College of Social Work, University of South
Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, United States
The basic philosophy of this article is that faith-based
organizations should be and can be involved in community action
programs. From the literature, practice wisdom, and current
political trends, it is clear that faith-based organizations
can fill an essential role in providing programs and services
to local communities.
The Faith-Based Community Action Model is a method that faith-based
organizations can use to develop community action programs.
Adapted from community organization principles, this twelve-step
model provides faith-based organizations with a step-by-step
plan for community action programs. In an effort to identify
the variations in perceptions of different position-holders
regarding the need for faith-based programs, the author met
with church leaders, congregation members and agency leaders.
During discussions with these various groups, the conversation
often moved to: How does a church implement community action
programs? Community planning models in the social work literature
present several approaches for assessment and identification
of community needs and for empowering community groups into
social action. (Rothman, 1979, Weil and Gamble, 1995). Some
scholars believe that church members, church leaders, social
activists or academics should take responsibility for developing
and initiating community action programs in faith-based organizations(
Wineburg, 2001). Church leaders, academics and social activists
are important in the process, but a significant barrier for
these community activists has been the absence of a method
to develop community action programs. The Faith-Based Community
Action model (FBCA) was developed for this purpose. Although
the FBCA model illustrates the development of community action
programs for older adults, it is a model that can be used
to develop faith-based community action programs for any constituency.
Religion and Community Action Programs
The social importance of religion has been debated for centuries.
Philosopher Emile Durkheim describes religion as "something
eminently social" (Durkheim, 1915, p.22). Durkheim believed
that religious organizations have a function "to help
us live" and that "nearly all the great social institutions
have been born in religion" (p.466). Historically, religion
has been intertwined with social institutions and the church
was a provider of services for the poor, the elderly, the
orphaned, and the needy. Simmons (1991) states that it would
be immoral not to help those in need. Moberg (1962) describes
the function of the church as a social institution that supports
and reinforces the functions of other basic institutions in
society. If local citizens, clergy, agency planners, or scholars
choose to look closely at the evolution of human services
in communities across the United States, they would find that
the path has been laid for bringing religious, government,
and private non-profit agencies to the planning table (Wineburg,
The devolution revolution indicates a trend in governments,
both national and state, to move the provision of social services
to the local level but local communities can not afford to
provide services (Sherman & Viggiani, 1996), Religious
organizations can provide these services.
Faith-Based Organizations, Social Services and Older Adults
In the United States there are 34,933,000 persons over 65
years of age and 4,368,000 over 85 years of age, with 68,000
persons over 100 years of age (U.S.Census, 2000). Eighty percent
of persons 65 and older are members of a church or synagogue,
and 52 percent attend church at least once a week (Koenig
and Weaver, 1998). Some studies report a strong link between
religiosity and life satisfaction (Koenig, Smiley and Gonzales,
1988). Religious older persons are happier, have better coping
mechanisms and better physical and mental health (Johnson,
1995). Koenig and colleagues documented the positive association
between religion and health, particularly mental health, in
studies from Duke University (Koenig, 1995). The literature
is clear that clergy are very often the first persons contacted
when families are in crisis (Gulledge, 1992).
A review of the literature clearly documents the importance
of the church in the lives of older adults and the reluctance
of older adults to use current community social services (especially
community mental health services) (Koenig and Weaver 1998)
and their willingness to use social services in their religious
organizations. In one study over 70 percent of the older adult
respondents reported a willingness to attend programs at their
places of worship (Tirrito and Amado, 2000).
Koenig, George & Schneider (1994) found that older adults
infrequently use community mental health services and consequently,
older adults are more likely to go untreated for depression,
dementia, and alcohol and drug abuse. While 10 percent to
30 percent of older adults have emotional problems that are
reversible when treated, less than 20 percent of older adults
with a mental health diagnosis receive treatment. This treatment
can be provided by mental health clinics in places where older
adults are comfortable. In 1957 and 1976 seminal studies reported
that high church attendees were more open to the use of professional
help for psychological problems. Older persons (aged 55 and
over) who attended church regularly were more likely to accept
formal help for problems. The researchers reasoned that devout
elderly persons may have a trusting relationship with members
of the clergy (Veroff, Kulka, & Douvan, 1981).The church
has a long history of support and aid to social problems (Taylor,
1993; Tobin, Ellor and Anderson-Ray, 1986).
