WACO—Churches want to help people on their spiritual paths. But sometimes, people are more concerned about navigating their way to such services as health care and job training.
Placing social workers in congregations to help community members deal with practical and financial issues—as well as emotional and spiritual needs—is the aim of Walking Alongside, a project of the Center for Family and Community Ministries in Baylor University’s School of Social Work, said Jon Singletary, center director.
The center found evidence for the need in a $2 million, three-year survey that included a sample of more than 10,000 congregations and faith-based organizations across the country, done with the help of Pew Charitable Trusts, said Singletary, associate professor of social work.
The nine-page survey revealed that despite congregations’ yearning to help their neighborhoods, “they didn’t always make the difference they wanted to,” Singletary said.
“We had to figure out how to make that happen. … Our role is to walk alongside them.”
The center’s effort began in 2006 when a few students who felt called to serve as social workers within congregations signed up for a specialized program in the School of Social Work.
The idea is catching on. The program that began with a half-dozen interns now has 18 students who serve on a community ministries team and will be congregational interns. Many of the program’s two dozen alumni are leading community ministries in several states and in several denominations.
When the concept was new, it took trial and error, said Samantha Oakley, the center’s associate director. She served as an intern in 2006-2007 at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco.
A soccer player, she tried to reach out by offering soccer games for the neighborhood in a grassy lot owned by a nearby church.
“One person showed up, plus my supervisor with the water cooler,” Oakley said. “What we learned is we can’t impose what we think people need.”
The interns switched to visiting families in the neighborhood to ask their input about how the church could aid, she said.
From such grassroots research, as well as information gleaned from the Pew study, the center put together a list of ideas churches could consider when beginning a new ministry, as well as examples of ministries other churches have offered.
“It’s a huge range from the more technical things, like health services, to more basic things like a food pantry,” Singletary said. “The churches that do the basics realized the same people keep coming back again and again for food and clothing and money. We began to hear things like, ‘We want to be more transformational.’”
At Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, interns in the past few years have led the way in that mission, Pastor Dorisanne Cooper said.
“It’s a wonderful complement to our ministry,” she said. “We look at whether we’re only putting a Band-Aid on things or whether we’re really helping spiritually and practically.
“What the interns have done is explore the way we went about our benevolence fund,” Cooper said. “We moved from a haphazard way to a more systematic and collaborative approach.”
The students helped the church link those in need to such resources as Caritas, Mission Waco, the Family Abuse Center, early childhood intervention groups and job training programs.
“We’re also able to take referrals from other social workers in town,” Cooper said. “Maybe they know of a child who doesn’t have a coat. We can use their expertise to better use our money, not just give $25 to whoever comes in and wants help with utilities.
“We don’t have to have the expertise. We just have to know who has the expertise.”
The church’s first intern was Carol McEntyre, a 2003 Baylor graduate who now is director of Buckner Community Ministries at First Baptist Church of Knoxville in Knoxville, Tenn.
“My job is to wake up every morning thinking about people outside the congregation in need,” she said.
She enlists the congregation for such projects as spending time with neglected children and mentoring homeless people seeking a fresh start.
In McEntyre’s classes at Baylor, “I learned the language of the church and of social work and how to combine them,” she said.
“But the most helpful thing was the social work placement. That changed my life,” she said.
“I walked away from Lake Shore saying, ‘I don’t ever want to do anything else.’”
Many churches and faith-based organizations cannot afford to hire social work interns or professionals, Singletary said. An intern’s salary is $3,000 a semester; a full-time social worker’s yearly salary likely would run $30,000 to $40,000, he said.
So, the center put together a 75-page directory of contacts in the Waco area. The directory costs $15.
“Even if churches can’t afford an intern or social worker, they can get nuggets to help them,” Singletary said.
The center’s next project will be to complete the list of resources they have begun to offer on their website to aid congregations, he said. Already, the list includes materials related to literacy, working with older adults, advocacy and after-school care.
“The steps have been small,” Singletary said. “It’s not a sprint. It’s a slow, long journey of helping churches love their neighbors in new and effective ways.”