The Effects of Congregational-Based Organizing (CBO)

Congregation-based Organizing (CBO) in the US falls at the intersection of Political Organizing, Faith-based Organizing, and Race-based Organizing. It shares some features with each field and is also unique and distinctive. In a sense, Political Organizing, Faith-based Organizing, and Race-based organizing are all types of grassroots community organizing. CBO does several things well. It connects to an existing base of formal organizations, it connects to sets of likely potential members/participants, and it connects to existing identities and sources of individual motivation. These advantages help CBO approaches to deal with common organizing challenges, especially in terms of decreasing rates of organizational membership, diminishing financial resources, and a growing American culture of individualism. So, how can CBO go wrong?

Political Organizing and CBO are similar in that may people that participate in congregations also develop an interest for politics and community organizing in campaigns because of the ability for members to learn different types of public speaking in congregations and because of the similar aspect of grassroots organizing in both congregations and political campaigns.  Author Richard Wood argues, “To be effective in the long-term, social actors must elaborate structures of meaning for their action,” and assumes that religious language, world-views, and symbols can be among the important carriers of these structures and meaning. He hypothesizes that bringing people different religious sources of meaning to bear on political action “will lead to structures of political meaning that differ in their ability to guide and sustain political action,” which then affects differences in political outcome. In a different publication, Wood argues that the “political culture of faith-based organizing walks an interpretive tightrope, balancing between instrumental and moral values, the pursuit of political power and relational ethics, self-interest and common concern.” A critical task of an organizer is to maintain this balance.

There is a relationship between the frequency of religious attendance and the likelihood of voting. The clergy sometimes attempts to mobilize congregations by organizing political discussion and action groups within congregations, discussing political issues from the pulpit and requesting the parishioners vote on elections, take part in other political actions, and back certain candidates and candidates’ positions. The more that someone becomes invested in a congregation, the more that someone learns the crucial skills that fall at the foundation of political organizing. Author R. Khari Brown argues, “as congregants develop a mutual obligation as members of the religious community in their congregation, they are more likely to become involved in political activities such as voting or campaign involvement.” There is a sense of community as both Political Organizing and CBO foster the democratic life of communities. CBO and Political Organizing differ in that there is more religious language and a religious basis in CBO, and there is less to no religious language used in Political Organizing. Recent political sociology treats religion, which is often a major influence on CBO, as a residual category and unimportant except for the fact that it provides material resources or social legitimacy for a movement. 

Another type of organizing is Faith-based Organizing, which is very similar to CBO. Faith-Based Organizing and CBO are similar in that there is a strong correlation between religious congregation-based organizing. Author Mark R. Warren suggests that religious traditions can motivate ministers and lay leaders to engage in political action and sustain their participation through victories and defeats, and this moral foundation can deepen and sustain interest-based political action. Ministers motivate laypersons to become leaders of a congregation.  Neighborhood organizing and faith-based community organizing have become leading forms of social action since the 1960s. Working through churches is successful because most people are already connected to a religious institution.

Organizing initiatives are formed in religious venues and draw on values of faith and social justice to implement, identify, and evaluate solutions to community problems. They differ in that there is a fear that stronger federations within Faith-based organizing will lose their ethical and democratic vision, which will make them look more like political organizations, and leaders are more evangelical in their messaging in Faith-based organizing than in CBO.

Another type of organizing is Race-based Organizing. Race-based Organizing and CBO are similar in that they both feel strongly about addressing racial disparities in the world. Overall, black church volunteers are more likely than are white church volunteers to believe that their church work should involve improving conditions in their communities and their country and should work to influence public policy. In both, black congregations face greater social pressure than white congregations (Brown, 2006).  Warren argues that there is an emphasis of looking at hardships in the history of racial disparities and Race-Based Organizing and CBO, “Coherent and interlocking set of perceptions shared by participants, their viewpoints having converged through the influence of factors such as the experience of being racial and ethnic minorities in America; the lack of understanding or outright racism they experience in interacting with social institutions and various sectors of mainstream culture, etc.” (Warren, 2002). Both CBO and Race-based Organizing unite people across race within their different types of organizing.

They differ, however, in that some CBOs do not have denominations like many types of Race-Based Organizing. Race-Based Organizing focuses solely on racial disparities and focuses on emphasizing racial identities as a basis for building a political culture whereas CBO is broader. Whereas in black congregations in Race-Based Organizing, there is more likeliness to participate in voter registration efforts, CBO emphasizes voter registration efforts across the board. Congregations, in particular religious congregations, cost very little to start, but maintenance costs grow as the congregations grow.