It seems logical that since religious institutions serve
an important role in the lives of older persons, the church
is the ideal place to provide these social services. The programs
traditionally provided by community social agencies such as
family counseling, mental health counseling, crisis counseling,
support groups, respite services, educational programs, caregiver
training, and a variety of health and nutritional programs
can be made available by faith-based organizations. With an
increase in the aging population and the gap created by cuts
in public funding, the religious organization can play a critical
role in filling this gap as a service provider for older adults.
As stated by Simmons (1991), "If we don't, who will?
The church has a moral responsibility to provide for its community."
Faith -Based Human Services and Programs
Religious organizations are sometimes defined as ontological
communities that symbolize communities of meaning. Ontological
communities often become the heart of a community (Bruggemann,
2002). Ontological religious communities are cultural, social,
and ethnic centers for members of particular groups such as
Muslims, Jews, Asians, or African Americans. Ontological communities
can supplement missing components of modern life. When primary
social systems fail, ontological communities fill the gap.
In some cities of the Northeast, the bulk of social services
are provided by religious organizations (Bruggemann, 2000).
Billingsley (1999) surveyed nearly a thousand black churches
across the country to examine social service activities provided
by African-American churches. He found a variety of programs
including family support, parenting, substance abuse, youth-at-risk,
role-modeling, job training, and financial assistance. The
Brookland Baptist Church of South Carolina developed a credit
union to provide funds for its members to start small minority
businesses (personal communication, 2001). In the black community
religion is a major social, political, and economic force.
In ethnic neighborhoods the religious organization actively
helps immigrants from various ethnic groups to adapt to a
new culture (Choi,.& Tirrito,. 1999). The religious organization
serves as a community center providing social services for
new families and a place where friendships and links are formed
to ease adjustment into the new culture. Immigrants prefer
help from religious organizations rather than government agencies
(Choi,.& Tirrito, 1999). Religious organizations support
and build housing for the elderly, the handicapped, and the
poor. In cities and in rural areas religious organizations
provide new homes, housing loans, and refurbished housing.
Faith-based organizations support and staff day care programs,
respite care programs and shelters.
Several examples of faith-based social services in the literature
include New York City's Partnership for the Homeless, started
in 1982, by a handful of religious leaders. It addresses the
needs of the overwhelming number of homeless persons in the
city. The Oakhurst Baptist Church in Atlanta inspired over
seventy other congregations to provide services for the homeless
in Atlanta. Catholic orders of nuns and brothers provide church-based
services for people with mental health problems including
Alzheimer's disease, child welfare programs and health services.
The First Baptist Church in Philadelphia provides Alcoholics
Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs for an average
of five hundred persons a day (Cnaan, 1999). An innovative
program is the Willow Creek program which offers an active
car-repair service. Weekend repairmen repair the cars of fellow
parishioners who cannot afford professional services. In 1993
this congregation gave away eighty-five automobiles to poor
single mothers (Cnaan, 1999). A county program in Tampa provides
grants to local service agencies and churches, such as St.
Joseph's Episcopal Church and the AME church, from funds that
are confiscated in drug arrests. The funds are given to the
churches for special equipment such as computers or playground
equipment. As of May 2001, $28,000 had been given to schools
(personal communication, 2001).
Resources of Religious Organizations
In the United States, religious communities are involved in
social service programs "to a degree unimagined and unacknowledged"
(Cnaan, 1999 p. 157).
The Protestant church, the Catholic church, Buddhist temples
and Muslim mosques can play vital roles in providing social
services to congregations and communities. Rozen developed
a typology of churches and describes some congregations as
Civic-Oriented (Wineburg, 2001).The FBCA model helps civic-oriented
churches and community leaders to develop collaborative partnerships
in their communities. Seven assets that a faith community
can offer to its community partners are:
1. Mission to Serve - Faith communities bring a mission to
help those in need.
