian religious tradition. “The concern of secular social workers goes deeper than a fear that social workers with conservative religious orientations will use their profession to evangelize. The major concern is that conservative religion goes hand in hand with conservative politics and will tend to blunt, or even thwart, the social change mission of social work” (Popple & Leighninger, 2008, p. 198).

Cnaan et al. (1999) used five methods to evaluate how social work was describing its relationship with religious organizations: annual meeting abstracts, social sciences and social work abstracts, social work education textbooks, course outlines from schools of social work, and the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) yearbooks and encyclopedias. These researchers found “little or no mention of religious-based social services. In general, social work education and research disassociate themselves from religion and its contribution to the profession from as early as the days of the Charity Organization Societies (COS) in the late nineteenth century to the Social Security Act of 1935” (p. 47). These authors are concerned that this lack of attention will have “a bearing on effective service delivery in the long term . . . and that social work must pay more attention to its own roots, which are firmly grounded in religious traditions” (p. 68).

Review of the Literature

The field of congregational social work has generated a relatively small literature of research and theory. One of the earliest publications, Johnson’s The Social Work of the Churches: A Handbook of Information (1930) describes the spheres and methods of congregational social services under the auspices of the Federated Council of the Churches of Christ in America. The council included providing social services, cooperating with community social service agencies, bringing the attention of religious groups to issues of social welfare and social justice, and conducting research to define the most effective strategies of service. This list of services in church social work in 1930 parallels closely congregational social work as it is being done currently.

Taggart was one of the first to use the term “parish social work” (see also Ferm, 1962; Joseph, 1975; Joseph & Conrad, 1980). A parish assistant in a Unitarian congregation, Taggart used a generalist approach and noted that social work in a church setting differs from other social work settings, in that: (a) social work relationships are more personal, because the social worker and client are a part of the same congregation; (b) relationships are open-ended rather than time-limited, as in an agency setting; and (c) the social worker practices the total use of self rather than only using the professional self, as in a social-agency setting (Taggart, 1962, p. 76). Although Taggart espoused a generalist model for congregational social work, Joseph (1975) suggested the ecological model would work well in parish social work. Herein is the uniqueness, and ambiguity, of congregational social work: many models of practice work well within this practice context. It lends itself to a variety of program practice models and roles for social workers.

The Carver School of Church Social Work of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary became, in 1987, the first (and only) seminary to receive accreditation by the Council of Social Work Education of the Master of Social Work degree. The educational preparation for this degree focused on church social work. The faculty had been developing the literature for this field of practice. In 1986, Patricia L. Bailey edited Models for Ministry, which describes models of ministry that social work interns were using in congregational internships. Garland (1987) followed, the year after Bailey’s work, with the first research study to focus on social workers in congregations.

Scholarship for congregational social work has expanded since the 1990s. Its development can be traced through some of these publications: Abbott, Garland, Huffman-Nevins, & Stewart (1990), Chaves (2004, 2005), Chaves & Anderson (2008), Chaves & Wineburg (2009), Clerkin & Gronbjerg (2003), Cnaan et al. (2002, 2003), Garland (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2008), Garland, Sherr, Dennison, & Singletary (2008), Garland & Singletary (2008), Garland & Yancey (2012), Garland & Yancey, forthcoming, Northern (2009), and Rogers, Yancey, Garland, Netting, & O’Connor (2003).

Despite this array of literature, however, only three research projects have attempted to describe the role of social work in congregations. Garland’s 1987 study (Garland, 1987, 1988), based on interviews with 21 congregational social workers, was replicated in 2009 by Northern, this time with 30 social workers. In 2012, Garland and Yancey published the first stage of a larger study of social workers who work on the staffs of congregations or in agencies that work with congregations (Garland & Yancey, forthcoming).

The Encyclopedia of Social Work has had two entries on congregations that define and describe this field of practice. An entry on church social work (Garland, 1995) is in the 19th edition. An entry on congregational social services (Garland, 2008) is in the 20th edition.

