Congregations as social service providers: Services, capacity, culture, and organizational behavior

Ram A. Cnaan, Jill W. Sinha, Charlene C. McGrew

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Social welfare is traditionally discussed as a mixture of public, private, communal, and familial enterprise. Indeed, most text-books and programs focus on the changing balance between these four circles of care. In the United States, a fifth and recently prominent circle of care exists and plays a major role, namely congregation-based social service provision. In this article, we first explain why faith-based care is so paramount in the United States, including a short discussion about the political developments in faith-based efforts. We then show the scope of congregational involvement in social service provision based on a large study of congregations. The rest of the article is dedicated to key administrative challenges regarding this mode of social service provision with a focus on their capacity, cultural characteristics, and organizational behavior. The latter topic is divided between start-up of new projects by congregations and issues related to running social programs in congregational settings. We conclude with a summary and discussion about the place of congregations as social service providers in the American welfare arena.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-68
Number of pages22
JournalAdministration in Social Work
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2004
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Address correspondence to: Ram A. Cnaan, PhD, Professor and Director, Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work, University of Pennsylvania, 3701 Locust Walk, D-19, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6214 (E-mail: The authors wish to thank the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Buford Foundation for technical and financial support that were necessary for the completion of this study.


  • Administrative challenges
  • Alternative social services delivery
  • Congregations
  • Faith-based social services
  • Welfare-mix

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Public Administration


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