2. Pool of Volunteers - Communication through sermons and
newsletters and committee structure with missions to help
those in need.
3. Sacred Space - Usable space for community meetings and
4. Funding Potential - Raising funds for designated causes.
5. Political Strength - Large numbers of people.
6. Moral Authority - Moral influence and a value system.
7. Creativity and Experimentation - Partnerships can encourage
experimentation and creative programs.
Wineburg, 2001 p. 3
Faith-based organizations can develop programs that prevent,
intervene and ameliorate social problems, for example, bereavement
groups, divorce, care giving, drug and alcohol abuse support
groups. Some religious places provide space for Alcoholics
Anonymous meetings (Cnaan, 1999). Religious places can be
used as counseling centers, respite programs, support groups
and or referral centers. They can offer educational programs
for health promotion and nutritional or exercise programs.
Most religious congregations include professionals from various
disciplines such as medicine, nursing, law, business, pharmacy,
social work and allied health disciplines. These people can
be invaluable to a community action program based in a religious
organization. In the United States, religious communities
are involved in social service programs "to a degree
unimagined and unacknowledged" (Cnaan, 1999 p. 157) but
many more can become involved. The question is: How do we
Comprehensive local planning is essential in building partnerships
with religious organizations. Wineburg (2001) urges the academic
community to participate in faith-based community programs
and recommends areas of research to develop partnerships.
He suggests studies to provide information on:
1. Understanding emerging and historical partnerships at
the local level between the religious community and social
2. Learning more about the capacity of congregations and faith-based
charities to handle more service responsibilities and building
3. Deciphering the process by which faith-based organizations
choose to become involved in volunteering and providing other
resources for community projects.
4. Evaluating the effectiveness of involvement in community
projects for the client, faith-based organizations, other
members of the partnership, and the local community.
5. Determining outcomes -- whether the effort solved, managed,
or prevented the problems it was designed to tackle.
6. Understanding and delineating the roles and functions of
7. Determining training requirements.
8. Measuring costs of service and contributions of volunteers
and other in-kind resources.
9. Understanding how the interaction of the efforts noted
above contribute to local policy development.
10. Comparing different communities in order to develop new
and testable policy theory.
Source: Wineburg,2001 p.48-49
Community action planning models vary and include the social
planning models, the community liaison models, and the community
development models. Congregational decisions in community
social issues are not random ones and "a social ministry
requires a need to be identified and that someone, usually
a leader in the congregation advocates for a service to be
delivered and developed" (Cnaan, 1999 p. 239). Random
selection of programs is haphazard. Planning is essential
for community action programs.
In a Philadelphia study researchers found that those persons
who were most influential in initiating social service programs
were the clergy (49.44%), followed by individual members (33.71%),
congregational committees (16.85%), and staff members (14.61%)
The Faith Based Community Action model includes:
" concepts from the above planning models;
" methods that are useful in faith-based organizations
involved in community action planning;
" concepts relating specifically to the implementation
of community action plans for faith-based organizations; and
" approaches to determining community views.
Determining Community Views
Determining community views is critical to community action
planning for faith-based organizations. A planning model cannot
be successful without input from community members and an
assessment of the community's needs. Three community group
approaches are commonly referred to in the literature to determine
community views. One of these approaches can be used to achieve
consensus regarding community needs.
1. Community Forum. This approach consists of an open meeting
to which all members of the community are invited and at which
all participants are urged to present their views regarding
the human service needs in a particular social service area.
2. Nominal Group Approach. The nominal group approach is
principally a non-interactive workshop designed to maximize
creativity and productivity and to minimize the argumentative
style of problem-solving and competitive discussion.
In this format a select group of community residents is invited
to share group subject views regarding community needs or
to identify barriers to relevant, effective human service
delivery in a social service area. The nominal group approach
is most appropriate to obtain citizen and consumer input into
the need assessment and program planning process.
