Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Nonprofits as the New Community Hubs for the Nonreligious

An article titled "Nonprofits Help the Nonreligious Search for Meaning in Their Lives" in the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently caught my attention. It delves into the decline of churchgoing and how people are increasingly turning to various nonprofits for community and meaning. This trend, however, presents challenges, as many nonprofits aren't equipped for such a role.

The article provides startling statistics: in 1999, 70% of people belonged to a religious congregation, but nearly 25 years later, this number has fallen to 47%. Leaving a church can mean shedding dogma and sometimes trauma, but it also has downsides. Regular religious practice and active church life correlate with higher happiness, volunteering, and charitable giving, and foster stronger social bonds.

As a social being, I've felt the need to make sense of my life and connect with others. During her studies at Harvard Divinity School, Angie Thurston discovered that young people were seeking community in nonprofits. Nonprofit leaders often found themselves playing roles similar to pastors, but without the necessary training or spiritual formation. While many clergy work in nonprofits, most leaders lack the skills for effective pastoral care. Chaplaincy training, as the article suggests, could be beneficial for these leaders, given that chaplains come from diverse backgrounds and focus on empathetic support over religious tenets.

In 2022, a Springtide survey of 4,546 young people highlighted that 56% engaged in art and 54% in nature as forms of spiritual practice. Lennon Flowers, quoted in the article, remarked, "There’s a myth in the world that community builds itself, and it doesn’t." This resonates with me. If not for my Unitarian Universalist congregation, my social circle would be limited to work and family. The congregation offers a dogma-free space for socializing and volunteering, which is invaluable given my busy schedule and limited group-activity interests.

Not everyone will choose my path of a religious congregation. Many continue to seek nonprofits for fulfillment. I lead Uberlandia Development Initiatives, a nonprofit that supports projects in Brazil, but it doesn't provide spiritual or emotional fulfillment through in-person volunteering. However, should we expand to involve more direct, collaborative projects, I can see potential for deeper, heart-level connections.

In the future, I aim to complete my Master of Divinity, not for congregational ministry, but to bring this knowledge to the nonprofit sector. This aligns with the evolving role of nonprofits in community building and supporting individuals in their search for meaning, as highlighted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy article.

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