Nora Coleman, M.Ed.
Sr. Pastor Tom Schafer, M.Div., M.A.
The following article describes an effective partnership between a community agency and a church to bring family competency training to a new and underserved population. As a result of the partnership, both the agency and the church were able to meet their objectives of helping improve family functioning during the challenging, yet pivotal pre-teen and early teenage years. With the church’s support, and the location being convenient and comfortable for families, enrollment was high and attendance strong. For the congregation, the community agency brought the expertise of trained group facilitators and a researched based curriculum to help families in ways that were beyond the church’s capabilities. The article offers suggestions for similar win-win partnerships, as well as tips for overcoming barriers.
Most community agency workers would agree that recruiting and maintaining group participants can be a real challenge. While parenting groups that are run though community agencies are usually empirically based, they often face barriers such as difficulty in recruitment and retention (Spoth & Redmond, 2000). Participants may be more likely to attend some type of social services program at church, however, they are rarely empirically based and little is known about their effectiveness (DeHaven, Hunter, Wilder, Walton, & Berry, 2004; Spoth, Kavanagh, & Dishion, 2002). To potentially mitigate both of these problems, a pilot study out of Penn State explored a partnership between a faith-based organization and a secular research-based parenting program (Patrick, Rhoades, Small, & Coatsworth, 2008). They found that by tapping into existing social networks and by holding the evidenced based program in a location (the church) that was familiar and comfortable for participants, the program was very well received and successful. Having experienced similar benefits firsthand through the partnership that we will outline in this article, we work together again―a pastor, a former group participant and parishioner, and a community agency counselor―to share the successes of running the Strengthening Families Program in a church setting.
The Orange County Office on Youth, a local government agency working to prevent juvenile delinquency, having received a three-year, $133,427 grant from the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth to run the Strengthening Families Program, sought a church with a large, active youth population to partner with. The program, a seven-session family competency building group for youth ages 10-14 and their parents, has been shown effective in reducing youth substance abuse and risky behavior by increasing family protective factors such as parenting skills, communication, and mutual respect. The program is rated “exemplary” by the US Department of Education and as “model” by SAMHSA, and is used throughout the country as a family-based drug-abuse prevention program (Kumpfer, 1999). While the benefits of the program have been demonstrated in the literature, attendance is essential for program fidelity. Not only would a church help tap into a group of parents and youth, it would also provide a convenient and comfortable location to hold the program.
As the Strengthening Families Program facilitators looked at who had attended previous groups, it became clear that because they had all been held in town few families from the eastern end of the county were participating. This was understandable, as it would have been 45 minute drive one-way for residents from East Orange to come to prior locations, but it meant that we were not reaching a large section of our target population. It was clear that a location was needed that would be convenient for a new group of families who had not been attending prior programs. The Lake of the Woods Church immediately stood out, as it was located in East Orange, in a gated community of about 8,000 people. It had a large congregation, an active youth program, and pastors who were open to the idea of community collaboration.
When I approached Senior Pastor Tom Schafer at Lake of the Woods Church, the Strengthening Families Program immediately gained his attention for several reasons. First, it was “whole family” based. It was not another teaching program that segmented the children from their parents one more night a week. It honored the family as a unit. Patrick et al (2008) found that concurrent youth and parent programs were beneficial because kids get to bond with kids, while parents bond with other parents. Then, when youth and parents combine during the second half of the program, families get to bond as individual units. The curriculum offers a nice balance between peer and family engagement and is in alignment with research that indicates of all substance abuse prevention strategies, family based approaches are the most beneficial as they have been found to more than double the average effect size of school-based, child-only approaches (Tobler and Kumpfer, 2000).
Second, the program targeted the window of time (ages 10-14) when children are still receptive to parental guidance yet are increasingly influenced by peers. Adulthood in biblical times began around the age of 12 or 13. Based on this, the target age for the SFP program would be the closing stage for parents to take the lead in connecting spiritual values with life and relational skills in order to follow scripture that says, “Train up a child and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” (Proverbs 22:6). Today, while parenting is valued by the church, it is also recognized by government organizations. The U.S Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recommends parenting programs like the Strengthening Families Program because of the key role that improved family involvement, parental monitoring, and decreased family conflict, have in reducing problem behaviors in youth (Kumpfer, 1999).
