Over the years I have had the privilege of meeting with groups of congregational or civic leaders around the country to talk about the role of congregations in our lives. Often I ask them to imagine what their community’s skyline would look like if there had been no congregations in their story. Inevitably, comments follow about what would be missing: steeples, social service agencies, hospitals, universities, and other key civic institutions that were founded and built by religious leaders. Sometimes people will comment about impoverished relationships and absent aesthetic and cultural treasures.  

My question almost always brings a moment of surprise as people find that congregations contribute far more to our lives than any of us recognize. Regrettably, these extraordinarily valuable institutions are routinely discounted or ignored by an easily distracted society.  

Granted, congregations are very hard to value properly. So much of what they do is not flashy: often it is invisible. But it matters enormously. What is the true value of the powerful hope that is nurtured in these places? How much is a pastoral visit to a dying person worth? What does the experience of singing great hymns really do to people? What is the total impact of teaching habits of compassion and generosity to a community of people over decades? When homeless are fed, sheltered, and moved towards jobs and opportunity, something much more valuable than the cost of a bologna sandwich is being offered. 

In short, no one will ever know the full value of our churches and synagogues. But occasionally, we get new information about the differences they make. Recently, Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphiabased organization devoted to the preservation of historic places of worship, provided a fresh view. (Full disclosure: I served on its board of directors for several years and continue to support its efforts.) In 2010, Partners joined with the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Science to do a pilot study of the economic impact of houses of worship on their communities. The first results have just been published in the Spring 2011 issue of Sacred Places, Partners’ magazine (pp. 14-18). They are eye-opening.    

The researchers studied a sample of 12 Philadelphia congregations (chosen because each had a building that was at least 50 years old and because each had a strong enough relationship with Partners that it would open up its economic life to the investigators) and found that they contributed $52 million annually to the metropolitan economy. The average positive economic impact from each congregation was over $4.3 million per year.  

The research team looked at over 50 factors and found that these congregations made many kinds of economic impacts. On average each congregation spent over $2 million annually in their community—paying salaries of community members and mortgages to community banks, buying goods and services from local businesses—ranging from paper supplies to parking lot signs. The 12 congregations made more than $8.5 million worth of educational contributions to their communities—ranging from day care to parochial schools. But they also made other kinds of contributions that few of us would think of. Almost every congregation holds special services, concerts, and public events. Few of us stop and think of the fact that those events—and important life cycle ceremonies like baptisms, weddings, and funerals—have economic impacts in nearby hotels, restaurants, local stores, and major industries like transportation. These congregations had “magnet effects” of $2,283,772 on their communities as they drew people from beyond their membership into their buildings. They also contributed value with their small parking lots where people often park for free and their community playgrounds and green spaces which become ever more precious in our crowded downtown areas.  

The researchers tracked a combined annual “individual impact” of $8,448,425 worth of one-on-one services—the things we expect congregations to do like mediating struggling marriages, providing legal aid, helping people stay out of prison, battling addiction, averting suicide. We have always known that congregations do these things. What is new here is the attempt to calculate the economic value of this life-saving work.   

Congregations also contributed more that $1.3 million in community development services—providing office space where new community ventures can incubate, where co-ops can provide inexpensive services and share profits, and where cooperatively owned credit unions can make affordable, trustworthy financial services available. Moreover, the 12 participating congregations provided the equivalent of 24 full time volunteers per year who through a myriad of individual programs and activities wove an “invisible safety net” through the city that the researchers valued at more than $3 million.  

Partners researchers call this sizable, but unknown, economic impact of congregations upon their communities “the halo effect.” Their essential point is that congregations are worth more to their communities than anyone—congregation members or public policy makers alike—knows. This study is a pilot study. Of course there will be debates among experts about how to calculate the true value of the many things congregations offer their communities. That is a good—and long overdue—thing. The good news is that an important inquiry is underway. Now the researchers are at work designing a larger project, with a more truly representative sample of congregations and with refined measuring techniques. I wonder what their deeper research will turn up. Ten years ago, Partners published a report called Sacred Places at Risk, which estimated that the urban congregations of Philadelphia contributed an average amount of over $140,000 (in 1997 dollars) in resources to support community services and that 4 out of 5 recipients of those services were not members of their congregations. This new pilot study goes quite a bit further, revealing a contribution per congregation that researchers calculated as more than 30 times greater in value. As they harpen their tools and widen their field of study I wonder what the next set of numbers will look like.