Editor's note:

Religious communities are hugely diverse, and head-on dialogue about matters of faith can be intimidating. But there are other ways to engage with those who differ from us, and working toward shared goals that are not explicitly religious can open doors to a wealth of common experience. In Trust learned this during its first round of Good Faith Governance Seminars, when we brought together groups from theological schools of widely divergent Christian traditions, and watched as they realized how similar their challenges were.

In Religion and the New Immigrants: How Faith Communities Form Our Newest Citizens (Oxford University Press), Michael W. Foley and Dean R. Hoge analyze immigrant religious communities in the Washington, D.C., area, discovering that congregations help to incorporate their immigrant members into the civic society in a variety of ways. They do this by providing their members with "civic skills" like public speaking, networking, literacy lessons, and leadership of parish organizations both small and large.

If very different groups are doing the same kind of work — training people to be involved in governance, assembling civically involved groups — might they work better together? Might institutions of theological education serve as catalysts?

The following is excerpted from Religion and the New Immigrants: How Faith Communities Form Our Newest Citizens, by Michael W. Foley and Dean R. Hoge (Oxford University Press, forthcoming, 254 pp., $35). Material is © 2006 by Oxford University Press, and was used with permission of the publisher. 

Worship communities are organized around religious purposes. Religious organizations do not generally set out self-consciously to generate civic skills. The training relevant to civic life in which they engage is a by-product of their own community life and of efforts to meet their own needs. Even when worship communities provide direct training and encouragement to engage civically, they do so out of motivations that answer to religious imperatives or justifications. Precisely for these reasons, we need to ask about the impact of such training on actual civic engagement. If the "civic skills" generated in the course of community life are mainly focused inward, they will have little immediate impact for civic engagement. If members are encouraged to play an active role beyond the worship community, we can begin to speak of civic impact.

Lay leadership in worship and in the multiple activities of a community's life are important for developing civic skills, but participation in governance is arguably more important. Here members of the community take responsibility for the larger life of the community, participating actively in framing decisions, and often participating in delicate negotiations or difficult coalition building. Of course, not every governance body has the same level of responsibility.

In Catholic parishes, the pastor generally remains in firm control, and parish council members often serve at the pleasure of the pastor, with little authority over the budget or other key decisions in parish life. Many of the pastor-founded Protestant churches are equally, if not more, authoritarian in structure. In other cases, religious leaders serve at the pleasure of the community or of a board of directors, which wields considerable power in the community. We shall have to keep these distinctions in mind as we assess the evidence of our survey.

Most immigrant congregations, regardless of religious tradition or ethnic group, feature a governing committee of some sort. In a majority of Protestant churches and 11 out of the 14 mosques we studied, this body is elected by the community. By contrast, in almost a third of Catholic parishes, the governing parish council is appointed by the pastor. In other religious traditions, direct election by the community and/or election by some special body prevails. These committees, as we noted, vary considerably in their powers. In Catholic parishes, they have no say in selection of the pastor; but in over 40 percent of Protestant congregations, 55 percent of Hindu temples, 86 percent of the mosques, and 100 percent of the Sikh gurdwaras, the governing body has this power. It is even more likely to have authority over the budget in these traditions, whereas Catholic churches tend to restrict budgetary authority to the pastor.

Lay leadership in immigrant worship communities by religious tradition
Number of cases (in Washington, D.C., region) CATH. PROT. MUSLIM HINDU SIKH
22 150 14 9 4
Persons in leadership roles

Percent of the regularly participating adults who have served in some leadership role in the congregation in the last 12 months. Mean: 13 28 15 15 15
Of these persons, what percent are female? Mean: 51 49 49 47 55
What percent are young adults, that is, under 30 years old? Mean: 27 27 24 11 20
Congregational governance (percent)