Professional Conferences

The annual meetings of the profession provide opportunities for academics and practitioners to share their most current research studies and practice models on church social work generally and congregational social work specifically.


The North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NACSW) was formed in 1954, at a time when social work education and the social work profession had become predominantly secular. It has been, and continues to be, an outlet for those Christians in social work—professional practitioners and academics—to present their research and practice models. This organization also has a professional journal, Social Work & Christianity, which has published articles on social work in congregational contexts, as well as books and monographs.


The Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) gives oversight to the professional educational policy and accreditation standards (EPAS) of social work practice being taught in colleges and universities. Its annual program meeting is a good place for professional presentations on congregational social work, including students’ field placements in congregational settings. CSWE also addresses religion and spirituality in social work practice through a Religion and Spirituality Clearinghouse, under which there is a committee that encourages increased literature and presentations in this field of practice.


The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the professional organization with both national and state chapters. The national annual meeting and the respective state chapters’ annual meeting have become opportunities to make professional presentations on various aspects of congregational social work research and practice.

Congregations as Social Service Providers

Congregations are integral parts of communities. They are located in every town, city, or region in the US. Community residents often choose to go to congregations for social services instead of to a professional agency (Netting, O’Connor, Thomas, & Yancey, 2005; Netting, O’Connor, & Yancey, 2006; Yancey & Atkinson, 2004). Congregations are integrally involved in social service provision, with 15% of congregations having a staff person who devotes at least 25% of his or her time to social service projects (Chaves, Anderson, & Byassee 2008, p. 11). Almost 9 of every 10 congregations, regardless of size and ethnic composition, provide at least one social service program (Cnaan, Sinha, & McGrew, 2004, p. 53). Congregational social work is a small, but growing, area of social work practice. The discussion below will address the: (a) characteristics of congregations, (b) types of congregations that are most likely to offer social services, and (c) examples of the services and programs that are offered by congregations.

Culture of Congregations

Each congregation, like each family, has its own distinct culture. Congregations are first, above everything else, religious in nature. Their guidance comes from their understanding of God as a divine being in their lives corporately and individually. “In the name of religion, a congregation may start a social service and the focus of a program will change when the spirit moves it” (Cnaan et al., 2004, p. 59). The practices of praying and discerning what God wants the church to do in its life together is something that is not only a core value, but that are practiced together in congregations.

Second, many congregations work informally, without formalized business structures. The organizational aspects vary according to size and style of leadership and the expectation for structure from the congregants themselves and from any denominational bodies to which a congregation may belong. Some congregations may have elders, while others may have deacons. Some may have women in leadership roles and others will not, either by policy or by practice. Many congregations have never conducted an evaluation of the pastor. In contrast with professional agencies, congregations may appear to have little formal structure or organization. Policies may be unwritten, simply “the way we do things.” The informality that may exist in many congregations may become an organizational structure in itself. Still other congregations may have hierarchical structures and formalized business practices.

Functions of Congregations

Any social worker providing leadership or service in a congregational setting needs to be aware of four functions that give purpose to the life and practices of congregations. These functions include: (a) worship, the participating together in religious rituals that express devotion to God; (b) education in the beliefs, values, and behaviors of the religious faith; (c) community, the giving and receiving of emotional and tangible support; and (d), and mission, or serving the needs of persons locally and globally (Garland & Yancey, forthcoming).

Characteristics of Congregations

Congregations have two primary characteristics: they are voluntary, and they are communities (Ammerman, 2002; Garland, 2008). These characteristics make them different from social agencies.

Voluntary organizations

Adult members join congregations voluntarily and can choose how much or if to participate in congregational activities. Leaders of a congregation’s services and programs are often volunteers, not staff members. Because of the voluntary nature of congregations, congregants may withdraw from participation because of hurt feelings, boredom, distraction, or if they disagree with the direction or practices of the congregation. They may withhold financial contributions to the congregation, negatively impacting the overall work of the congregation, or expand their contributions if they are committed to the work it is doing.

