Parish Based Social Services

A Manifesto for Parish Based Social Service
by Rev. Dr. Bill Levering

Once upon a time when Protestants were in control of the culture and everyone was in church, local congregations would gather to do good works together. They began cooperative non profit ventures that fed the hungry, housed the homeless, and counseled the troubled.

Things changed in the river cities in America.
• In an era of shrinking mainstream attendance, churches began competing more for members, often at the expense of a cooperative spirit.
• Urban churches declined to the extent that their existence demanded more of their attention, fewer church resources were available to support causes.
• The spun off non-profits began to develop a contributor and volunteer base completely separate from local spiritual communities. Few offered holistic services, but catered to niches where money was available from grants or donations.
Although the separation of social services from churches may have seemed like a good idea at the time, it created a certain ghetto of poverty services separated from spiritual communities. It was easier to think of the poor as 'them' when they were served 'over there.' The needs, conditions and stories of the poor got further and further away from the consciousness of church folks. As a nation, when we decided to shrink services to the poor, this meant that not only were vital services lost, but that there was no locus of advocacy.

The United States Nonprofit Sector found that, excluding foundations and religious congregations, there were 837,027 nonprofits in the United States in 2003, and that they had combined assets of $1.76 trillion. On the other hand, American Church Lists, who makes its business by knowing how and where churches are, says that there are about 380,000 active churches in America. While there will always be a need for human services delivered out of the context of faith communities, it appears the balance has been tipped so that now communities of faith often give up their active role entirely.

Contemporary spiritual people are looking for a faith that expresses itself in action, not another United Way at worship. If we do not provide opportunities for service that are connected to our congregations, our faith seems to be without concrete expression. We also need to remain attached to concrete situations that are different from our own and need to risk dirtying our hands with the real business of human need.

Because isolated non-profits are often at the mercy of governmental grants, their work has often been compromised by governmental requirements and they may chose to provide services where grants are to found rather than where need is to be found. We can do better.

Parish based social services use the local church or synagogue as the locus of oversight, funding and provision of services. We bring non-profits back into our buildings and our parishes. This can begin with the provision of the spiritual services that slipped away most seriously. Community chaplains can reach out to local institutions and begin the relationship of need to nurture. Without jeopardizing the mission of any agency, we can form cooperative ventures in which congregations provide staff that are still very connected to the local congregation or can use church buildings for offices and provision of services.

For example, instead of giving $20,000 to a local agency to fund a half-time social worker, we hire a social worker/chaplain and give them to the agency three days a week. The chaplain attends worship here and connects our congregation to the community of need in a much closer fashion. The chaplain would work with volunteers and help us learn from different folks as well as providing services. Another day or two a week the chaplain would work with some other agency, transcending turf battles and connecting the not-for-profit sectors as well.

Of course there are problems if this idea is carried to extremes. It is not intended to supplant the fundamental role of government in insuring the basic needs of its people. "Faith based initiatives" should go out of their way not to involve governmental subsidies so that there is not an unintended shift or reduction in services. We shouldn't use this as a tool of blatant evangelism, either. Participation in our brand of religion cannot be a prerequisite for receiving whatever we have to offer.

Financially stable urban churches are well suited to begin this re-attachment of human services to spiritual communities. They have the resources, contacts, and experience to understand and develop effective interventions. They have the political presence to understand how to get things done in the complex world of urban governments and funding. That being said, a congregation in any setting can begin to use this concept to be more engaged in the needs of the community.

Parish based social service is a new approach and will garner resistance, especially from those involved with institutions now receiving support from churches. This is why it is best developed in new proposals, leaving current funding programs alone. We need to reassure folks, however, that losing a bit of control may be balanced by closer relationships and expanded services.

The Missioner Process

First Reformed Church began to enact some of the concepts of parish based social services in its Missioner program in 2008. In brief, the following process was followed to involve the congregation in mission work.

1. Informal conversations with civic leaders and not-for-profit directors took a pulse of the needs of the community and the work already being done.
2. Mission leadership in the congregation developed a few short proposals for a position, funded by the church, serving in a mission setting. After the mission target was established, a role for the missioner in the congregations needs was nailed down so that they had a particular helping job on Sundays.

3. The congregation decides from among the proposals, in our case through the consistory.

4. The supervising mission site actually hires the individual with input and consultation with the congregation. It is vital that the mission site have full jurisdiction over their workers, but the person hired needs to be happy about serving in a congregational setting whatever his or her faith is.

5. The missioner is trained and supported in the congregational setting, enabling them to write newsletter articles and draft appropriate folks to help in their mission niche. This support takes place in weekly scheduled meetings with all the missioners and a pastor.

The Missioner Experience

First Reformed Church, Schenectady has had a very positive experience measured by:

• Congregational excitement, involvement, and empowerment in mission issues increasing.

• Funding continued for these positions from other sources at the end of the two year cycle. In each case below, the original vision became so vital to the community or the not-for-profit that other resources continued its funding. This ensures a checkpoint for the assessment of the community need.

• Public presence has increased. While we don’t blow our own horn, newspaper stories about our missioners increased our exposure as a caring institution and brought in worshippers.

Habitat for Humanity
In the summer of 2008, Randy Sparrow was hired to work in a very hands on way with the ‘stuff’ of housing. He worked with habitat for Humanity managing the ReStore. This new position was able to take this Habitat chapter to a whole new level of activity and generated income doubling our investment in his position.

The City Mission
In the spring of 2008, Art Hudak was hired by the City Mission of Schenectady in collaboration with First Reformed of Schenectady to promote and manage an Ambassador program involving a broad range of people in providing a welcoming experience to downtown Schenectady. Art also work directly at the City Mission and had a strong street presence.

The Damien Center
In the spring of 2008, Dan Butterworth was hired by the Schenectady Inner City Ministries in collaboration with FRCS to be the executive director of the Damien Center, a place providing care and support to those affected and infected with HIV/AIDS. Dan expanded the program and managed the move to a building donated for the ministry in 2009.

Stepping Stones Ministry
In the spring of 2010, Art Hudak was hired (half time) to work with a board of representative churches and communities to create a spiritual ministry for people in recovery groups. This worshipping community would be designed to use the language and forms of the many twelve step programs in our area.