With all the recent hoopla over religious charities, you would think that those of us who advocate faith-based solutions would be quite pleased. After all, many donors and program officers (not to mention presidential hopefuls Al Gore and George W. Bush) are starting to come around to what we have been saying for years—that faith-based charities are uncommonly skilled at remedying many of our nation’s social ills. These groups are solving problems—curing drug users and alcoholics of their addictions, reducing teen pregnancy rates, helping the unemployed find and keep decent jobs, and rescuing kids from gangs—with effectiveness rates in some cases much higher than their secular counterparts.
But what is a faith-based charity? Such organizations vary tremendously in mission and structure, and some are faith-based in name only. Over the past four years, I’ve had numerous opportunities to examine such groups, especially those focused on ministry to distressed urban families. The most effective ones take their religion seriously. Their staff and volunteers are motivated by their faith and can articulate their core beliefs and demonstrate how their faith animates their organization and permeates its ethos. My case studies of these organizations—which draw heavily on interviews with their transformed participants—suggest that such groups tend to share at least seven habits in common.
The Seven Habits
I. Effective faith-based groups inculcate in their program participants a particular definition of human nature that has two parts. First, they teach people that they have great, inherent dignity because “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). Second, they teach people that they have an inbred inclination toward sin. That two-part message facilitates positive transformation. How?
When religious groups tell the participants in their programs, “You have inherent worth because you are made in God’s image; you are uniquely crafted by Him and have talents,” they offer participants a solid basis for a healthy self-esteem and give them a reason to take heart. This teaching sows hope by informing people that they really do have gifts to offer, and that they can make a contribution in society.
Inez Fleming, a front-line minister on staff with Strategies to Elevate People (STEP), has witnessed this among many women previously on welfare in Gilpin Court, Richmond’s largest public housing project. Fleming reports that, as the students go through the 15-week Biblically-based program, they “come out of their shells” and end up attempting jobs they’d previously never considered. She says of one 33-year-old single mother who recently completed the program, “Tammy was working at Wal-Mart before [she joined STEP]. At first her attitude was, ‘Me? I can’t do nothing more than that. That’s all I can do.’” Now, Fleming reports, Tammy says she wants to look for a secretarial or computer job.
The second part of the message, “You’re not perfect and you are not always the best judge of your own actions or decisions,” also facilitates positive transformation. It leads people to depend on God’s authority and guidance, and not to try to live their lives relying solely upon their own wit and resources. It encourages them to recognize their need for God and assures them that God will provide for them. This also sows hope, as they begin to realize that they are not alone in their struggle to survive, get an education or a job, overcome addiction, or be a good parent. As one man from my church’s job training program put it, “Without God, I can’t make my goals. But with Him, I can do all things.”
II. Effective faith-based organizations anchor their participants in an objective and knowable moral universe. They do not encourage participants to get in touch with the “higher power” of their own choosing and thus in effect be their own god. Instead, the participant is told that God has constructed a moral universe in which there are clear rights and wrongs that men and women are to follow.
To the typical social worker, such a teaching seems about as helpful as snarling “Get a job!” at a homeless person. But when I asked program participants, they replied that the teaching was not confining but helpful. They would tell me that they had been aimless and drifting throughout their lives and that now they could get anchored, now they had some signposts in their life. Perhaps more significantly, they now had the beginnings of the virtuous habits and discipline that prepare the way for economic self-advancement.
In substance-abuse treatment programs in particular, staff members emphasize the need for the addict to recognize objective truth, a standard above his own judgment. An amorphous, subjective spirituality involving worship of a self-constructed “god” leaves the addict in a position of determining for himself what is best—and too often, “best” gets defined as “feels best,” or relapse.
III. Effective faith-based organizations emphasize transformation, not rehabilitation. They are not interested in returning people to the state they were in before they fell into the pit of drug use or welfare dependency or gang membership. Rehabilitation is inadequate because it merely gets the person up out of the pit, only to set him up for another fall. Transformation says, “We’ve got to make you a new person so that when you’re back in your old environment, when you’re standing in front of the pit, you won’t fall in again.”
A former drug addict who backslid in several secular rehabilitation programs but got clean through a faith-based ministry put it this way: “Those [secular] programs generally take addictions from you, but don’t place anything within you. I needed a spiritual lifting.” Robert L. Woodson, writing about programs like Freddie Garcia’s phenomenally successful drug treatment ministry, Victory Fellowship, explains: “These programs. . . do not seek simply to modify behavior but to engender a change in the values and hearts of the people they work with which will, in turn, affect behavior. [They] do not simply curb deviant behavior but offer something more—a fulfilling life that eclipses the power of temptation.”
IV. Effective faith-based ministries challenge participants to serve others. They emphasize both personal responsibility and neighborly responsibility. They remind participants that they have a duty to care for one another. This is part of the difference between rehabilitation and transformation. Rehabilitation can be a self-focused thing: “I’m here in this program to get myself put back together, and when I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish, then I’m done.” A transformation model goes beyond that. It says to the participant, “You are here to get yourself back together, but not exclusively for your own sake. You are also here to help others.”
