Academic journal article The Foundation Review

The Role of the Congregation in Community Service: A Philanthropic Case Study

Academic journal article The Foundation Review

The Role of the Congregation in Community Service: A Philanthropic Case Study

Article excerpt

Keywords: Families, congregations, education, children, philanthropy


In an effort to bolster academic achievement and close the achievement gap among children in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Douglas and Maria DeVos Family Foundation organized and funded a collaborative, church-based effort called the Gatherings of Hope Initiative (GHI).1 The initiative aims to increase the quality and quantity of collaborative community outreach and service efforts by inner-city African-American and Latino congregations. It includes a variety of components, including continuing education for clergy, grants for family educational and recreational programs, and developmental support for program design, grant writing, communications, and technology. This article concerns one component of GHI: the Family Leadership Initiative (FLI), a multichurch effort to strengthen families and educate children.

The FLI began in spring 2011 with "congregational learning teams," composed of clergy and volunteers from two cohorts of 20 congregations each. The teams met at the foundation's facilities and were tasked with designing the program in a grassroots manner. Both clergy and congregants - parents and youth - from the participating churches were invited to play an active role in designing the program. By offering the congregations a stake in the design, the foundation hoped that the churches would have a stronger sense of ownership during the subsequent implementation. Ultimately, the FLI sought to equip congregations to be more interested in and adept at supporting families and students academically.

The impetus for the FLI was poor academic performance in Grand Rapids. The city's school system has been losing students, closing buildings, and producing some discouraging numbers: a 52 percent graduation rate and only 49 percent of seventh-graders reading at grade level (Grand Rapids Public Schools, 2009). Moreover, a 2012 study found that only 8 percent of juniors in Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) taking the ACT college entrance exam were deemed "college ready" (French, 2012).

The reasons for these disappointing results are myriad and complex. Although GRPS may seem an easy scapegoat to some, closer examination reveals the school system to be a victim of much broader socioeconomic phenomena. In an effort to bolster academic achievement among Grand Rapids' children without casting blame, the foundation implemented the FLI in 2011 in an effort to harness the latent potential of congregations to support students and their families.2 With the direct leadership of program officer Khary Bridgewater and the supportive leadership of senior program officer Edwin Hernández, the foundation invited clergy and lay people from 40 congregations to participate in the design and implementation of a program that would seek to enhance the academic performance of students from their respective churches and neighborhoods. With their support, congregations received an invitation to apply for $5,000 grants to facilitate implementation of the pilot program at their churches during the fall semester of 2011.3 To summarize, the foundation sought to use the grant money and pilot program in order to mobilize, equip, and support religious congregations to engage with their communities and take an active role in educating children to be ready for school, work, and life.

Literature Review

In the disciplinary field of congregational studies, a consistently dominant theme has been that of "de facto congregationalism" (Warner, 1994). That is, the bent of churches in the United States tends to be toward isolation. Such a phenomenon dovetails with declining denominationalism. In short, congregations desire to be autonomous and independent. Such a proclivity for self-sufficiency and sovereignty inhibits the ability of churches to pool resources, network, or collaborate on efforts and projects that would benefit their larger respective communities. …

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