Working with congregational volunteers differs significantly from work with paid employees in an agency setting. While many social agencies recruit volunteers for their services and programs from congregations, congregations usually utilize their own congregants as the volunteers for their services and programs (see Cnaan, Boddie, Handy, et al., 2002; Garland et al., 2005, 2008b, 2009; Wineburg, 2001).


“A community is the set of personal contacts through which persons and families receive and give emotional and interpersonal support and nurturing, material aid and services, information, and new social contacts” (Garland & Yancey, 2012, p. 314). In congregations, details of this definition are developed through cultural actions and teachings that are focused on being “the family of God” and on Christian hospitality, or what might be known today as being a good neighbor. Christian values shape the actions of these communities, in which human spirituality is celebrated, nurtured, and developed.

The language of these communities has different connotations from the language of social service agencies. The word forgiveness, for example, may be explained in religious terms. A social worker in a congregational setting needs to understand the beliefs and values of the congregation. Not just an employee, the social worker is expected to be a member and leader in the congregation. “Unlike formal service organizations, in congregation programs, time spent visiting, chatting, and relating is valued and accepted as strengthening the membership or the quality of the service” (Cnaan et al., 2004, p. 61).

Congregations Engaged in Social Services

Several factors indicate the extent to which congregations are engaged in social services. First, congregations with more resources do more social services; the largest 1% of congregations spend 20% of all the money congregations spend on social services, and the largest 10% spend more than half of congregational spending on social services (Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001, p. 673).

Second, the social class of both the neighborhood and the congregation influences social service activity. Congregations in poor neighborhoods do more social services than congregations in nonpoor neighborhoods, and congregations with more college-educated people do more social services (Chaves & Tsitsos, p. 673).

Third, religious tradition matters; congregations associated with mainline Protestant denominations do more social services than conservative Protestant congregations. Catholic congregations are neither more nor less active than conservative Protestant congregations (Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001, p. 674).

Finally, there is no significant difference based on the racial composition of congregations, but African American congregations are more likely to engage in certain types of activities, such as education, mentoring, substance abuse counseling, job training, and employment assistance than White congregations (Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001, p. 674).

Services or Programs

Current studies indicate that congregations conduct a vast array of services and programs. In the second wave of the National Congregations Survey, Chaves et al. (2008) found that congregations most commonly serve emergency needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Of congregations that report social service programs, about half reported food programs (feeding the hungry, working in soup kitchens, etc.); one quarter reported home building, repair, or maintenance programs; 20% reported clothing programs; and 15% reported serving the homeless (p. 12). For other research documenting the diversity of congregations’ social services, see Ammerman (2001), Chaves (2004, 2011a, 2011b), Chaves & Wineburg (2009), Cnaan et al. (2004), DiPietro & Behr (2002), Garland et al. (2008), Garland & Singletary (2008), Rogers et al. (2003), Sider, Olson, & Unruh (2002), and Silverman (2000).

Congregations are likely to offer social service activities to their own members and to those in their immediate neighborhoods (Chaves & Tsitsos, 2001; Cnaan et al., 2004). Besides the references listed above, Garland (1995) recounts an extensive list of the types of social service programs that congregations provide to provide for the needs of others.

Wineburg suggests that all of the social service activities can lead congregations into a new role, that of “Community Samaritan and “Congregations would be able to assess how they are contributing to the solutions to local problems and just what they may be able to contribute in the future. They would be able to let others know how they express their faith through community service, give details for the kinds of activities their volunteers participate in, and show the ways their facilities are being used” (2001, p. 182). He sees an expanded role that includes planning, evaluation, advocacy, and helping to make policies as appropriate and needed as a part of what congregations actually do. Because congregations are already engaged in direct practice, this expanded role thus involves congregations in all three arenas of social work practice: micro, mezzo, and macro.

Social Workers in Congregations

Social workers serve as congregational leaders. Their role is to “equip a faithful community to intervene compassionately in the social system and to enhance caring interpersonal relations in ways that are consistent with Christian maturity” (Hessel, 1982, p. 125). A few publications have described the professional roles and responsibilities of congregational social workers (Garland & Yancey, 2012; Garland & Yancey, forthcoming; Northern, 2009).

