The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare

S. Craig This

The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare by RAM A. CNAAN with STEPHANIE C. BODDIE, FEMIDA HANDY, GAYNOR YANCEY, and RICHARD SCHNEIDER. New York: New York University Press, 2002, 329 pp.; $60. cloth, $20. paper.

Near the end of The Invisible Caring Hand, Ram Cnaan writes, “the findings and ideas presented in this book represent one of the first in-depth studies of the social and community involvement of America’s religious congregations” (p.280). With this statement Cnaan provides an accurate assessment of his book.

Cnaan and his colleagues begin their study by providing a brief, but thorough, summary of how congregations in the United States, using Holifield’s model of congregations, have come to this point of providing faith-based services (Holifield 1994). Further, the introduction by John Dilulio, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, helps to underscore the current climate of support for faith-based services in the United States.

Using a sample of 251 churches drawn from various regions of the United States, Cnaan and his colleagues, through questionnaires, one-on-one interviews with clergy and lay leaders, and case studies, analyze both the services and the benefits these congregations bring to their communities. Cnaan and his colleagues make visible the “invisible” caring hand of churches and congregations across the United States.

Their study examines a variety of programs: informal (as the need arises); on-site congregational supported; off-site programs congregational supported; on-site non-congregational supported and off-site non-congregational supported. While Cnaan and colleagues count numbers–how many programs, how many served, and how many serve, they also focus on what the congregations are providing to the community in terms of services provided and space provided. Ultimately, what Cnaan and his colleagues show is not only the social capital and benefits provided to the congregation and community, but also the financial savings to the taxpayer and the financial contributions made by congregations in these areas.

However, one should not read this as an apologetic for faith-based initiatives. Rather, Cnaan and his colleagues document and make a strong argument for the role of the congregation in the community, especially the small congregation in a small community.

Cnaan and his associates state that case in their chapter on “small-town congregations,” a case study of the role of congregations in Council Grove, Kansas and the services the congregations provide there. Cnaan and his colleagues also study “councils of churches” or “church federations,” as mediating structures pooling their resources, in the chapter entitled “The Greater New Orleans Federation of Churches.” Another case study documents the impact of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in an urban setting. These three case studies provide an important, colorful and interesting human side to the book.

One perplexing chapter in the book is “Comparing Neighbors: Canada and the USA,” which does as it says, comparing congregations and their social programs in the United States with Canada. While interesting, the reader is left to wonder why and how this chapter fits into the book. As it is it seems to be merely inserted with no rhyme or reason. My hope would be that the themes and topics of this chapter would be fleshed out into a more fully developed article or book.

Cnaan and his colleagues conclude from their study that despite the existence of federal funds for social service programs, mission, not money, predisposes congregations toward providing social service programs. Providing social service programs goes “hand in hand with the congregations’ … concern for social justice” (p. 253). This concern for social justice, in turn, creates a norm within congregations that is supported and nourished by the congregants. True, Cnaan and his colleagues argue that people join congregations to practice their faith and fulfill needs for “meaning, self-worth, and love,” but through its norm for social justice the congregation motivates “the congregants to comply with the group’s norm and culture” (p. 232).

The Invisible Caring Hand represents an excellent addition to studies focused on understanding the role of local churches in their communities, especially in the area of faith-based and community initiatives. Cnaan and his colleagues provide sociologists, seminary faculty, public policy analysts, clergy, and denominational researchers with a thorough and systematic study of congregations and the services they provide. Not only do they provide an overview of congregations and their economic impact, but also an overview of congregations and their social capital impact. Finally, it must be said that Cnaan and his colleagues provide a historical study–a reference point–for future historians as to this period in United States history when charitable choice was on the national political stage.


Holifield, E.B. (1994). Toward a history of American congregations. In American Congregations: Volume 2–New Perspectives in the study of congregations, edited by J.P. Wind & J.W. Lewis, 23-53. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

S. Craig This

Office of Research & Planning, The United Methodist Church

COPYRIGHT 2004 Association for the Sociology of Religion

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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