3. Delphi Approach. This approach to need identification
includes the development of a questionnaire, which is distributed
to a panel of resource persons and/or a select group of community
residents whose opinions on a particular issue or issues are
highly valued. From their responses, a perspective can be
derived regarding the human service needs of the community.
This technique is quite useful and most appropriate when respondents
have a minimal amount of time available for an identification
Another popular method for determining community ideas is
the Community Impressions Method. Three steps to this assessment
procedure are: (1) a small but representative group of individuals
is interviewed regarding their views of human service needs;
(2) this information is then integrated with existing data
taken from public records and other assessment efforts to
yield a richer understanding of the community needs; and (3)
the resulting community portrait is then validated and/or
revised according to information gained from various groups
in the community through the community forum process (Tropman,
Erlich, & Rothman, 1995). Any of these approaches can
determine the views of community residents.
The FBCA model adapted material from Cohn's Community Impressions
Approach (Tropman, Erlich, & Rothman, 1995). This approach
gathers data on the group in a community with the greatest
human service needs and the community's impressions about
First, key informants offer impressions of those persons
living and working in the community. Next, the information
is integrated into existing data from a variety of sources.
Last, the group, identified as having the greatest human service
needs, verifies the findings in a community forum.
The Community Impressions Approach is particularly useful
with religious organizations because it includes key players
in the congregation and the community. The planning group
can move ahead with the confidence that needs are correctly
identified, meet the expectations of community members, and
have the support of local community agencies.
Crucial to success of all programs is the leadership role
of the church leader, pastor, minister, and rabbi, or members
of the congregation. The members of the advisory board are
leaders from social agencies and other interfaith programs.
FBCA - The Faith-Based Community Action Model
The Faith-Based Community Action Model (FBCA) includes concepts
from several community planning models that are applicable
to faith-based organizations planning community action programs.
In Step One, the forming of a planning group is based on the
models that intend to develop the capacity of members to organize
In Step Two the faith-based organization must determine its
priorities and capabilities to undertake community action
programs. The commitment of church leaders and parishioners
is essential for success. Developing a network of relationships
is based on coalition-building principles for community action
programs. Building a multi-organizational power base to influence
program direction or draw on resources is essential in community
Planning a flexible agenda allows for community and congregational
input, permits ownership of the project, allows for critical
evaluation of the planning process and incorporates diversity
in the planning process. Taking steps in defining the community
problem to be addressed is basic community planning practice.
Deciding on a community action program with consensus and
recognition of the limitations of resources is realistic and
incremental social planning. Asking for commitment and support
from key persons in the community and congregation ensures
a collaborative effort to support the project and ensures
resources will be available for the project.
Involving community agencies develops additional resources
from local government and state officials as well as community
policy makers. Investigating other programs and involving
other churches in the project ensures political support from
key community members rather than competition and conflict.
Evaluation is a key component of accountability and promotes
support for continuing action-based programs.
Step One Form a planning group.
Step Two Define the church's mission in meeting community
Step Three Develop a network of relationships.
Step Four Plan a flexible agenda.
Step Five Define the community problem.
Step Six Decide on a community action program.
Step Seven Ask for commitments and support from key persons.
Step Eight Involve community agencies.
Step Nine Investigate other churches with similar programs.
Step Ten Involve as many church members as possible.
Step Eleven Prepare alternative solutions.
Step Twelve Monitor, evaluate and provide feedback.
Step One: Form a planning group
Determine the needs of the community and interest in community
1. Invite community leaders, church leaders, members of the
2. Use the Community Impressions Model and invite key informants
to discuss their views of community needs.
Step Two: Define the church's mission in meeting the community's
Essential questions for congregations to ask themselves and
their church leaders determine the church leaders' and members'
willingness to become involved in community action programs.
1. Determine if the church's mission is a social mission or
a spiritual mission.
2. Is this a civic oriented church?
3. Is this a church whose mission is evangelical and proselytizing?
Step Three: Develop a network of relationships.
