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Mapping Social Services and Identifying Collaborators

By Michael McCallion


How much do social outreach programs of religious congregations contribute to their communities? What is the overall contribution of congregational services and the quiet heroes who work for them?

For the past 30 years, sociologists, looking for answers, have begun measuring and evaluating what religious congregations do to serve those in need. The answers have been startling – much larger than the scholars expected. Sociologist Ram Canaan, studying local parishes in Philadelphia, admitted that he never believed religion did much good, indeed, basically believed it to be an oppressive institution. But studying poverty, he discovered it was the mainstream local churches, especially Catholic parishes, that helped the poor. 

Moreover, he found that the cumulative impact of religious congregations in helping those in need was monumental compared to what he and his liberal, humanitarian friends had ever done. Indeed, he found congregations to be the most important organizations for sustaining civil society and for producing aid to the poor. 

As Canaan states in his book, The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America (2006): “At a time when the tax burden is increasing and the local revenues are declining, someone has to chip in and do more of the work needed to maintain quality of life. Religious congregations and other faith communities shoulder a considerable portion of the burden of the care for the needy people in America . . . . This book documents the heroic role that local religious congregations play in improving the quality of life of people. . . . It is indeed . . . a story of quiet heroes who are rarely applauded or even noticed”

Like so many communities, the needs of the metro-Detroit community are huge. Many congregations and interfaith groups work to meet needs such as food, warmth, literacy, safety, and jobs. Much of this work is done independently with participants largely unaware of each other’s efforts. We don’t know each other, or how we serve, and Detroit’s interreligious leaders decided to do something about it.

Creating an Asset Inventory of Congregational Service that Makes a Difference

With thousands of congregations and interfaith groups in metropolitan Detroit, each with its own social service programs, metro Detroit’s Interfaith Leadership Council (IFLC) decided to create an “asset inventory” of these combined efforts.

“We anticipate that the insights gained will be a revelation to us all. We expect that we will be truly impressed by how much is being done and all the ways we can help one another to be more successful in meeting shared goals,” says IFLC President Robert Brutell.

“The fabric of our community is frayed in many ways. The scale of the economic issues that confront us is huge and daunting. These days congregations are required to do more with less. The scale of the needs of people in our community demands that we be as effective as possible.”

IFLC’s ultimate goal is to create a collaborative network that links religious and secular groups based upon shared goals and needs related to social service issues in the community. Brutell believes this will dramatically increase the potential benefits of the tremendous amount of energy the faith community is already investing in the community. An important part of the project, he says, will be asking each collaborating congregation what social services it provides and with whom it collaborates in providing them.

Their initial goal is to contact 50 percent of the nearly 4,000 congregations in metropolitan Detroit within the first three years of the project. Interviewers will conduct on-site visits with clergy or other key staff at congregations. Although demanding and time consuming, IFLC leaders believe this method of data collection will yield rich and comprehensive data, coded and entered into a quantitative data base available for statistical analysis.

During thisfirst year an interview protocol will be developed and tested, along with writing a training manual and establishing a research team. The team, consisting largely of graduate students, will identify the target congregations. In year two, the team will do the interviews, collect the data, and establish data coding processes. Finally, in year three, the research team will tally the survey data and present it through workshops, conference presentations, and publications.

We’ll keep you posted in TIO!

Beth Robinson and Meredith Skowronski contributed to this article.