How do most of us get our jobs, at least somewhere along our work lives? It is often through personal relationships and networking that we find out about openings or others connect us to a job of interest. Or, in other words, social capital is often the pathway to work.
Congregations are among the most numerous and natural support organizations in the United States. In fact, there are over 300,000 local faith communities across a diversity of traditions. Who attends these faith communities? Your immediate answer might be a collection of people who share a common set of beliefs and commitments and have chosen a particular congregation as their spiritual home. But there is another way to look at this membership. Faith communities are also filled with employers and employees from throughout the community that surrounds the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. It is comprised of people who have deep knowledge of and personal relationships throughout the community. Moreover, faith communities represent the largest source of donors and volunteers in the country.
Putting Faith to Work is a practical approach for tapping the incredible social capital that exists within faith communities to help support people with disabilities in finding meaningful work. Members come alongside interested people with disabilities; learn about their strengths/gifts, interests, and sense of calling/passion; and then network within and beyond the congregation to help them connect to just the right job. It is what congregations so often do for any of their members without disabilities who are out of work or amidst a career transition. Assuming the approach is used with a current member of their congregation, such as a young person transitioning from school to adulthood, there are people who already know and love them. In other words, Putting Faith to Work is not so much a “program” as it is helping Jim, Ruth, or Mohammed to get a job. But it also works well when a congregation adopts this approach as ministry model for the wider community.
Putting Faith to Work is not rocket science. It simply invites a core group of dedicated people to come together around one or more persons with disabilities, to use person-centered strategies to get to know them well, and to turn to the wider congregation and its social capital to help find opportunities for job exploration, training, or employment at places where others in the congregation may already be employees or employers. Congregations might see the call to help others find a job as one way they live out their own faith in their work. Having a small group behind you and with you as you search for jobs further increase your chances for success all the more. Do this in partnership with help from rehabilitation, transition, or supported employment services, and the changes for success increase even more.
The Putting Faith to Work
model was developed and piloted by four UCEDD’s: the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (Tennessee), the Texas Center for Disability Studies, the Institute on Community Integration (Minnesota), and Human Development Institute (Kentucky). Each worked with faith communities in their area. This work was funded by a Signature Employment grant from the Kessler Foundation. A downloadable White Paper outlines the theory and rationale that drove the project. The experiences of the four sites led to a Putting Faith to Work
Manual that can be customized to any faith tradition or community. It can be downloaded for free in English or Spanish (or print copies can be ordered for $10) by visiting www.puttingfaithtowork.org
. Two archived webinars outline both the theory and findings of the project:
Putting Faith to Work is not magic. It takes work in any faith community to begin a new project, organize a team, and learn as they go. But that work is also imbued with purpose and faith, a sense of acting to serve others in the spirit of that community’s religious tradition, and thus a place for volunteers, leaders and people with disabilities to live out their own sense of call by enabling everyone involved to be contributors to the importance of work and its dignity.
Erik Carter is Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University and co-Director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. His research focuses on evidence-based and principle-driven strategies for supporting inclusion and valued roles for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in school, work, congregational, and community settings.
William (Bill) C. Gaventa, M.Div. is an author, speaker, trainer, and consultant primarily in the arena of faith and disability. He is the founder and Director Emeritus of the Summer Institute of Theology and Disability and the current Director of the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability. He served as the President of American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 2016-2017.