Anyone who has ever helped organize a church potluck knows that running a congregation takes a lot of volunteer hours. One of the most interesting findings to emerge from the research of the Little Rock Congregations Study came when we looked at the subject of volunteering.
In 2016, we asked nearly 1,500 congregants at 17 places of worship in Little Rock how many hours a week they volunteered at their own congregation. Clergy and congregants both know what this kind of service looks like–setting up chairs, cooking food, providing rides, mopping the meeting hall, and so on–and they also know just how important it is. Places of worship flourish when their members are engaged and serving.
So, what predicts service to your own place of worship? We ran advanced statistical models that looked at this question and accounted for demographics like age, race, gender, income, and denomination. When all those factors are taken into account, we found three really interesting results.
First, and not so surprising, people are more willing to volunteer at their congregation when they feel warmly towards it. These are people who say that their congregation feels like family to them. It is easy to understand why they would give their time and energy to serve there.
Second, and more interesting to us as social scientists, we found that people who heard sermons about volunteering in the community were more likely to serve at their own place of worship. Importantly, these are not sermons urging members to help set up for the fish fry. These are sermons urging them to go out and serve in the broader community. It turns out that those kinds of messages also lead people to serve their own congregations.
Third, we found that the more active the congregation is in serving the community–through food pantries, backpack drives when kids go back to school, community events, and so on–the more their members serve the congregation. It looks to us like the example of service set by the congregation leads people to serve at their own place of worship.
When we look at these data, we see the benefits that come to congregations when they foster a culture of service and volunteerism. The more clergy urge their members to look beyond themselves and serve, the more they turn that same attitude towards serving their own congregation. The more a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue models selfless service, the more its members apply that same service at home.
Community service and congregational service are not a zero-sum game. Increasing one does not necessarily leave fewer resources for the other. Instead, our research finds just the opposite. When congregations serve the community, their own organizations benefit.
Dr. Rebecca A. Glazier is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She directs the Little Rock Congregations Study, a longitudinal research project that began in 2012.
For more information on the Little Rock Congregations Study, visit https://research.ualr.edu/lrcs/.