I remember back when President George W. Bush proposed and saw implemented his faith-based initiative. At the heart of this proposal was that the government would open up funds to be used by faith-based institutions, including local congregations, so that they could be alternative deliverers of social services.

I remember that our clergy group in Santa Barbara, Calif., made this a focus of conversation, dedicating one meeting to exploring it. I went out and gathered as much information as I could (I was president of the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association at the time) to distribute.

We had a guest presenter who was working with faith-based initiatives come and speak to us. We batted it around, wondering what it would mean for us and the communities. We were in agreement that congregations should be involved in social service, but we were not all certain as to the implications of the project.

Well, it’s been nearly a decade since that Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was formed. Over time, a number of the people brought in to lead it left their positions, discouraged at the way in which the administration wanted to use it for political gain.

When President Obama came into office, he kept the office but sought to reform it some and provide more funds for the initiative. But while faith communities remain committed (or at least a good portion) to social service, the question remains – what impact did it have?

My copy of the Christian Century recently arrived in the mail, and the cover story is titled: “Thanks, but No Thanks: Congregations and Government Funding.”

The article, which is written by Duke Divinity School’s Mark Chaves, offers an assessment. His assessment from studying the data – he’s a sociologist of religion who conducted a major survey of U.S. congregations – is that it didn’t really change the habits and activities of local congregations. The program did raise the levels of conversation about such funding but didn’t actually eventuate into much in the way of increased activity.

As Chaves examines the data, he concludes that the formulators of this project started with certain flawed assumptions. What they misunderstood was the nature of involvement of congregations in social service. They assumed that congregations could be alternative deliverers of service, and that all they needed was a bit of help in getting grants.

The problem is that there really isn’t any congregation-based alternative system of social welfare. Most congregations participate in already existing networks of providers.

A good example would be our congregation’s involvement annually in a local homeless shelter. For one week each year, we partner with another congregation to host or assist in hosting a rotating shelter. It services about 30 to 50 people. We provide a place to sleep and meals. But we participate in a larger project that has no religious ties, and we only serve a small portion of the county’s homeless population.

Consider Chaves’ comment: “The faith-based initiative failed to change congregations in part because it tried to bypass existing networks and support systems in favor of putting resources into one small part of those systems. Congregations are usually a part of these networks and systems; they rarely stand separate from them. A better informed faith-based initiative would focus on building up the social service delivery network as a whole.”

The second mistaken assumption was the belief that congregations “represent a vast reservoir of volunteer labor.”

Chaves writes that congregations are good at mobilizing people, but only if the tasks are well defined and on a periodic basis (like our involvement in the homeless shelter). He writes: “Congregations are good at mobilizing 15 people to spend several weekends renovating a house, or getting five people to cook dinner at a homeless shelter one night a week, or organizing ten young people to spend two weeks painting a school in a poor community.”

The key is well-defined and short periodic efforts. Asking congregations to organize and staff long-term, ill-defined projects doesn’t work so well. Thus, we’re great at working with Habitat for Humanity or providing relief support as with Katrina or Haiti.

Even if every church truly understood itself to be missional and devoted considerable effort and expenditure to outreach efforts, it’s unlikely that they would become true alternatives. What we’re able to do is help support and extend those broader efforts provided by nonprofits and governments.

If people really want to get churches involved, then it’s probably best to find ways of using their resources well – and that means finding ways to mobilize small groups of volunteers for specific tasks. It might be less exciting and less headline grabbing than trying to create an alternative mode of social service delivery, but it’s likely to be more successful.

Bob Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Mich. He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey. This column is used by permission.

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