Organizing Religious Work
Partner Organizations: A Preliminary Report
Connectionalism Beyond the Denomination:
Local Religious Ecologies & Beyond
A presentation presented at the annual meeting of the
Association for the Sociology of Religion San Francisco, 1998
by Scott Thumma
Hartford Institute for Religion Research
The concept of a congregation's partner organizations: Its resource and mission connections
It is common knowledge that congregations provide a host of services to
their local communities, the nation and the world. This knowledge
is to the recent detriment of the budgets of our social welfare
agencies — and for that matter, to the many recipients of such
assistance, but that is another talk...
Congregations provide public space. They offer a wide array of social
assistance; and they are a channel for a large amount of volunteer
activity. They may do this independent of other groups, but more often
these ministry endeavors are done directly or indirectly in partnership
with other organizations, or at least with the use of their educational
and financial resources.
In the "golden past" congregations in many religious traditions relied
on their denominational ties to facilitate these efforts.
However, in our "post-modern milieu" there is considerable doubt about
the effectiveness of these denominational linkages, resources and
identities. Parachurch groups, networks of megachurches, hordes
of church consultants, and websites filled with ideological resources
offer new paths and partnerships for the local congregation. What
this "new reality" actually looks like from the congregational level,
however, has not been the subject of much research.
One aspect of the ORW project attempts to address that void by
examining the connections a congregation makes both within a
denominational structure and external to it, in order to accomplish its
ministry of nurturing its own and serving its community.
This presentation describes our preliminary findings regarding those
connections external to a congregation's denominational
ties. Therefore, in the next few minutes I want to give you
a sketch of the various organizations, coalitions, churches, and
individuals who work with, or form partnerships with, our sampled
congregations to do their missions tasks and from whom they get their
resources. Again, I will be talking about those partnerships
other than a congregation's self- sponsored programs and its
denominationally sponsored projects
How we went about getting the information:
Of the approximately 550 congregational key informants being
interviewed we have data so far on 479 religious communities as diverse
as a truckers ministry in Albuquerque run by a reformed hooker to a
gnostic group in Nashville, from a Native American Catholic mission in
the heart of Chicago and two Buddhist groups in Seattle to a Muslim
masjid and a Beechy Amish community in rural Alabama and I'm even
still waiting on a report about a Missouri wicca gathering.
The research team has marveled at the diversity and vitality of
religious life we have found, BUT we have been even more amazed at the
extent of extra-denominational connectionalism that exists.
Before we get to what we are finding let me briefly sketch how we undertook this part of the research:
In each of the congregational interviews our field researchers were
asked to query the interviewee about what the congregation does, its
activities, ministries, etc. and who it does this with. For each
of those partnerships named the researchers were to explore the nature
of the connection/partnership with that group using a series of
questions including: the nature of the relationship, when the
affiliation began, how the connection was first established, how
central it was to the congregation's sense of mission and the like. The
researchers were then asked to question, in much the same manner, how
and from whom the congregation got its resources for its internal
mission of nurturing its membership
(its hymnals, liturgical accouterments, educational literature, etc).
An aside - a later research task underway presently is in-depth
interview efforts with a stratified random sampling of about 250 these
partner organizations. These interviews are designed to
explore the nature of the linked organization and how it goes about
partnering with religious groups.
Following the key informant interviews, the researchers condensed these
partnership findings and recorded them on a survey form which I have
just begun to enter into a SPSS data file. At present, for each
of the individual partnerships (of which there are 5169), I have data
on the type of organization, the geographic scope of the org. (Whether
it is a local, regional, national, or international group) and the
temporal relational connection (whether the partnership is ad hoc,
cyclical, or on-going)
Much of this data is still "unclean" — at times judgments
about these groups and the relationship were based on our guesses from
the survey form. Within a few months I begin the arduous task of
determining exactly what a group is and does from listening to the
interviews, studying their literature if we have it, or by finding them
on the Web, and then inputting the rest of the information we have on
these groups. PRELIMINARY RESULTS --- AND I DO MEAN PRELIMINARY!
So given the admittedly tentative nature of this data... I now turn to a sketch of what are findings are to date:
We have interview data on a total of 479 congregations and their
5169 partnerships. This averages to 10.8 extra-denominational
connections per congregation.
Several congregations in our sample have over 40 partnerships, with one congregation having 46 external connections.
At the other end of the scale there are 17 religious groups surveyed with no claimed or recorded partners.
Even at this very early date we have begun to see certain patterns
within the data. One of the most obvious ones is the distribution
across research sites
Differences by Research Site:
As you can see in table 1 of the handout there are some sizable
differences in the average number of congregational connections across
our 7 research sites. It seems apparent there are variables
influencing the number of connections in each area. One of the
most obvious of these variables is the population of the research site.
There is strong relationship between the population of an area and the
number of partnerships per congregation - the larger the population,
the more ties. We are still too early in the data collection and
analysis process to test conclusively for the influence of this or
other variables. We expect, however, to find that population
density, the number of secular and government social service agencies
in an area, the strength of familial structures, population mobility,
and the character of communities might have a significant influence on
the number of partnership a congregation has.
