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October 12, 2000

Faith Based Organizations

Faith based organizations, or FBOs, have become a buzzword in politics. Both the recent Republican and Democrat conventions touted FBOs as one answer to many of society's ills. And both Al Gore and George W. Bush support the push to allow FBOs to do more of the work traditionally done by government social service agencies. They point to church congregations doing job training and mentoring, after school tutoring and house building and rehabbing as the way of the future.

Now, a pair of Calvin College professors plan to study the impact of such efforts on congregations. Dr. Fred DeJong (above) and Dr. Beryl Hugen, social work, are joining forces with colleagues at Baylor University, the University if South Carolina and Whittier, Ca., for a project called "Service and Faith: The Impact on Christian Faith and Congregational Life of Organized Community Caring."

The project is supported by a $702,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation, of which Calvin will receive $161,847.

"A lot of research," says DeJong, "has been devoted in recent years to the study of congregations and their service activity. But most studies have looked at how congregations function as community resources. Virtually no attention has been paid to the impact on the congregations themselves. How does social service fit into the mission of a church? Does community involvement in supportive services deepen the faith of congregational members? Are there certain kinds of community involvement that are bad for a congregation? Or some at which they are most effective?"

The initial plan is to select five pilot congregations in November and December. In January the data from the five pilot congregations will be examined and in February 2001 the project will launch with a two-year study of 36 congregations (12 of which will be in West Michigan).

The research will have a two-pronged approach: congregations will be surveyed, but the team also will conduct in-depth interviews with congregational members. At the end of the project a book likely will be written that summarizes the results and makes recommendations.

DeJong, who will serve as associate director of the project, says that, despite much of the political rhetoric, relatively few congregations have "stepped up to the plate" in terms of contracting to deliver public human services, as allowed under charitable choice legislation. Other churches help with basic needs, such as food pantries, but have less often engaged in more difficult activities such as long-term mentoring relationships. Churches haven't necessarily seen this as part of their mission, he says, nor have they seen it as a benefit to the spiritual health and growth of their congregations.

"We hope that our study," he says, "will provide solid data about the impact of community caring on both faith and congregational life. We want to know if churches get energized. Or if they get overwhelmed. And we want to develop a model for effective community caring, a model that points out both what to do and what to avoid."

Hugen will take the lead in developing the "conceptual framework" for the project, including measuring faith change among congregational members who engage in community caring. Little research has been done on the relationship between faith and one's relationship to fellow human beings. Hugen's work on this project will help congregation members trace the effects of their helping behaviors in such a way.

Calvin students also will be an integral part of the project, filling research and writing roles over the next two-plus years. DeJong notes that the project has its roots in a $14,000 grant from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship that, combined with a $15,000 grant from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, allowed a team of researchers to come together for an initial study of FBOs.


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Contact Phil de Haan.