Again, this turns conventional thinking on its head. For many social workers, the last thing one does to the downtrodden is place burdens on them. Yet what I heard from participants I interviewed was quite different. They were pleasantly surprised, even flattered, by such a challenge. They said things like, “Do you mean to say that God thinks, and you think, that I have something to offer someone else?” Effective charities help the needy to understand that they’ll enjoy greater dignity and fulfillment when they live not just for themselves but also for others.
V. Effective faith-based groups enfold participants into a loving, supportive community that legitimates the participant’s pursuit of a healthier life. In my work in a low-income urban housing project, I’ve seen that not everyone in our program participants’ circle of acquaintances is excited about the participants’ desire to improve themselves.
Felicia, a 40-year-old single mom who graduated from our job training program and went to work after 16 years on welfare, faced much opposition and hostility from her teenage son, who liked it better when mom was home all day to wait on him. Sheila Ford, a staff worker with the Minneapolis faith-based group, TURN, mentors women in job training. “In some cases, we’re fighting the ‘significant other’ or spouse,” Ford reports. “They’re not comfortable with the changes. I’ve seen a boyfriend get livid when the woman goes back to work or out on an interview.” When Clarissa Crews of Richmond, Virginia was trying to get off of welfare by working and attending community college, her neighbors scorned her. As she walked past their public housing project, they would yell: “Who do you think you are? You think you’re better than us?”
A minister down south calls this the “crayfish syndrome.” You put a bunch of crayfish in a bucket. When one starts crawling up to the top to get out, the others pull him down. People trying to better themselves need an alternative community that lovingly pulls them up and cheerleads their efforts at self-improvement. Effective faith-based organizations make this alternative community available to the participant. They conduct “incarnational ministry;” that is, they live in the same neighborhood or locate their ministry center in the community and keep it open as close to “24-7” (24 hours a day, seven days a week) as possible. And they employ staff and volunteers from the community—often “graduates” of their programs—because these folks can truly speak to the life experience of participants.
VI. Effective faith-based groups teach specific doctrines about the nature of God. An organization’s understanding of God’s character is critical to shaping its philosophy of helping and its approach to its social work. The effective groups I studied teach that God is real, loving, forgiving, demanding, personal, all-powerful, interventionist, good, and communicative. This underscores the importance of discriminating among faith-based groups, because not all faiths define God’s character the same way.
For example, a group that asserts the existence of a supernatural power to which people can “connect” will encourage program participants to believe that they will not be held back by their own weakness because God can supply the strength they lack. By contrast, a message that God is distant provides no grounds for hope. A message that God is not omnipotent leaves the broken and downtrodden wondering whether anyone has the power to fix their multiple woes. Such people experience newfound hope upon learning that God personally cares for them, is willing to intervene in their affairs, and is supremely powerful.
One of our job training participants remembers being told by one church group, after she became pregnant out of wedlock as a teen, that God would curse her for her sin. She spent two decades believing this, feeling hopeless, and thinking there was really no point in trying to improve her life since an all-powerful God was angry at her. When she was exposed to Christians who emphasized God’s willingness to forgive her and who told her about the Bible’s promise that God was “for” her, her outlook changed radically. Over the next several years, she completed her GED, moved out of public housing, cut down on her drinking, got a job, and got off of welfare.
VII. Effective faith-based organizations build caring, respectful relationships between participants and volunteers. They accomplish this through two means.
First, effective faith-based organizations visibly hold their staff and volunteers to the same standards to which they hold participants. This both creates a sense of equality and makes more palatable the blunt moral challenge they typically issue. These groups’ straight talk about sin is not a “You are sinful, you need to get your behavior in line;” it’s a “We are sinful and we all need to get our behavior in line.” This serves as a built-in check against a condescending or paternalistic relationship between the volunteer and participant, since the volunteer is never asking the participant to do something that the volunteer doesn’t also believe he must do. A familiar refrain I’ve heard from volunteers is the slogan, “I’m just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
Second, faith-based groups use different appeals or “pitches” to mobilize volunteers. These typically revolve around the prospective volunteer’s “duty” to serve, or emphasize the extent of “needs” in the community. Yet the most effective pitch I’ve seen for drawing in the right kind of potential volunteer is neither of these but rather one that says, “You need, for the sake of your own spiritual growth, to serve in this ministry. You will be challenged and enriched through your service and through the relationship you will develop with the people we are trying to assist.” This type of appeal is the most likely to interest a volunteer who is eager to serve and who expects to learn from the program participants as well as help them. In their willingness to relate to the program participant without condescension, such volunteers bring to the job a degree of graciousness often absent from traditional social service agencies.
This catalogue of seven habits is not exhaustive. Faith-based ministries are also effective because they are personal and flexible in their approach, because they build on the community’s native assets (rather than focusing exclusively on needs or problems), and because they diligently seek to engage their participants in the design and implementation of community solutions. Indeed, these four features alone are apparently enough to generate at least some degree of success, since grassroots community service groups that are not faith-based, but that do share these characteristics, have also been effective.
The seven habits noted above, though, are useful for comparing different faith-based groups that share these four features but that differ in terms of the content, strength, pervasiveness, and intentionality of the faith with which they are identified. Exploring these dimensions will improve our understanding of the faith-based social services sector and our predictions of its likely efficacy.
Dr. Amy L. Sherman is adjunct fellow of the Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute and director of Urban Ministries at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.