Finally, it offered the complete package. The program offered a solid, research-based curriculum. The long term goals of reducing problem behavior and substance abuse were targeted by weekly objectives that centered on improving disciplinary practices, parent-child relationship quality, and problem solving skills (Guyll, Spoth, Chao, Wickrama, & Russell, 2004). Because it was grant funded, it was free and included dinner each week as well as incentives such as gas cards, childcare, and door prizes. Facilitators were well-trained and professional. It was local and convenient for families in the eastern part of the county.Implementation
After selecting dates for the group to begin, Pastor Tom and his colleagues began publicizing the group by placing it in the bulletin and including it in the announcements section of services. Childcare workers were lined up using teachers who were employed at a licensed daycare center run in the church basement and rooms were reserved. Interest was high, and the group we had scheduled was filled so quickly that we decided to offer a second group on a different night. Both groups were run for seven consecutive weeks, beginning with dinner, followed by the two hour group program. Attendance was high, and involvement was strong.
Following dinner, youth and parents were split into separate sections for one hour. For parents, video clips of parenting scenarios were combined with discussion time, while youth spent the majority of their time engaged in hands-on activities. Parents learned about setting limits, giving consequences, and showing love to their children. Topics of the youth lessons ranged from handling peer pressure and stress to setting and achieving goals. When the youth and parents joined together for the final hour in the family portion of the group, activities such as making a family tree or participating in a three legged “working together to reach our goals” race, allowed families to have fun together while working on topics discussed in the prior parent and youth sections of the program.
A favorite activity in the program is one from the first night. In the youth section, kids make collages out of old magazine clippings that represent who they are and what goals they have for themselves. After presenting them to the other kids in the group as a way to find out more about each other, they are hung in the hall. At the beginning of the family group, parents are instructed to go with their child and try to find his/her collage. Youth were told to not put their names on their artwork so parents would have to really look at the images selected to make their decision. After parents correctly identify their child’s collage, both are given a list of 4 questions to ask one another and are instructed to find a quite place to talk. Youth ask their parents questions like, “What did you want to be when you were my age?” and parents ask, “What kind of family do you want when you grow up?” To close the group at the end of the night, a sentence completion round has parents tell what their youth wants to be when he/she grows up, as well as the youth tell a job they’d like to have as an adult. Each of the six subsequent groups was also ended using a sentence completion round, along with having parents and youth read aloud an affirming statement about themselves and their family.Reaction from the Congregation
Parishioners Bryan and Michelle Flecker remember, “As parents of pre-teen children, we were delighted when we saw in our church bulletin the opportunity for our family to participate in a program geared to building a stronger bond between us and our children.” The program would be convenient, allow them an opportunity to spend time with their adolescent children, and help them navigate the specific challenges that come along with raising teenagers.
Bryan admits he was concerned at first about the content of the curriculum since it was not faith based, but soon came to realize that they could adapt the tools taught to fit their own life experiences. For example, the directions given for holding a family meeting do not include opening with a prayer, but many families added this adaptation to fit their spiritual needs. Bryan reflects,
It has changed the way our family deals with different situations from discipline to rewards. We have experienced more positive behavior from our children and a change in our attitudes as parents. We also learned a lot from the other parents and how they approach different situations they encounter on a daily basis. Strengthening Families has made a positive impact on our family’s life and the way we function as a family. Talking with the other parents that participated with us feel the same way [sic].Widening the Lense of Faith
For Pastor Tom, it was important to him that the program was researched- based, but he recognized the argument that the program might not fit because it wasn't a "Christian" curriculum. He reconciled, "I was pleased to see it was based on solid research not popular cultural opinion. For me, God is the source of all truth. All truth is God's truth. The truth will set hurting parents free. While the curriculum was not explicitly faith-based, it was faith-affirming." He could also see that curriculum was open enough so that faith could be a frequent part of the discussion as parents sought to apply the curriculum to their individual families.
The Bible says in John 1:14 "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The Message paraphrase renders it, "Jesus became a real human being and moved into the neighborhood." The Gospels portray Jesus' life and ministry as one that was "among" the people. His mission highlighted living authentically in the community. He brought the presence of God to the people. While the Christian church is a community of faith, to be true to its Founder, it is to be missional. That is, it is to engage the larger community in redemptive ways.
The methods of engagement vary. But it is clear, based on Jesus' calling of the disciples, that neither theological nor ecclesiological pedigree was important. Rather, Jesus called ordinary people to assist Him in engaging the wider community. With this foundation, the church can partner, with full integrity, with those promoting similar values and who affirm the goodness of faith. Full theological or organizational alignment was not a necessity for Jesus to partner with others. "He who is not against us is for us… whoever gives a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward." (Mark 9:40). When churches recognize community civic groups (such as the Orange County Office on Youth) whose values have some overlap with Christian values and these groups are not offended by faith but affirm it as good, even though the community group or agency is not faith-based, we are encouraged to work in unity with them, by Jesus in Mark 9:38-41.