CBO is very successful in different ways. First, they have a strong ability to connect to other organizations. For example, there are many networks that work and with and support CBO by providing training opportunities for congregations and organizers. PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) organizes in ways that work on improvements in community quality-of-life issues such as violence prevention, education, neighborhood development, affordable housing, access to healthcare, and prevention of predatory lending (Christens and Speer, 2011). In a study conducted by Speer, et al., the authors found that congregation-based organizing involves a set of strategies that might be generalizable to other organizations in their efforts to facilitate relationship building and collaborative activities, which include development of an opportunity role structure for community based groups, accessing the social networks of other organizations, and implementation of community actions (Speer et al., 2010). CBO also establishes links to other organizations and connections to potential members. Successful group meetings are useful ways to recruit and retain members. One-to-ones are also a successful way to reach out to potential members because this is an opportunity where the congregation finds a similarity between the congregation and an individuals interests/beliefs.  Ensuring that there are sign in sheets at meetings, surveys to potential and current members, accurate archival data, and statistical procedures is another way to keep people engaged in the congregation. CBO also has connections to sources of identity and motivation. The approach of CBO emphasizes relationship building and joint action that improves a community’s quality of life (Speer, et al., 2010). An issue for which they are passionate motivates individuals and people identify with an organization because of that issue about which they care, such as affordable housing. A lot of motivation in CBO stems from the fact that civic engagement encourages people to be empowered by the mission of an organization

Although there is a problem of membership decline in CBO, leaders in CBO have adequate solutions to fixing these problems. For example, congregations learn to work together by sharing volunteers, paid staff, financial resources, and full-time clergy to build and maintain relationships, such as in the Civil Rights Movement (Brown, 2006). This builds a strong membership core. CBO also solves this problem by recruiting individuals from different demographics, getting people to sign into meetings each time, and giving members different roles and making them assume some sort of responsibility for a project or an event. While budget declines occur frequently in CBO, CBO implements creative solutions to these budgetary declines. For example, leaders hold public meetings in which they may bring to the attention of the public the problems that are facing the congregation (Speer et al, 2010). They reach out to public officials and other community targets, gather various groups of people together to find ways to obtain resources through collective action mechanisms and invite loyal members to provide the congregation with free services such as accounting. Members of CBO are usually very flexible in times of decline, so they could reduce congregational activities and goals “to a bare minimum” and still keep it a legitimate congregation (Anderson, et al., 2008). Often, congregations utilize a “minimalist organization” aspect with four main characteristics: low initial costs; low maintenance costs; a reserve infrastructure; and adaptiveness stemming from low sunk costs and normal flexibility. However, sometimes the best solution is dissolution (Anderson et al., 2008)

CBO also implements solutions to American individualism by creating roles for individuals, which gives them a sense of empowerment, which therefore makes them feel as though they are still doing what they want to do in an organization. Leaders in CBO often urge people that by partaking in civic engagement, one can become more empowered than by going about tackling an issue alone. Paul Speer suggests that there is a relationship between civic engagement and empowerment, and by being civically engaged, one can become empowered (Speer et al., 2010).

While CBO is efficient at coming up with strategies to fix problems, there are still many struggles that often keep congregations from moving forward in reaching their goals. For example, there are many internal disputes within congregations. Individuals have differing opinions about how to obtain resources, who to involve, and how to tackle important issues in the community. Some individuals do not want to involve other organizations or forget to assign roles to people in the organization. There are also general organizational struggles, where the impact of a congregation’s organizational resources, such as money, competent leadership, labor, civic skills, and its ties to other civic organizations on its capacity to engage in political activity is unclear.  There are also resource constraints, which occurs mostly in black congregations. Balancing the budget has caused struggles because of declining state and federal support for local social programs for the poor. Congregations are often good at having sign-in sheets at meetings, but they may forget to have people actually sign in at the time of the meeting. With so many different personalities in CBO, there are many problems with leadership and focus. Role structures are a good way for CBO organizers to divvy up the work amongst groups and individuals. This can promote civic engagement and empowerment. Roles are not provided to members of a congregation, and this is crucial so that different individuals within the congregation can develop leadership skills and assume some sort of responsibility for tasks and decision-making. Rotating roles is important so that members may be able to get some type of variety, which improves work ethic.  

People choose to participate in CBO for two reasons: a social and individual good.  People participate for the individual good because it increases tolerance and empathy for oneself. At the individual level, participation in a community organization provides experience that challenges individual cognitions of social power and provides a collective context through which one can process or reflect on emotional reactions to that power. Being a part of a congregation helps an individual feel like he or she is “fitting in” and being empowered. People also get involved in congregations for a social good in that it gives people psychological benefits such as empowerment and a sense of community when people that think the same surround them.

