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Congregations Adapting to Changes in Work and Family

A Report from the Religion and Family Project*

Penny Edgell (Becker)
Prepared for the New England Religion Discussion Society
Hartford Seminary, Sept. 24 1999

Draft! Do not cite or quote 
without author’s permission

*This project funded by the Lilly Endowment (grant # 1996 1880-000). Direct all correspondence to the author at the University of Minnesota, 909 Sciences Building, 267 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 55455 or edgell@umn.edu.

The following is an abbreviated version of this article; you may read this article in full

Congregational Responses to Changing Families

In the 1950s, churches in the United States experienced a period of rapid growth and institution building in large part due to the expansion of middle-class suburbs and the accompanying rise in the proportion of the population that adopted the male-breadwinner family model (Ammerman and Roof 1995, Ellwood 1997, Marler 1995, Winter 1962). Programming was organized around the male-breadwinner family’s needs and schedule. Sunday Schools, youth groups, and women’s groups proliferated, along with church- and parish-based social activities that allowed the entire family to spend time together on weekends (Christiano 1999, Fishburn 1991, Nash and Berger 1962). Churches supported familism, an ideology that valued family life as central in importance and associated the stable, nuclear, male-breadwinner family with good citizenship and the moral health of the national culture (Bell 1958, Christiano 1999, Fishburn 1991). This time of religious expansion, then, was also a time of institutional isomorphism around a particular model of family ministry (CITATIONS).

In the 1990s, family life is very different than it was in the 1950s. The dual-earner family is statistically dominant and, some argue, culturally normative. Larger and more stable portions of the population remain unmarried, or childless, throughout much of their adult lives. There are more single parents; divorce and blended families are much more common (Treas 1999, Treas and Walter 1978). People have different understandings about what makes for a desirable or appropriate family lifestyle, as well. Prior to the 1970s, polls show that most Americans agreed with statements like, "It’s better for everybody if the man earns the money and the woman takes care of the home and family." Since the mid-70s, Americans have displayed more egalitarian ideas about gender roles, and gay and lesbian lifestyles have gained visibility and legitimacy. Skolnick (1991) identifies the emergence of "cultural pluralism" in beliefs about good and appropriate family lifestyles. Lakoff argues that much of the current "culture war" is based upon a cultural cleavage between those with a more traditional/patriarchal model of the family and a growing group who have a more egalitarian/sharing model of the family (cf. Bellah et al 1991, Eichler 1997, Hunter 1991).

Why would we expect local congregations to react to these changes in the family? As Marler notes, one reason has to do with organizational growth and even survival. As the proportion of the population who are most likely to attend church – two-parent families with children in the home – shrinks, the religious "market" shrinks. Changes in attitudes and beliefs also affect attendance; Roof and Gesch find that those with more feminist/egalitarian beliefs are less likely to attend church. More generally, Friedland and Alford argue that changes in one institution are likely to lead to changes in other institutions with which the changing institution is linked, through processes of cultural borrowing and innovation as well as to solve pragmatic problems of coordinating action (cf. Swidler 1986). In this understanding, changes in the family pose the problem of fundamental transformation in the environment in which religious organizations and institutions operate (Haveman), with the most direct impact occurring at the level of the local congregation.

We know that these changes in family life are very much on the mind of religious leaders in many faith traditions who are working to reconceptualize how religious communities can remain relevant given the changes in work and family in our society (see Browning et al, Carr and Van Leeuwen). Fieldwork for this project, as well as the survey of pastors, indicates that changes in work and family life are at the top of pastors’ lists of pressing issues. Upstate New York is not the only area where these issues are on the minds of local congregational leaders; fieldwork in Oak Park in the early 1990s showed that among pastors and lay leaders how to adapt to changes in work and family life topped the list of congregational priorities for the short term (over the next 5 years).

This suggests that most local churches are not simply ignoring these changes, but so far there is little research that would help in predicting local congregational patterns of adaptation to these changes. One exception is Marler’s study of one Protestant parish, which sketches a pattern that she believes may be common among Protestant churches. Briarglen, a thriving church in the 1950s, is now facing a reduced membership comprised of busy dual-earner couples who give money, but not volunteer labor, to the church. Increasingly, an older band of retirees provide services for these younger members. Marler sees this as a fore-runner of decline, but that may be a premature assessment. In any case, it is not clear if the pattern that Marler identifies is a typical one, or if there are other responses to family change in the religious institutional landscape.