Professional Social Workers

Position Titles

Their titles varied widely and include pastor (Garland & Yancey, 2012; Northern, 2009;). Other titles referred to specific functions in the community, such as church counselor, director of community ministries, or Mission Outreach coordinator (Garland & Yancey, 2012, p. 319). These titles reflect their leadership positions in their congregations rather than their professional preparation, just as social workers in an social service agency setting may be titled “director,” “supervisor,” or “program manager.”

Congregational social workers often integrate their personal faith with their professional practice, drawing from both and struggling with the tensions that may consequently be created. “Still others separate faith from practice: some social workers employed in church contexts are not Christians; others view their personal faith and church membership as separate from their professional practice” (Garland, 1992, p. 9). Social workers in this setting need to have a comfort level and, at a minimum, an understanding of the religious language used in a congregational context.

Professional Identity

Their experiences in social work have shaped the identities of these social workers, which has also been shaped by their education in social work, any education they have in religion and theology, and their own sense of vocational calling. Some congregational social workers may reflect that they are social workers, no matter what their work is titled. Some may say they are ministers or missionaries with social work skills. Others see their identities as integrating both ministry and social work. However they put together their religious faith with their professional identity, congregational social work is a professional practice setting, not just a reference to the religious faith of the practitioner (Garland, 1992; Garland & Yancey, 2012; Garland & Yancey, forthcoming ; Northern, 2009).

Professional Education and Credentials

The Council of Social Work Education (CSWE) has accredited 22 Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs that include a dual degree in religion, such as the Master of Divinity, Master of Religious Education, or Master of Theological Studies Garland & Yancey’s (forthcoming). A study of 51 congregational social workers found that although fewer than half (n = 21) of the respondents completed their professional education in religiously affiliated college or university settings, many (though not the majority) had degrees or certificates in religion or ministry. Fifteen had a Master of Divinity degree or another master’s degree in theology, three had undergraduate majors or minors in religion, three had certificates in theology or Catechetics, one had a Doctor of Ministry degree, and two were enrolled in divinity programs at the time of the study. That left 27, however, who had no formal theological preparation

These professionals identified themselves as social workers. Despite the fact that most were not identified by title as social workers and consequently were not required by law to be licensed as social workers, most (n = 33) voluntarily obtained state licenses as social workers.

Targeted Populations

These social workers serve a broad array of groups and social issues. They include persons who represent:

Diverse ages: children and youths, college students, families, older adults

Diverse locations: persons in other countries, ethnically diverse communities

Diverse life circumstances: parents, gangs, gays and lesbians, women

Diverse physical or emotional life challenges: deafness, developmental disabilities, mental illness, physical illness, substance abuse

Diverse current problems or crises: domestic violence, living with HIV or AIDS, homelessness, food insecurity, imprisonment (or a family member imprisoned), poverty (Garland & Yancey, 2012, p. 320).

The variety of programs and services in which these social workers are engaged attempt to accomplish the following: address human needs, intervene in crises, create community, lead spiritually, educate, counsel, and collaborate with other organizations (Garland & Yancey, 2012, p. 320). For a detailed look at some of the types of services and programs that these social workers direct or lead others to do, see the extensive discussion by Garland (1995).

Core Social Work Tasks

These social workers engage in a number of core activities as they lead and serve in congregations. These include organizing people and systems; administering programs and services; assessing situations and systems; advocating; developing, and maintaining relationships; thinking creatively and critically; leading and serving groups; establishing boundaries and safety; teaching, mentoring, and supervising; obtaining resources; evaluating and researching; preaching and other public speaking; and developing knowledge and skills specific to the community in which they are serving (Garland & Yancey, 2012).

Challenges or Rewards


Congregational social work, like all professional social work settings, has its own challenges. Those challenges include, first, both the freedom and the responsibility of deciding where and whom to serve. Congregational social workers often have much more open-ended job descriptions than social workers in agency settings, with a great deal of freedom in defining the focus and goals of the work.

