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Putting Faith to Work: How Congregations Can Support Employment for People with Disabilities

by Bill Gaventa, PFTW Project Consultant, and Erik Carter, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center UCEDD

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, 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 surrounding community. 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 into the incredible social capital that exists within faith communities to 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 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 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. Employers who are members of congregations might see the call to help others find a job as a way to live out their faith and help their community. Having a small group behind you and with you as you search for jobs further increase your chances for success. Do this in partnership with help from rehabilitation, transition, or supported employment services, and the changes for success increase even more.

Cover art for Putting Faith To Work Manual with green and blue abstract art of a tree.The Putting Faith to Work model was developed and piloted by four University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research, and Service (UCEDDs): Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (Tennessee), Texas Center for Disability Studies, 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.

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