A network of relationships is essential for successful community
1. Develop an advisory board of members.
2. Ten to fifteen members are recommended for a cohesive group.
3. Select members from the congregation, from other churches,
from community agencies, and from business and political arenas.
4. Select those who are interested in community action and
who are willing to commit time and resources to the project.
Step Four: Plan a flexible agenda.
Being prepared with an agenda that includes examples from
other community action programs is efficient and convincing
that faith-based community action programs can be successful.
1. Develop an agenda of service needs for persons in the community
but be prepared to change some of the program planning.
2. Be flexible and listen to community members.
Step Five: Define the community problems but select one
problem for action.
After a comprehensive assessment of the community's needs,
select one group and one problem for action. A lack of focus
and resources that are not used wisely will contribute to
1. Define the community's needs but agree on one problem.
2. Do not try to solve all of the community's problems.
3. Select one problem to be addressed and gather information
from experts about causes and solutions.
Step Six: Decide on a community action program.
The experts in the community can provide information on successful
and unsuccessful programs. Decide on a program that is feasible
at the present time.
1. Select professional volunteers in the community to take
active roles in the implementation of the solution. For example,
nurses, doctors, lawyers, social workers, business leaders
in the congregation.
2. Choose a community action program to implement with agreement
and commitment from the members.
Step Seven: Ask for commitments and support from key persons.
When the program is selected, include as many members
of the community as possible for supportive roles.
1. Seek support from church administration for space, advertising,
outreach efforts, volunteers, etc.
2. Use designated church space for meetings, etc.
3. Use newsletters to reach congregation for donations and
volunteers and to provide on-going information about the program.
4. Use volunteers to help with securing community support.
Step Eight: Involve community agencies in the planning
Community agencies are essential to provide additional
services beyond the scope of faith-based organizations. Their
collaboration is essential for success.
1. Involve a community agency and arrange for consultations
by professionals for follow-up for referrals or treatment
2. Some examples are health screenings, medication checks,
a mental health clinic, Alzheimer's referral center, or a
geriatric assessment clinic.
Step Nine: Investigate other churches, synagogues, temples,
mosques, etc. with similar programs.
Learning from other programs avoids costly mistakes. Duplication
of services is not cost effective.
1. Assess the possibility for collaboration and interfaith
coalitions. Investigate if there are similar programs in other
neighborhoods or nearby cities.
2. Consider collaboration with other groups.
3. Collect materials from other programs.
4. Visit other programs if possible.
Step Ten: Involve as many church members as possible in
a collaborative coalition.
Collaboration is key in community action programs. Involvement
of members and community leaders is an essential ingredient
1. Present the plan to the community, to church members, and
to decision-makers, i.e. local business leaders, local politicians.
2. Gather support from as many as possible.
Step Eleven: Prepare alternative solutions for reaching
Alternative solutions may be necessary.
1. Have other options prepared and commitments from community
providers for alternative solutions.
Step Twelve: Monitor, evaluate, and provide feedback.
Monitoring is necessary to evaluate results of the program.
Positive and negative results must be provided to key players
to determine if goals were met.
1. Provide feedback to the church leaders, community planners
and community agencies.
2. Questions to ask are: How is the program working? What
are the positives and negatives? How can services be improved?
These twelve steps offer a method for faith-based organizations
to implement community action programs. This model incorporates
basic principles of community planning and adapts these principles
for faith-based organizations.
How a religious organization implements community action programs
is the basis for the development of The Faith-Based Community
Action Model. In examining the rationale for the religious
organization as a service provider for older persons, the
literature points to the failure of community agencies and
the inability of government programs to provide needed social
services. There is evidence that older persons appear to be
receptive to programs and services based in religious organizations.
The FBCA model is a twelve-step method that religious organizations
can use to develop community action programs. The religious
community has the potential to develop partnerships with the
neighborhood community but social planning is essential for
effective partnering. While good intentions are critical,
knowledge is essential.
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