Many United Church of Christ members feel strongly that health and human service ministries will be central to the future vitality of local UCC churches, according to a new denomination-wide survey.
Conducted this fall by the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM), the research project sought to gauge present-day perceptions about health and human service ministries, understandings of these ministries’ relationship to the church’s wider mission, and what health and human service activities were of most interest to UCC congregations today.
Nearly half (48 percent) of respondents described their local congregation as extremely or somewhat “entrepreneurial” in addressing local human needs.
“What we found actually encouraged us on many fronts,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, CHHSM Vice President, who developed the survey in consultation with the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD). “There was an overwhelming sense that, unless the church is actively engaged in addressing critical human needs and speaking to contemporary injustices, then the church is irrelevant.”
When asked to agree or disagree with 14 mission-oriented phrases, the sentiment with the most resonance was “health and human service ministries are vital to the future of local churches,” with 85 percent strongly or somewhat agreeing. Similarly, many overwhelmingly agreed that “health and human service institutions are born out of church members’ passions to serve God by serving others” (84%) and that “CHHSM should play a more active role in helping congregations address local needs” (83%).
“It’s clear that respondents are looking for CHHSM to play a more active role in the life of the church, helping to network existing ministries and encourage the development of new ones,” said Michael J. Readinger, CHHSM CEO and President.
The Rev. Patrick Duggan, executive director of the UCC’s Church Building & Loan Fund, which assists new and renewing congregations to define — or redefine — their models of ministry in an ever-changing mission landscape, agrees that health and human service ministries may be an impactful way forward for many local churches in search of a purpose with greater impact.
“There are hundreds of churches around the country looking for new ways to advance the Gospel mission,” Duggan said. “They have community relationships, motivated volunteers and under-utilized space. Human service offerings might well be the ideal sustainable, mission-focused, revenue-generating initiatives these churches are looking for.”
CHHSM is an association of more than 400 member-ministries, each founded by a UCC congregation, member or minister, and recognized by one of the UCC’s 38 regional Conferences. Ranging widely in scope and services offered, some CHHSM ministries are more than 150 years old, while others were formed recently.
“We take very seriously the fact that one in five respondents indicated that their local church has started a health and human service ministry in recent years that could benefit from ongoing relationship to the wider church,” Readinger said. “And just because many of these ministries are now free-standing organizations, they should not be, in any way, deemed of lesser importance to the UCC’s overall mission.”
The phrases most associated with CHHSM are: “Meeting Human Needs” (80 percent); “Compassion” (71 percent) and “Direct Service” (51 percent). “Public Policy Advocacy” (17 percent) ranked much lower than expected, Guess said, suggesting the need for CHHSM to communicate more explicitly about its members’ work to address social justice concerns, especially ageism, ableism, racism, homo/transphobia, economic injustice, and gun violence.
To the surprise — and hope — of the CHHSM board, which reviewed and discussed the survey findings at its Nov. 14-16 meeting in Cleveland, respondents under 40 years old indicated a greater familiarity with CHHSM and said they could identify more CHHSM-member ministries by name than respondents over 65.
“We purposefully wanted to know if there was a sentiment out there that CHHSM in particular, or health and human service ministries in general, are somehow perceived as passé or yesteryear, and what we heard back was just the opposite,” Guess said. “In fact, the phrase that was most strongly rebuked by respondents, and by a wide margin, was ‘CHHSM is basically an organization that honors the church’s historical ties to old institutions, but has little relevance to the church of today.’”
Similarly, when asked to describe the defining characteristics of a CHHSM-member ministry, the phrase ‘business enterprise historically tied to the church’ was overwhelmingly rejected by 89 percent of respondents.
“We were glad to hear that,” Readinger said, “because — although several of our UCC-related institutions have grown to be large, complex organizations — they still very much see themselves as ministries of the church, not merely business enterprises.”
The survey, completed by 345 people, was open to “anyone who has an interest in serving others,” whether or not they were familiar with CHHSM. Reviewed by CARD, the survey results were deemed a statistically reliable sample based on the breadth and diversity of respondents, which closely mirrored UCC demographics as a whole.