Economic development. Networking. Community engagement.
These phrases may come to mind when someone thinks about chambers of commerce. Varying in size and capacity, they mobilize businesses and organizations in order to promote economic growth. And, yes, they’re known to engage politically, especially on the national level. In local chambers you’ll find the local repair shop, assorted banking companies, and even colleges and universities. When you next peruse your local chamber’s membership list, however, you’re unlikely to find a congregation.
But we need churches in chambers of commerce.
This isn’t a case of sneaky marketing, or trying to bring more religion into the business world. This is an issue of economic development. Or, rather, how churches view (or don’t view) themselves as economic drivers. I doubt that most churches would see themselves as worthy to join the local chamber.
In the late 1990s, Partners for Sacred Places (PFSP), published Sacred Places at Risk, a report that examined how endangered older congregations and synagogues served their communities. The report chronicled both the qualitative aspect of congregations, as well as the economic impact those services made for the broader community. In 2010, PFSP and the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice concluded a pilot study of the economic impact of houses of worship (more here). By assessing over 40 different factors, they tested a new quantitative approach to understanding how congregations impact local economies. This broad-based research, which will provide a methodology for determining a congregation’s “halo effect,” will be released this year.
Most congregations don’t realize their economic impact. By engaging the economic impact of a congregation, congregations are better equipped to create innovative ideas, initiatives and revenue-generating opportunities. For example, an educational building that barely meets 25 percent capacity each week holds incredible value for providing downtown office space, or other revenue for congregations. Congregations often help sustain property values, increase the quality of life for those living around the congregation’s grounds and enrich the community’s cultural experience.
Communities need congregations in chambers of commerce, and those chambers of commerce need congregations. As business leaders plan new growth, develop plans for marketing and decide which leaders to endorse, congregations have an opportunity to be a witness for the least of these. Congregations can help shape the future of their communities if they’re willing to see themselves as having economic worth.
Some say congregations are dying, and in some ways they are: the educational buildings and infrastructure of the mid-20th century no longer meet capacity. These buildings, however, can be seen as an investment in a congregation for reimagining church in a new century. This is an opportunity for congregations to develop the future church while repurposing the historic church.
Economics and congregations doesn’t always mesh well. In fact, these two meeting is almost as bad as politics and religion. For congregations, however, an opportunity exists to broaden their impact and grow their witness in the world. If congregations asked their parishioners to describe the impact upon their lives, the answers would inspire and motivate the community. Now it’s time for congregations to demonstrate to their community the economic impact upon lives, both in the congregation and those in the chamber.