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It’s a Matter of Time 

Exploring the Relationship between Time Spent at Work and at Church.

Many pastors and lay leaders we studied believe that lack of time is the problem confronting families in their communities. As one woman, the director of religious education at her parish, said: "[It’s] much bigger, more important, than any other change, more than single parents, more than divorce. It’s time." In this, pastors echo the findings of recent scholarship on work and family that suggests the overall quality of a family’s life together is negatively influenced by long hours spent in paid work. Increased work hours diminish a family’s time spent together, time spent on joint activities, and the quality of that time.

This sobering fact, however, has not curbed working late. Since the 1970s, people in the United States have spent increasingly long hours at work – that is, in paid employment, usually outside the home. Between 1970 and 1990 the percentage of families with small children in the home where both parents were working full time rose 300 percent, from 7 to 23 percent of all families.

Church leaders have acted on their knowledge of this time crunch and have adapted their ministries accordingly. In the congregations we studied, by far the most common innovation in family programming involved shifting the timing of worship services, children’s ministries, or other programs. We found that nearly half (45%) of pastors reported their congregation had done this in the last 5 years. Many congregations are now also providing babysitting during congregational activities like committee meetings, to encourage working and single parents to join in by easing their daycare burden.

The survey we conducted of upper New York state residents confirms the national data.  For both men and women, long hours spent at work is related to lower levels of church attendance, less involvement in other congregational ministries, and a reduced sense of the importance of religion. And for women, involvement in congregational activities peaks among those who work part-time, but declines as the number of hours at work increases. 

Our analysis suggests these problems are particularly acute for workers in lower-paying service and blue-collar jobs, who may not have resources to pay for services that help them cope with the time squeeze.

Other survey findings in combination with in-depth interviews, however, suggest another way to think about the relationship of work time and involvement in local congregations. Instead of assuming that time at work affects congregational participation, the congregation could be seen as a context that provides religious values, discourses, and practical supports for a lifestyle that is centered around family instead of around work. This is particularly true for men. Consider these findings from the survey and in-depth interviews:

  • Among men, 71% of regular church attenders report "scaling back" at work to spend more time with their family in the last two years; only 49% of non-church-attenders reported this "scaling back"
  • Among men, long hours at paid work is associated with increased use of congregational ministries targeted at themselves and their children.
  • Among working women, one of the most common reasons for reducing congregational involvement had to do with coordination issues involved in juggling two adults’ and multiple children’s time commitments.
  • For women, the relationship between work hours and religious involvement disappeared once their own attitudes towards religious institutions were taken into account. This was discovered by multivariate analysis, which is a statistical procedure that controls for the simultaneous influence of different variables on a single outcome. In this case a person's agreement with the statement: "Many churches and synagogues are insensitive and unresponsive to the concerns of women" helped to explain the effects of time spent at work on religious involvement.

Taken together, these findings suggest that when churches are sensitive to the scheduling needs of busy dual-earner families they can attract them as members, as worship participants and as users of ministries. This study also suggests that, in so doing, congregations provide important resources for helping families to "buffer" the encroachment of work into family time. Religious groups can offer a family-centered oasis in the face of increasing societal preoccupation with work and career.

Penny Edgell (Becker), Religion and Family Project, 2000.

Project funded by Lilly Endowment, Grant # 1996 1880-000.

Read an overview of the Religion and Family project directed by Penny Edgell (Becker).




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