CBO is a broad type of organizing that reaches out to people of faith, people that are focused on fixing the problems of racial disparities, and people that have political aspirations. Therefore, there are correlations between Faith-Based Organizing and CBO, Race-Based Organizing and CBO, and Political Organizing and CBO. However, CBO stands alone in its differences. While there are many challenges facing congregations, there are also many successes and positive changes that will keep CBO moving forward as a common form of grassroots organizing.

Below is a section of research that focuses on Congregation-based Organizing, and each article discusses different aspects of Congregation-based organizing, the types of people that are involved in this type of organizing, the successes and failures, and similarities between other types of organizing.  


Anderson, Shawna, Jessica Hamar Martinez, Catherine  Hoegeman, Gary Adler, and Mark Chaves 2008. “Dearly Departed: How Often to Congregations Close?” Journal for the Scientific Study of religion: 47(2): 321-328

           This article focuses on reasons why congregations choose to or are forced to closer Reasons include merging, not enough information for prospective members of the public, and not enough solutions to the declining resources that affect congregations. The atuhors suggest that the “minimalist” way is the most successful way to keep congregations afloat and prevent them from failing. These authors compared religious congregations with other types of congregations and established a mortality rate for both in their data.


Beyerlein, K. and Chaves, M. (2003), The Political Activities of Religious Congregations in the United States. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42: 229–246.

             This article focuses on how religious congregations affect individuals’ political participation and how religious congregations engage in political activism. Using surveys, the authors discover a correlation between organizations political organizations and religious congregations. Overall, religious traditions specialize in different types of political participation, and are more prone to be found within conservative groups.

Brown, R. Khari. 2006. “Racial differences in congregation-based political activism.” Social Forces: 84(3)

            This study describes the racial differences in congregation-based political activism, and the lack of resources within congregations. Brown argues that black congregations are more heavily involved than white congregations in gathering resources for this type of grassroots organizing, and analyzes how much congregations can do with very little resources.

Christens, Brian and Paul Speer (2011). “Contextual influences on participation in community organizing: a multilevel longitudinal study.” American Journal of Community  Psychology: 47

          Christens and Speer study the participation among people involved in congregation-based organizing, over a five-year period. Organizational settings (mostly one-to-ones) predicted future participation in community organizing activities, and people participate for an individual and social good. Studies of mobilization and social movements have a strong influence on congregations that flourish and succeed, and large action meetings are negative representations of future participation in community organizing. There should be further research on exploring relationships in voluntary processes beyond congregation-based community organizing.

Warren, Mark R. (2001). “Dry bones rattling: community building to revitalize american democracy.” Princeton University Press

            Warren discusses an in-depth case study analysis of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) rebuilding social capital of America’s communities. The IAF network was able to successfully work with religious congregations and other community-based institutions to urge Americans to participate more and address the specific needs of the impoverished communities. The key to revitalizing democracy lies in connecting politics to community institutions as well as the values that keep them sustained. Overall, the IAF network is an organized network that creates a positive influence on congregation-based organizing.

Wood, Richard L (1994). “Faith in action: religious resources for political success in three congregations.” Sociology of Religion: 55(4) 397-417

            Wood discusses the affiliation between religion and politics in congregational community organizing. He studies and conducts a research design on three different churches of three different religions, and they all organize in different ways. There are various factors that influence its success or failures, and Wood compares the different mobilization efforts of all three churches through conducting interviews with people of varying backgrounds, race, gender, etc. and notes the ways in which political influence on congregational organizing is effective and the correlation between religion and politics in organizing for a congregation. A limitation they found in their research is although their studies involved a large sample of individual participants, the sample size of organizing initiatives was not large enough for a meaningful statistical analysis. They suggest that the characteristics of the organizations in which they studied and their processes, such as issue selection and leadership would help to explain shared variance in participation at the congregational and initiative levels and further research is needed, especially involving a larger sample of organizations. 

Wood, Richard L. (2002). “Faith in action: religion, race, and democratic organizing in america.” The University of Chicago Press

           Wood studies many aspects of faith-based organizing, particularly the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing (PICO) and the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO). He compares the two cultures and strategies and also analyzes their access to community ties and social capital. He analyzes influential models of community organizing called race-based organizing and faith-based organizing, which both lie at the center of democratic life in low- and middle-income America. Both of them are similar in that they emphasize organizing through person-to-person meetings, getting around conflict and tension, and holding participants accountable.  Ultimately, he argues that community activism and religious organizations will moreover create a better and more just democratic society and future. 

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