Measuring impact in dollars results in a staggering valuation

How much is your church worth to the community?

It seems almost impossible to put a value on everything, but economists try. For instance, ever wonder about those numbers they throw around every time we’re asked to consider a bond election to build a new sports arena? They claim that the number of jobs added, concessions sold, hotel and rental cars arranged, advertising booked, merchandise purchased, and restaurants frequented all add up to some enormous number — much more than the zero that would be the case if we didn’t do it at all. Then subtract the amount it costs us in tax abatements to bribe a billionaire to build it in our town — from which he gets all the profit — and there’s your number.

Well, a University of Pennsylvania professor and a secular research firm have now figured a way to measure the economic impact of religious communities on their wider communities. They devised 54 categories to measure the value of what they call the “halo effect” of churches, synagogues and the like.

What’s the worth of one marriage saved? One suicide averted? One addiction conquered? One teenager taught right from wrong?

Interesting. But they took it even further: They added up the money generated by weddings and funerals, festivals, counseling programs, preschools and elder care. They tallied salaries of staff, and the wages of roofers, plumbers and even snow shovelers. They put dollar signs on intangibles, such as helping people find work and teaching children to be socially responsible. They even measured the diameter of trees on church campuses.

After analyzing 12 churches in the Philadelphia area, the results are in: The economic benefit exceeds $50 million dollars. The numbers, culled from clergy and staff interviews, “just blew us away,” says Robert Jaeger, executive director of the research group Partners for Sacred Places.

They don’t blow me away. I expected a number far beyond what most people would think.

A skeptic about the church and its doctrine once approached a pastor colleague of mine. The man asked if the pastor really could imagine hell. My friend answered, “Sure, all I do is think of our own city and take out every church, every synagogue, every hospital that cares for the indigent, and every community benevolence institution that tries to help the homeless and the hopeless. That would be hell.”

I don’t know how you put a value on avoiding hell, but the exercise in assigning value to the presence of a religious organization in a community revealed to researchers something they didn’t anticipate. They found that churches did far more than simply conduct worship services and other religious rites. They hosted dance classes, senior citizens programs, childcare centers, youth sports activities, self-defense classes, grief and addiction recovery programs, small non-profit businesses, computer classes for the elderly, job search classes for the unemployed and job training for the underemployed.

The array of services offered by churches is a reality of social good that hides in plain sight.

One pastor, whose church was part of the study, put it this way: “Our mission is not just to get people into heaven,” he said, “but help them maneuver through the trials and troubles of life.”

The church is an easy target for critics, since it is composed of only sinners who are more or less aware of our need for God’s grace to become more than we are now. It’s also true that the church sometimes forgets its mission for God to the world and turns out to be just another social club or tax-exempt business that fails to give back as much as it receives. Hypocrisy tarnishes whatever halo effect social scientists may calculate.

But when you consider the positive impact of religious congregations in the lessening of misery and the elevating of human dignity, there’s reason to give thanks for good neighbors as you drive by buildings with steeples that point your eyes upward.

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