A new study calculates the economic value of those contributions
VOA - Matthew Petrillo | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania March 08, 2011
|Photo: VOA - M. Petrillo|
Father Luyen Dau greets members of his congregation at Visitation Parish, which offers mass in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Religious congregations help the homeless, provide counseling, offer spiritual guidance and celebrate life cycle events. Churches and synagogues have played these roles for hundreds of generations. But for the first time, a new study has put an economic value on those contributions.
After struggling with AIDS since the mid-80s, Dennis Wright met with a few support groups, but says he wanted something on a more spiritual level.
"I lost a partner when I came here, I was very much in need of a place," he says.
That’s when he joined the Hospitality Center at Saint Luke and the Epiphany Church in Philadelphia. The group offers faith-based comfort for people living with AIDS. There is no fee to participate, and Wright admits he never thought about the value of being part of that group.
"A dollar value? I don’t know what I would put for that. I owe my life to the church."
But Ram Cnaan says he can put a price tag on goodwill and, in a study called "Valuing Urban Congregations," he did.
"If you ask yourself ‘What is the financial value of feeling good?’ it’s very hard to quantify because there is no understanding of what feeling good means and how to pay for it," says Cnaan, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
He calculated the economic worth of a dozen places of worship around Philadelphia, including Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations. "Everybody thinks of congregations as a place to worship and meet their spiritual needs and go home. Congregations have a much wider impact on the community."
Cnaan says the monetary value of that impact has always been considered too sacred to measure. But Bob Jaeger, who also worked on the study, hopes their findings will help churches around the country exert more influence during neighborhood planning.
"All too often when we invest in neighborhoods, the church or synagogue is overlooked. We just assume that it’s always going to be there. We don’t fully understand what value it has," says Jaeger, who is president of Partners For Sacred Places, a national non-sectarian organization which promotes houses of worship as community assets. "If a pastor persuades someone to not commit suicide, what is the value of a human life? What’s the dollar value, how many millions of dollars?"
According to the study, preventing a suicide is worth about $20,000 while counseling that saves a marriage has a value of $18,000.