Differences by Denomination and by Religious Grouping:
We have also discovered several interesting patterns when the number of
partner organizations per congregation are analyzed by denominational
affiliation and by our grouping of like religious traditions.
Table 2 in the handout lists all the distinct religious groups
presently represented in our study, the number of interviewed
congregations, and the average connections per group in that
denomination. I give you this primarily because we are quite
proud of the range of diverse religious traditions we have been able to
interview. This has not come without considerable perseverance on
the part of our researchers.
From this list you can begin to see subtle distribution patterns.
These patterns become more evident, however, when the 80 plus
denominations are grouped into religious families. The upper part of
Table 3 presents this information.
One apparent pattern is that — for the Jewish, mainline
Protestant, and Catholic congregations in our study — partnering
with extra-congregational and extra-denominational ministries and
resources is a common and frequent mode of operation. These
groups seem quite likely and willing to cooperate with external groups
to accomplish their mission.
For the independent congregations in our sample there is also a high
number of partnerships. This is to be expected, however, since
these connections represent, for the independent churches, the whole of
their ties, unlike the other congregations with have both
denominational and extra-denominational connections. In reality,
this figure probably represents a smaller number of total
partners since they don't have any uncounted denominational ties.
For the African American congregations, the
lower score, far lower than expected, might indicate several things:
1. That they didn't tell our researchers everything,
2. That we didn't ask the right questions or ask them about the right group ties, or
3. That ministry takes place from within the congregation -
through internal ministries and programs and less often through
The findings for the Pentecostal, Evangelical, other Christian groups,
and even the non Christian - Buddhist, Hindu, Gnostic, Muslim
congregations do not come as a surprise. One would expect the more
sectarian congregations to be less likely to connect to groups
(especially local and national secular ones) external to the
congregation. But it also might be the case, similar to
traditionally historic Black denominational churches, that ministry is
primarily done from within these congregations, not by cooperating with
Given these early results I can't wait till we get the rest of the data
in the computer and am able to discriminate by subgroups of partnership
types based on their function and services to see how this relates to
I want to briefly comment on the lower portion of Table 3. This
portion of the table shows the data on several of the most relevant
questions in the congregational survey completed by the key informant
(usually the pastor) of these congregations. As you can see there
are a few obvious correlations between several of the perceived mission
priorities for certain denominations and the partner organizational
pattern, but there are also many inconsistencies. For instance,
the low mission priority scores for the "Other" and "Non" Christian
groups fits their low partnership averages. On the other hand,
the high mission priority scores of the African American congregations
is counter to their low partnership averages.
Perhaps partnering with outside groups is less a matter of what a
congregation says its missional priorities are, than a church's
cultural norms, traditional ministry delivery structures, and
established patterns of relating to the world that shapes the ties a
congregation makes outside of its four walls, or its denominational
walls. Later analysis will allow us to test for the influence of
variables (such as a congregation's size, internal resources, and
perhaps the strength of its relationship to its denomination) that we
hypothesize might be significant variables in explaining the level of
congregational partnering, and patterns of partnering with certain
types of groups.
The Organizational Types:
We attempted to assign these 5169 partnerships to one of 16
organizational types based on its form and function as best we can tell
at this time. It needs to be said, however, that this typing,
like everything else in this preliminary report, is subject to
revision. Table 4 lists these 16 partnership categories. To
give you an idea of the number and kinds of connections within these
types, I have given examples of groups within each of the types and
noted the number of partnership established with each category.
Although it is not evident in this data, I have noticed several
preliminary patterns in the partnership ties across the seven research
Hartford congregations as a whole have a high percentage of
participation with secular non-profits and chapters of secular national
organizations than do most of the other areas. Likewise, Hartford's
congregations on average participate at a higher rate in chapters
of national religious organizations than do the other areas, except
Albuquerque and Seattle.
Nashville congregations have considerable lower percentage of connections to secular non-profit groups than the other areas.
Rural Alabama congregations, when compared the other areas, has a
higher percentage of informal coalitions, but a very low percentage of
named alliances. In addition, rural Alabama congregations in our
survey had a higher percentage of partnerships with local or regional
Rural Missouri congregations showed a comparably higher percentage of
named alliances. At the same time, they had a very low percentage
of partnerships with local religious non-profits, and with chapters of
national religious non-profits and national secular
non-profits. These congregations, however, did partner in greater
numbers with local secular non-profits and with government
sponsored groups such as the County extension agency and the Department
of Human Resources than did the churches in our other research
What all this means about the extra-denominational partnerships a
congregation makes is still a mystery. Given the early
stages of our research and analysis, we have few conclusive findings to
offer. What we can say, however, is that the congregations in our
study are involved in more of these partnerships than we would have
guessed. In addition, within these partnerships there are several
distinctive patterns which we are anxious to examine further.
Although we are far from finished, this preliminary analysis has peaked
our interest to continue the task at hand. One final thing has
become very clear from this early work — the picture being
painted by the data from this extra-denominational layer of
congregational life offers new hues and tones to the well-known colors
of the religious organizational life of the United States.
Perhaps when this research is finished it will have had a hand in
contributing to a richer, deeper, and more interesting nuance to our
accepted portrait of "denominational" religion in America.