Partnering with the Office on Youth and allowing the agency to use the church facilities and market to the congregation was a way for the church to be proactive. Most pastors see the struggle families with adolescent children are going through. Pastor Tom states, "Often parents wait to come to my office until conditions are nearing crisis levels and their teenager's direction is less easily influenced." Welcoming the Strengthening Families Program was a way the church could encourage preventative measures among families in the congregation.
For the Office on Youth, the partnership provided a location that was convenient to underserved families. Additionally, having Pastor Tom's support, as well as that of other key leaders in the church, made the program seem more reputable to potential participants. Similar to findings by Patrick et al. (2008), having the church behind the agency, not only increased the programs' credibility, but also made group members more comfortable. Participants were able to come to the program and see familiar faces, and when the program ended, the supportive relationships that were established in the group remained as participants continued to fellowship together in church events.Successful Collaboration
Collaboration between two different organizations takes effort and understanding. Faith based organizations and government agencies function within different scopes and there may be covert rules or standards that the other is entity are unaware of. To remove these potential barriers, consider these tips for an effective partnership:
- Schedule well in advance. An ample timeline is needed for promotion and recruitment of families, gaining board approval, and scheduling of facilities. Community agencies should be aware that churches and pastors usually plan 6-9 months ahead.
- Find common ground. Both entities should approach the partnership with the main goal of meeting the needs of the community. This was truly a partnership, showing families that the church knew their needs and could help them, and that the community agency was willing to extend services in a way that would be comfortable and convenient.
- Be open-minded. Some churches may have been quick to dismiss The Strengthening Families Program because the curriculum was not faith-based. Pastor Tom was able to recognize the faith affirming qualities in the program, despite its secular base, and use it as a way to meet the needs of families in his congregation.
- Step into their shoes. Community agencies should be culturally aware of the group with whom they are working and adapt accordingly. For example, Wednesday nights is usually busy a night for churches so scheduling around competing activities is key. Likewise, churches should have realistic expectations for secular organizations and be aware that facilitators will not integrate faith and scripture into the program. The faith component is left entirely up to individual group members.
The culminating effects of a positive partnership between a community agency and local church can be summed up in Pastor Tom's reaction to attending a group meeting on the final night of the program. "I will long remember it!" he recalls. "There were heartfelt expressions of gratitude. Parents spoke of significant changes in family dynamics. There was a new hope and a sense of mutual support for the future." Witnessing the scene as families hugged one another, exchanged phone numbers, and reflected on all that they'd learned in the seven-session Strengthening Families group, it'd be hard not to agree with Pastor Tom's sentiments. The group had been powerful, the partnership, effective.
While these benefits may seem obvious, often both organizations have similar goals but ignore one another as resources (Patrick et al, 2008). Programs held within congregations have inherent benefits such as tapping into existing social support networks, using a convenient location, and support from trusted leaders. Community agencies have inherent benefits of well-trained staff and empirically based programs. Having witnessed the benefit of the partnership first hand, Bryan predicts, "If more churches would plan for and accommodate a program like this it would reach a lot more families. I would suggest more churches partner with agencies who promote these types of programs."
DeHaven, M. J. , Hunter, I. B., Wilder, L. Walton, J. W., & Berry, J. (2004). Health programs in
faith-based organizations: Are they effective? American Journal of Public Health, 94.
Guyll, M., Spoth, R., Chao, W., Wickrama, K., & Russell, D. (2004). Family-focused preventive interventions: Evaluating parental risk moderation of substance use trajectories. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(2), 293-301. doi:10.1037/0893-3188.8.131.523
Kumpfer, K. (1999), Strengthening America's families: Exemplary parenting and family strategies for delinquency prevention. U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Patrick, M. E., Rhoades, B. L., Small, M., & Coatsworth, J. D. (2008). Faith-placed parenting intervention. Journal of Community Psychology, 36,(1). doi 10.1002/jcop.20218
Spoth, R. L., Kavanagh, K., & Dishion, T. J. (2002). Family-centered preventive intervention science: Toward benefits to larger populations of children, youth, and families. Prevention Science, 3, 145�152.
Spoth, R.L., & Redmond, C. (2000). Research on family engagement in preventative interventions: Towards benefits to larger populations of children, youth, and families. Prevention Science, 3, 145-152.
Tobler, N. & Kumpfer, K.L., (2000). Meta-analysis of effectiveness of family-focused substance abuse prevention programs. Report submitted to the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Rockville, MD.
Pastor Schafer has served 16 years at The Lake of the Woods Church, in a community of about 8000 people. The church seeks to impact the community and partnering with diverse community groups is one strategy.
Nora Coleman is the Strengthening Families Program Coordinator for the Orange County Office on Youth and doctoral candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision at Regent University.
Brian Flecker is a member of The Lake of the Woods Church and resides in the lake community with his wife, Michelle, and two children.
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