Second, congregational social work often involves recruiting and working with volunteers, who may or may not have professional preparation for the programs and services being provided. Third, one of the goals of many congregants is to attract others to join their religious faith and the congregation itself, or “evangelism.” The congregation may or may not see social ministries as a means of accomplishing this objective, and the social worker has the task of understanding and managing both these expectations of the congregation as well as the protection of the self-determination of those served.

Finally, the policies and practices of congregations and their service programs are grounded in religious beliefs and values, so that making changes requires sensitivity to those beliefs and values. In some congregations, social workers have the responsibility for managing controversial topics and facilitating the congregation’s response to those topics, which may range as widely as termination of pregnancy, controversial public immigration policies, gun control, medicinal use of marijuana, and gay marriage (Garland & Yancey, 2012).


In addition to challenges, there are also rewards. Social workers in the 2012 study reported that their own beliefs and values deepened and developed as a consequence of their work. They found the work satisfying and fulfilling. They felt gratified at being able to express their professional beliefs and values so directly in their work. They found the congregation had provided them a community in which to ground their lives personally as well as professionally. Finally, they felt respected as community leaders and that their congregations were providing more effective services and advocacy for vulnerable people groups because of their leadership (Garland & Yancey, 2012).

Developing Congregational Social Work

Social work education and professional organizations can encourage the development of this setting for social work practice in the three ways, discussed here.

Field Education

In social work, field education is the signature pedagogy” (CSWE, 2008, p. 9). It is in field education that students’ academic classroom learning is put into practice, under the supervision of a social worker, with actual clients, in a professional context. Congregations exist in every town, county, and region. Most towns have more congregations than they do schools. The Baylor University School of Social Work places students for field education in 40 congregations both locally and in long-distance settings across the United States and internationally. Although there is no research documenting, the use of congregations for field education, some public universities also place students in congregations. Congregational field placements provide opportunities to: (a) disseminate understanding of social work as a resource for congregations, (b) increase the research and practice models of social work in this setting, and (c) equip students for this practice context. Social work students may, but do not have to, be enrolled in a dual-degree program to be eligible for these field internships.

Research on Congregational Social Work

Research that defines this field of practice helps develop theories and models for practice, and evaluates outcomes of congregational social work will contribute to the development and expansion of this field for social work practice. Knowledge about congregational social work will facilitate the preparation and engagement of social workers in this setting. Congregations that learn how social workers are providing leadership in the pursuit of the mission and goals of congregations are more likely to consider looking to social work for leaders. As more social workers engage in work with congregations, the hope is they can lead this important institution in our society to be more effective in addressing human problems and developing supportive communities for individuals and families.

Curriculum Development and Innovation

Many of the degree plans in undergraduate and graduate social work education can make room for an elective on congregational social work. In graduate education, for example, The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice offers an elective course in Religion and Social Work. Baylor University offers an elective course in church social work. These courses address content that is specific to congregations as contexts for social work practice.

As an outgrowth of research interests by faculty and students on congregations as settings for social work practice, The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice has established the Program on Organized Religion and Social Work. This program focuses on research and the development of graduate and doctoral students, in particular, who will be the future practitioners, researchers, and teachers in this field of practice.

Innovations such as new course designs and program development are happening at other social work schools. Giving specific emphasis to courses on congregations and to the development of professionals who have conducted research on various aspects of congregational life will help give greater clarity to this setting for practice.

This article is limited to what is known about congregational social work based on the first studies of this field of professional practice in Christian congregations. To date, there has been no documentation of social work practice in congregations of other religious faiths. The research also does not determine the extent to which congregational social workers are serving in faith communities that use languages other than English or that serve particular groups of people.

There is limited, but growing research, being done on social workers who work in congregations. To date, there is much research on the organizational structure and functioning of congregations in their helping processes. There is small, but growing, research being conducted on social workers who practice in congregational contexts. There is not yet a national study to determine whether certain regions of the nation, for instance, or certain denominations have more congregational social workers than others. There is also no documentation about the total number of congregational social workers in the nation. Clearly, congregational social work is a field of practice ripe for study.


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