How Do Your Churches Give?

“The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury 1942–44

Archbishop William Temple expressed a conviction growing among Christian denominations through the 20th century and particularly following the horrors of the two World Wars. Casting visions of the Church either as a great force for steady societal transformation or as a bastion standing against degradation, Christian leaders have sought to invite and energize their disperse communities of faith into the holy work of transforming lives through acts of mercy and care, teaching, and justice.

While different denominations and branches of Christianity have emphasized different paths of transformation, a common thread of leaders is to invite and compel fellow Christians toward concern for those outside the doors of the Church. Over the past centuries, local churches and regional and national collaborative networks of churches have launched thousands of social, educational, and missional ministries, many of which have become independent organizations continuing to work for the common good.

Unfortunately, many congregations are not necessarily primed or prepared to deploy themselves for optimal impact. Some are limited by size. Many are limited by budgetary and ministry decisions that are focused more on survival, internal church life, and efforts to “grow the Church.” Even when the spirit is willing to do more, the flesh is weakened by the busy-ness and stress of people’s lives, or by conflicting ideas about how to address social and spiritual problems in society.

New clergy move into these churches with vivid ideals and images of what the Church could be and do, eager to bring the Church into the world and to help the Church become that “society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” At the same time, new clergy want to help churches become places of continuing transformation and growth for those who are its members. In both cases, they must learn to wrestle and work with the particular, limited expressions of the Kingdom of God that are present or possible in each church and its surrounding community.

We asked clergy who had participated in Transition into Ministry (TiM) programs and clergy who had not to indicate how much or little their congregations gave of themselves in various ways to make a difference in the lives of individuals and society beyond the Church.

27b Level of community involvement - non-TiM chart

The vast majority of today’s congregations contribute to the common good through donations and direct relief service efforts. They contribute far less frequently through direct education, creation of self-help groups, or advocacy or direct action for social change.

At least half of the congregations served by today’s new clergy are significantly engaged in some form of social outreach, through donations and direct service—and about 90% are engaged at least “a little” in these ways of offering social outreach. But about 10% are doing nothing in these basic areas of social outreach.

Fewer congregations are engaged in forms of outreach that move from basic relief to development and empowerment. Only 5% to 8% of congregations are doing this kind of work in any significant way, and less than 30% are doing even a little in these forms of social outreach that move beyond “giving a fish” to “teaching to fish” or “securing the rights to fish.”

This is a pattern we have found consistently, across decades and in churches served by more senior clergy as well as those served by newer clergy. Ministries of community outreach identified by laypeople in congregations are more typically those of direct relief (such as food banks, dinner or breakfast programs, or clothing closets) than those of education, advocacy, or direct action.

There is a continuum of ways to address social needs. At one end of the continuum are efforts to help individuals survive or recover, but not empower them to help themselves or to seek change in systems that create or allow problems. At the other end of the continuum are efforts to change systems so that people can more easily thrive. Churches are far more comfortable offering direct relief, because such efforts address an immediate need of people suffering without facing the more challenging (and at times politically contested) work of addressing the causes of suffering.

While the generosity shown in wanting to help with relief or basic development efforts is noble, it can be disempowering to the people served, creating a relationship of dependency.1

Wrestling with these issues can be eye-opening for congregations, but it can also generate heated debate and possible conflict.

27b Level of community involvement - TiM chart

It is worth noting that a nearly identical pattern exists in congregations served by TiM-trained clergy, but also that proportionally more of the congregations served by TiM-trained clergy are engaged in at least some of each type of social outreach. Clergy’s continuing education, support, and training after seminary does not necessarily lead to dramatically different results in congregations’ social ministry efforts—but it may contribute to a modest increase in congregations’ participation in each type of outreach.


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1 See Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).