Worship communities with a governing committee 86 91 100 100 75
If yes: how many people are on it? Mean: 14.5 15.1 10.3 10.4 10.0
Percent female 46 43 17 23 13
Governing committee is elected by members 32 52 85 22 33
Governing committee has power over the budget 32 76 93 78 100
Governing committee appoints the pastor 5 41 86 56 100
Source:Religion and the New Immigrants, Table 5.3

Women are less likely to sit on these committees in all the traditions than they are to assume leadership roles in other subgroups of the worship community. Though the percentage of females on governing bodies approaches 50 percent in Catholic and Protestant churches, the percentage varies between 13 and 23 percent in Sikh congregations, mosques, and Hindu temples. The last numbers are low, but they are a corrective to the prevailing patriarchal image we have of these religious traditions.

The higher numbers among Catholics and Protestants also belie dominant images of immigrants as religious traditionalists for whom women play at best a subsidiary role in community life. In fact, a comparison with the National Congregations Survey figures for female participation in Catholic and Protestant churches in the United States suggests that women are as likely to have a place on governing bodies in immigrant churches as in the average American church.

Opportunities to participate in leading the worship service, to take part in small groups and committees within the community, and to share in community governance provide indirect training in civic skills. These activities give people the opportunity to develop and hone skills in public speaking, organizing and conducting meetings, coalition-building and political maneuvering, and critical thinking. They are not directly oriented, however, to civic engagement.

Indeed, there is some evidence that the more intensely involved people become in their worship communities -- honing civil skills along the way -- the less likely they are to participate in the larger civic arena. Some individuals may be multitaskers whose energies overflow from worship community to the larger community, but most people, it seems, feel forced to choose between a demanding worship community and larger civic involvement.

Nevertheless, there are a number of ways worship communities not only encourage civic engagement but actually provide enhanced opportunities to become involved. Among these opportunities is direct training for civic engagement via classes and discussion groups.

Worship communities often provide classes and discussion groups for their members, and they frequently host other organizations that do so as well. A surprising number of worship communities sponsor programs to register people to vote, discuss politics, lobby elected officials, and participate in demonstrations. The Hindu communities were by far the least likely to do so, a phenomenon we attributed both to the organizational culture of most temples and the view that Hindus already felt an obligation to be civically engaged and did so in other venues.

Beyond these directly political sorts of efforts, worship communities often sponsor other sorts of skills training and civic engagement. Catholic and Muslim communities were most likely to sponsor citizenship classes. More than three-quarters of the Catholic churches had English language classes, as did over a third of the Protestant churches and a quarter of the mosques. Meetings to help orient immigrants to local community services were common among all religious traditions, with Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities leading the way. Less common were meetings to discuss race or ethnic relations; but half the Catholic and Sikh worship communities had such meetings, as did between 20 and 27 percent of Muslim, Hindu, and Protestant communities. Not surprisingly, such discussions were particularly important among African congregations; but 20-30 percent of worship communities serving the other ethnic groups also held them.

In all these respects, then -- opportunities for lay leadership in the worship service, participation in subgroups within the community, leadership in the governance of the community, and direct training for civic engagement -- churches, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras undoubtedly contribute to developing civic skills and promoting civic engagement among immigrants. But these organizations differ tremendously in how much they do, for whom, and with what effect.

Training in civic skills: meetings, classes, and discussion groups
Number of cases (in Washington, D.C., region) CATH. PROT. MUSLIM HINDU SIKH
22 150 14 9 4
Percent of worship communities that, during the
last 12 months, have hosted, sponsored, or held:

Voter registration drive 41 23 43 11 50
Discussion of political issues 41 11 21 11 50
Meeting to participate in lobbying effort 32 20 21 0 75
Meeting to participate in a demonstration 46 11 50 0 50
Meeting to plan an assessment of community needs 62 48 36 11 0
English as a second language classes 77 38 23 0 50
Citizenship classes 46 15 43 0 50
Meeting to orient members to community services 46 41 64 22 25
Discussion of race relations 55 27 21 22 50
Meeting for volunteer work in the community 82 49 50 78 75
Source:Religion and the New Immigrants, Table 5.4

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