Fruitful Collaboration is Possible

by Amy Sherman

Congregations, January/February 1999

Boston University sociologist Peter Berger has quipped, "He who sups with the devil should dine with a long spoon." H. Beecher Hicks, Jr. has taken this counsel to heart regarding church-state partnerships. Hicks is rightly concerned that the faith community may be endangered by accepting government funds to underwrite social welfare initiatives. My investigations of a number of church-based outreach efforts show that the receipt of government funding can shift the recipient's mission focus and secularize and depersonalize its approach. Stephen Monsma's extensive research on religiously grounded organizations that operate with government funds found similar problems. ¹Nevertheless, Hicks asserts that partnership with the government is necessary if religious bodies are to reach their full potential for operating holistic ministries addressing social, educational, and economic needs of communities. Thankfully, new federal legislation and the example of several faith-based organizations indicate that fruitful collaboration is possible provided some key principles are followed.

The "Charitable Choice" section of the 1994 welfare reform law includes a "bill of rights" for congregations and religiously grounded social service organizations that decide to compete for government grants. Charitable Choice was crafted by legislators who wanted to design a way for the government to facilitate religiously grounded social welfare initiatives without compromising the grant recipients' mission, spiritual character, or free expression. Under it, congregations that accept governmental funding retain the right to control their mission and their boards of directors, to discriminate in their hiring on the basis of religion, and to maintain a religious atmosphere in their facilities. These new protections put religious organizations on a much firmer legal footing than existed previously, and make it more likely that congregations can operate social service programs with state money without compromising their religious character.

Fruitful collaboration between the church and state in serving the poor is marked by a few key principles. One is "ground-floor-up" involvement. Hicks insists that religion be a partner, not a subcontractor, with government. That means religious groups must be permitted to participate in the design of new initiatives from the beginning. Additionally, government partners ought to display "sympathetic respect" toward religion. Government officials must eschew the elitist perspective that only highly educated professionals are equipped to help poor people. They should acknowledge that lay volunteers can provide crucial emotional support and moral guidance to needy families things that government, by nature, cannot offer.

The government partner must allow religious groups the flexibility and creativity to meet the family's needs even when ministries rely on strategies remarkably different from those employed by government agencies. For their part, religious partners should exemplify "discerning teachability." They should respect their government partners and recognize that caseworkers have valuable experience and practical wisdom from which they can learn. Nonetheless, they must be discerning, since their presuppositions may differ substantially from those of their secular partners.

In most church-state partnerships I've studied, congregations are willing to do a lot, but don't want full responsibility for the disadvantaged families they're assisting. They want assurances that the individuals they serve also will be linked to government-sponsored programs that address needs the faith community cannot meet. At the same time, that community wants to help poor people without excessive government interference that might squelch the spiritual character of its outreach. The faith community wants, in short, "connected autonomy." That is, it wants to be part of a team that surrounds the needy family a team on which it plays a significant, largely unfettered, and unique role but a team nonetheless.

Religious people can hold the government to account by insisting that it facilitate social service efforts, and at the same time call upon the institutions of civil society (religious bodies, nonprofits, businesses) to be direct providers of crucial services like job training, day care, and mentoring. This approach insists that an effective church-state partnership starts with the principle that the government should do what it is best suited to do (e.g., emergency relief, financial aid to individuals or to service-oriented nonprofits, child support enforcement, screening of recipients, regulation of health and safety standards, etc.) and that religion should do what it is best suited to do (e.g., building personal relationships with specific needy families, addressing emotional and spiritual needs, training and connecting the poor to jobs, inculcating healthy values, developing neighborhood leaders, and even investing in the economic development of distressed communities).

Hicks is concerned that religion not "let government off the hook" by accepting total responsibility for social welfare. Though legitimate, this is not the most pressing concern. In the past few decades, the problem has not been that government has done too little and religion too much. The problem is that government's many actions have permitted some religious people to feel like they're "off the hook" when it comes to meeting the needs of the poor. The great scandal has not been the government's failures (although these were many and fundamental welfare reform was necessary); the great scandal is the indifference so many people of faith have displayed toward the needy. The more than 400 Scripture verses about God's passion for the poor ought to be sufficient motivation to action. But if "devolution" can also be a stimulant, then we can raise at least two cheers for devolution.

¹Stephen Monsma, When Sacred and Secular Mix: Religious Nonprofit Organizations and Public Mone (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).

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