Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1996
Volume 7, Number 2

Study Looks at Role of Clergy in the 'Secular City'

Sue E. S. Crawford
Assistant Professor of Political Science

Studies of clergy as professionals frequently include community outreach as one of the roles that clergy choose to play. My dissertation, Clergy at Work in the Secular City, studies clergy in this role. The study examines clergy involvement in local efforts to address problems in the areas of crime prevention, neighborhood development, and low-income assistance in Indianapolis from 1992 to 1994. Jewish and Christian clergy from all parts of the city contributed to the study. The forms of clergy participation examined include nonprofit or volunteer endeavors, advocacy activity, and involvement in government sponsored efforts.

The study treats clergy as leaders of congregations and as leaders in the local community. As leaders of a congregation, congregational factors are expected to influence clergy incentives and resources for local community action. As leaders in the community, the nature of problems in the community that surrounds the congregation as well as the activities of local government and nonprofit organizations are expected to influence clergy strategies of local involvement. The analysis uses data from a clergy survey, a citizen survey, the 1990 census, as well as information from a survey of neighborhood association leaders, indepth interviews, and observations of clergy, neighborhood, and city meetings. The findings shed light on congregational, neighborhood, and government factors that influence clergy participation in local community efforts.

Clergy work in a variety of local efforts in Indianapolis, including neighborhood organizations, community development corporations, multi-service centers, crime watch programs, abuse counseling, food pantries, and job training programs. For their part, many nonprofit entities intentionally include clergy on their boards and committees. Clergy participation is most prevalent in the area of low-income assistance. Nearly all of the clergy who list community activities work with some project to address the needs of low-income individuals. These activities frequently take the form of involvement in food pantries, clothing pantries, and multi-service centers. Clergy from all parts of the city found ways to participate in these activities. Significant numbers of clergy also work to address problems associated with the living conditions in neighborhoods or problems related to crime and crime prevention. Forty percent of the respondents participated in at least one neighborhood development activity. Clergy frequently list involvement in housing-related non-profit groups, such as Habitat for Humanity or community development corporations, and involvement in neighborhood associations. Twenty-six percent of clergy respondents participate in at least one crime prevention activity. Common crime prevention activities include crime watch groups, efforts to increase police accountability or improve police-community relations, youth intervention, and counseling prisoners or individuals with substance abuse tendencies. Volunteer activities that operate independently of local government efforts comprise the most common form of clergy community activity. However, 53% of clergy who list at least one activity participate in either efforts to influence the local government or efforts that include the local government as a partner.

As expected, congregational factors influence the rates of clergy involvement in local community activities. The most important congregational resource that enhances clergy activism in the community is a full-time position, which nearly doubles the rate of community activity. The staff resources of congregations were also expected to bolster clergy activity. However, staff resources appear to make little difference on the number of community activities that clergy join. The expectation expressed to a minister when called or appointed to a ministerial position serves as one of the most significant congregational incentives that shapes the level of clergy activity in the community. Nearly half of the clergy in the study responded that they were hired, called, or appointed to their present positions with an explicit expectation to engage in community activities. These clergy engage in significantly higher rates of community activities.

The incentives arising from considerations of the potential reactions of congregation members has mixed effects on participation. Clergy who place significant weight on the reactions of new and potential members tend to participate in a higher number of activities. In interviews, clergy describe how community activities provide occasions to witness to potential members and open opportunities for members to work in the community. Attention to long-time members tends to lower the number of clergy activities. In discussions with clergy one hears a concern that long-time members will oppose clergy involvement in community activities that might take time away from service to members or tie the congregation to controversy. Attention to the potential reactions of denominational leaders appears to increase the rates of neighborhood development and crime prevention activities, but it has little effect on the number of low-income assistance activities. Pressure from denominational leaders appears to matter most for activities that may be more controversial. The low-income activities pursued by clergy in Indianapolis were rarely controversial.

The policies in place in Indianapolis during the time period of the study allowed for research on the effects of government attention on clergy activism. Since Mayor Stephen Goldsmith was elected in 1991, his administration has pursued a policy that consciously places differing levels of government attention on neighborhoods in different parts of the city. This provided an opportunity to test whether government attention crowds out clergy activity, as some would argue, or whether government efforts encourage higher rates of clergy activity. Statistical analyses examine the effects of the various levels of government attention in models that include variables to account for differences in the levels of problems in the neighborhoods and for differences in the levels of other nonprofit activity in the neighborhoods. The findings show no evidence that higher rates of government attention crowd out clergy activity. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that clergy from areas that receive higher levels of local government attention participate in higher rates of community activities. Even the rates of clergy involvement in efforts that operate independently of the local government, such as congregation sponsored food pantries, are higher in areas with higher rates of government attention. Discussions with clergy reveal that local government action provides an opportunity or incentive to bolster community activity, not an excuse to reduce community activity.

Higher levels of nonprofit activity in the neighborhood surrounding the congregation also encourage higher rates of clergy activity. The relationship between the level of nonprofit activity and the rates of clergy activity is more significant for clergy who work in congregations in which more than one-third of the members come from the immediate neighborhood that surrounds the church, for clergy who work in congregations with more than one paid minister, and for clergy who were hired or called with an explicit expectation that their position involves work in activities outside of religious education and worship. Clergy bring useful resources of time, credibility, and organizational ties to government efforts as well as to the efforts of secular and religious nonprofit organizations that work to address problems in the community. Clergy also bring faith perspectives and experiences of helping troubled individuals to the table. Clergy were often the ones at a meeting who stood up for a principle or for a disenfranchised group. The variety of activities in which clergy participate often enables them to work as entrepreneurs who create and link programs that complement the efforts of local governments and other local nonprofit organizations. Congregational resources and incentives, local government activity, and local nonprofit activity all appear to bolster the rates of these clergy activities.