Article Features Terry AmslerJay Miller

Working With Local Clergy and Congregations Offers Real Benefits

Terry Amsler is program director of the Institute for Local Government’s Public Engagement and Collaborative Governance program and can be reached at Jay Miller is a rabbi and executive director of the Peninsula Clergy Network; he can be reached at

Clergy and congregations are an important part of the community in nearly every city in California. Many city officials have discovered that working effectively with them serves to recognize this important sector and also advances the needs and interests of local agencies and the broader community.

Throughout California:

  • Cities host dialogues with local clergy to address critical community issues;
  • City staff disseminates information through local clergy and congregations about vital city activities and services;
  • Congregations provide volunteers and sites to support local services ranging from tutoring to emergency preparedness; and
  • Cities diversify their public engagement efforts through outreach efforts and partnerships with clergy and congregations. 

Why Work With Clergy And Congregations?

Developing working relationships with your local clergy and congregations offers many benefits:

Community Access. In most communities, a significant number of residents belong to local congregations. Working with these congregations and their clergy can offer access to these community members in an appropriate and respectful way and facilitate efforts such as sharing local agency information with residents, recruiting individuals to serve on local boards and commissions, and involving more people in community engagement events.

Organizationally, congregations also represent collective resources of people and facilities. As partners, cities can draw on these resources to extend the public sector’s reach and resources in delivering programs and services; for example, congregational facilities may serve as post-disaster emergency shelters.

Diverse Membership. A survey conducted in 2007 by the Institute for Local Government asked local officials for their opinions about public engagement. Respondents’ number one concern was how to attract members of the public beyond those who typically get involved or who tend to focus solely on single issues.

Clergy and congregations often offer untapped resources for reaching out beyond “the usual people” in a community. They can help promote participation in public engagement processes, inform residents about local government programs and work with local agencies to provide needed community services.

The faith sector not only comprises diverse religious denominations but also reflects additional diversities of race, ethnicity, culture and nationality — all representative of their local communities.

Readiness to Participate. Renewing cities’ and counties’ effective working relationships with clergy and congregations makes sense today more than ever. Clergy and congregation members typically welcome an invitation to become better informed about local government and more involved in city and county activities. Indeed, community service plays an important role in many congregations’ activities, and a study conducted in 2004 by the Peninsula Clergy Network and University of Southern California found that clergy in the San Francisco Peninsula region have a significant interest in civic engagement.

Clergy as Resources. The clergy should be viewed as especially important resources, not only within their congregations and communities but in their cities and counties as well. These individuals are typically:           

  • Organizational leaders;
  • Opinion shapers;
  • Important community gatekeepers; and
  • Smart, experienced community members. 

The clergy serves as a kind of community trustee, usually with broad rather than narrow interests, who can be an effective advocate and facilitator for partnerships with local government.

Stronger Communities. Engaging the faith sector in the civic and political life of cities and counties can result in stronger communities with better informed residents, increased community participation and additional support for local programs and services. When these partnerships support broader involvement in important communitywide issues, such as disaster preparedness and response, school drop-out prevention, land use planning and greenhouse gas reduction, they are particularly effective.

Working relationships developed and maintained over time with the broadest possible range of clergy and congregations generally produce optimal community-building results.

Ways to Work Together

Local officials throughout California have found good reasons and practical ways to work with clergy and congregations, including:

Extending Education and Outreach. Congregant meetings and media, as well as direct information-sharing by clergy, can help local agencies spread the word about new and important public services, emergency preparedness planning, opportunities for involvement in local commissions or citizen academies, public engagement opportunities and more.

Increasing and Diversifying Public Engagement. Local officials know first-hand the difficulty of reaching out to and successfully engaging residents who rarely get involved in public processes about local planning, budgeting or environmental issues, to name just a few. Such difficulty may include the challenges of involving immigrants and members of low-income communities. But regardless of their demographic profile, most residents possess a modest knowledge of local government and don’t often participate in local civic and political life. Reaching out through clergy and congregations can be an effective way to bring more people, including underrepresented populations, into local agency public engagement efforts.

Partnering With Local Governments to Deliver Programs and Services. As part of a growing trend, cities are seeking collaborative and multisector approaches to address community needs. Given the current economic climate of diminished revenues and staff resources, developing appropriate partnerships can be a timely, cost-efficient strategy for local government. The faith community offers human resources and facilities along with the community trust and legitimacy that congregations often bring to partnerships with local agencies. These elements can contribute enormously to program and service delivery.

Becoming Familiar With Faith Sector Language

To better understand and more effectively work with clergy and congregations, local officials may wish to become familiar with some basic terminology.

Faith Sector. This sector comprises the institutions that are the framework for the people and organizations associated with collective religious activities. Some consider the faith sector, or certain faith sector organizations, to fall within the nonprofit sector. Others believe the faith sector should have its own designation.

Congregations. The people who belong to a religious institution are its members, collectively referred to as the congregation. In most but not all cases, clergy lead congregations. In some faiths, a board of congregants shares the leadership responsibilities.

In addition to their respective denominational beliefs, congregations are typically characterized by the shared experience of worship, a common meeting space and building(s), and frequent gatherings and meetings for worship, education and fellowship. Members of congregations typically live in neighborhoods throughout the local community.

While the term “congregation” is an appropriately inclusive term for most faiths and reinforces congregants’ central and membership role, it’s helpful to use specific denominational language when referring to a particular church, synagogue, mosque or temple.

Clergy. In most cases, individual congregations are led by one or more clergy who combines the role of spiritual leader, chief management and organization professional, and denominational representative. “Clergy” is a generally appropriate and inclusive word that designates faith sector leadership, although not all denominations ordain or otherwise designate clergy of any title. Using accurate titles for specific clergy, such as rabbi, father, reverend, imam or bishop, makes an important difference when working with faith organizations. Some clergy may use two titles, depending on the formality of the situation.

Getting Started

Strategies for developing effective working relationships with clergy and congregations are fully explored in an upcoming guide, A Local Official’s Guide to Working Effectively With Clergy and Congregations, from the Institute for Local Government. In the meantime, the following suggestions offer some good places to start.

  • Develop and maintain a current database of all clergy and congregations in your community;
  • Become familiar with the various traditions and the appropriate respectful language for the faith sector;
  • Establish and maintain ongoing relationships with local clergy;
  • Attend congregational worship services, festivals and other events;
  • Involve and prepare city staff and departments to work effectively with clergy and congregations; and
  • Think, prepare and act broadly, strategically and consistently when developing relationships and working with local clergy and congregations.  

Mayor Ron Loveridge of the City of Riverside understands the value of such efforts and offers this advice: “Clergy and congregations represent an important reservoir of social capital in communities throughout California. Local officials should provide clergy with the opportunity to interact side by side with civic and political leadership and make them aware of avenues through which they and their congregants can participate in local decision-making.”

This article appears in the August 2010 issue of Western City
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