There are at least two different interpretive frameworks that can be brought to bear in understanding how congregations adapt to changes in work and family. One framework uses the metaphor of the market to understand processes of adaptation. Under this framework, adaptation would be seen as a response to changes in demand, due to shifts in the market of potential members. A market framework would emphasize the resources that congregations have available to facilitate their adaptive efforts – a congregation with more money or a better-trained pastor would be expected to adapt more quickly than a smaller, poorer congregation. A market approach would also emphasize the immediacy of demand; congregations in areas with a higher percentage of professional women, for example, or in a community with a vocal gay and lesbian population, might be expected to adapt more quickly than other congregations to contemporary family lifestyles.

An institutional approach can also take into account such issues as the resources available for adaptation and the role of local community demographics in bringing about adaptation. Most institutional theories of agency make resources a central component of the capacity to bring about change (see Friedland and Alford 1991, Sewell). And a local population directly affected by changes in work and family are more likely to provide agents who actively demand change. But an institutional approach also emphasizes two other processes that affect adaptation. One is the role of institutional culture in filtering and selecting which changes in the environment will be attended to; liberal churches may feel it is a requirement to take into account feminist critiques of traditional approaches to family while conservative churches do not (cf. Douglas 1986). An institutional approach also emphasizes that institutions tend to adapt not by devising the most efficient response to market conditions, but by deploying a set of standard institutional practices, often disseminated through professional networks or training programs (Strang and Soule). Finally, an institutional approach can take into account that religious organizations may have other goals besides efficiency, maximizing members and money, or even organizational survival, in determining their response to any given change in the environment (Friedland and Alford 1991).

This paper reports on initial findings from the Religion and Family project, which analyzes data on religious organizations and individual residents in four communities in Upstate New York. This overall aim of the project is to map the current institutional links between religion and family in these communities. Among the questions the larger project will address include:

How are religious organizations adapting to nontraditional family forms and what is the scope of that adaptation?

In local communities, which religious organizations innovate in this area and which ones follow?

Which programs and services work in attracting nontraditional families and which ones do not?

When those in nontraditional families are included in congregational life, what effect does that have on programming? On decision-making and other group processes? On culture and mission?

What effect does religious belonging and participation have on nontraditional families as they balance work and family or cope with life-course

This paper begins to develop an answer to the first question listed above, "How are religious organizations adapting to nontraditional family forms and what is the scope of that adaptation?" This paper sketches out two different forms of adaptation: symbolic or discursive adaptation (affirming egalitarian or progressive views on gender roles and family issues), and programmatic adaptation (developing ministry programs for post-50s lifestyles or post-50s issues). The paper also presents some initial analysis of which congregations are engaging in which form of adaptation, and why. In the final section, the paper lays out plans for further analyses around this larger set of issues.

Religion and Family Project

In 1998 and 1999, the Religion and Family Project collected data in four communities in Upstate New York:

Liverpool, a metropolitan, white, professional/middle-class suburb outside of Syracuse.  Liverpool contains both an older, more established middle-class as well as a younger generation of managers and professionals who work for the major employers of the Syracuse metropolitan area.

Northside, a metropolitan, working-class neighborhood in Syracuse, with ethnic diversity and a history of economic decline, experiencing some influx of urban renewal money.

Seneca County, a non-metropolitan county with a stable agricultural base and a largely working-class population, many of whom commute to a city in a neighboring county for service-sector jobs.

Tompkins County, a non-metropolitan county with a large central town that is economically prosperous, Cornell University and other major employers, and a largely middle-class, professional population.

In each community, four major data-gathering activities were being performed:

A stratified random-sample survey of 250 community residents, asking about their religious and community involvement, work, and family life (Total N=1006)

A census survey of the pastor (or other key informant) of each religious congregation within the community (N=125)

Follow-up in-depth interviews with a sample of those who completed the resident survey.

Follow-up participant-observation in congregations responding to the clergy survey

Read or print this article in full.

Read Dr. Edgell's other reports on this project.

Go to more information about religion and the family.




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