Sacred Places, Civic Purposes

Should Government Help Faith-Based Charity?

Long before there was a welfare state, there were efforts by religious congregations to alleviate poverty. Those efforts have continued since the establishment of government programs to help the poor, and congregations have often worked with government agencies to provide food, clothing and care, to set up after-school activities, provide teen pregnancy counseling, and develop programs to prevent crime. Until now, much of this church-state cooperation has gone on with limited opposition or notice.

What Congregations Can Bring to Community Development

Community development that has a meaningful impact on the community is difficult to accomplish because it depends on conducting a set of specialized and complex activities over a considerable period of time. Successful CDCs secure resources from multiple sources, plan effectively, exercise strong and stable management and governance, and ensure community representation on their boards.

Given the difficulty of effective community development, affiliation with a congregation offers community develops advantages and disadvantages. As Jeremy Nowak argues, “The most effective church-affiliated developers are able to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages.” Nowak lists four possible advantages of congregational engagement in community development: The congregation can serve as an incubator and organizer. It can provide volunteers. It can provide access to financial resources. And it can engender public trust. Each of those advantages is countered by potential disadvantages and risks. Communities might perceive development activities as church rather than neighborhood initiatives. Church leaders and staff may lack the time and skills to undertake community development activities consistently and effectively. Religious values may conflict with the demands of the marketplace, especially since community development is unique among the charitable activities of most congregations. And there is always the risk that funds for secular community development services and funds for religious activities may be commingled.

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