Serving The Greater Good

January 14, 2005

What's good about volunteering? More than you might think. 
Researchers in Baylor's School of Social Work determined that Christians who participate in voluntary service experience a greater maturation of their faith than those who do not volunteer. The researchers hope it will encourage more people to take advantage of service opportunities -- for the good of those they serve and for their own benefit.
The three-year study, Service and Faith: The Impact on Christian Faith and Congregational Life of Organized Community Caring, was funded by a grant from the Lilly Foundation and was conducted from fall 2000 to fall 2003. Three researchers from Baylor and others from three other colleges surveyed about 7,000 congregants from 35 Protestant churches in the United States. All churches involved said they participated in at least one form of community service. 
"The study really revolved around how one goes about measuring the impact that service has on faith," says Dennis Myers, professor in the School of Social Work and a principal researcher in the study. Diana Garland, chair of the School of Social Work and the study's originator, and David Sherwood, professor of social work, are the other Baylor researchers involved.
The team used the Faith Maturity Scale, developed in 1993 with funding from several large Protestant denominations as a way of gauging the degree to which individuals have well-developed faith, and the Christian Faith Practices Scale, which the Baylor team created. "[The latter] focused more on the idea that faith comes alive in what we do," Myers says. Responses from surveyed volunteers and nonvolunteers were scored and compared.
"We found that clearly, across both scales, those who served scored higher than those who did not serve," Myers says. 
Seventy-one percent of people surveyed who had done volunteer work said that it has changed their faith. "We knew people's faith had changed, but not in what direction," Myers says. "We asked them to elaborate, and their quotes led us to believe fairly solidly that the faith changes are in a positive growth direction." 
Many of the 25 who were interviewed for the study said they experienced a heightened sense of compassion, strength and gratitude by volunteering. "What I'm able to do in community ministry is be reminded or relearn to see people as God sees them, to have understanding and compassion and to forgive," said one volunteer who was interviewed. "It's easy to make judgments about people and their situation without really knowing who they are and what they've actually gone through."
One finding that surprised Myers was participants' willingness to interact with people across socioeconomic and racial divides. "Congregational members are so devoted to this level of service with people who are very different than themselves," he says.
Myers says service work offers benefits to the whole community. "Volunteering is so important, not just for the wellness of individuals, but the wellness of congregations and communities. There seems to be some basis for saying that investment in the life of another, either directly or indirectly, brings developments that are healthy. You don't have to go very far to find out that what we studied is true," he says.
Those who worked on the study hope to help churches provide more volunteering opportunities. Garland is writing a practical manual that will describe how congregational leaders can establish programs that intentionally bring about the faith-service connection.
"The study was transformational for those who served and those who were doing the research," Myers says. "We were talking with people who, in a sacrificial way, dedicate themselves to service. As you think about how you are going to put things together in your life, the voices of these people should be heard."