'Faith, Works And Research' Focus of Baylor ISR Conference

November 19, 2008

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, director of media communications, (254) 710-6275
Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) recently hosted a national conference on "Faith and Works: A Call for Evidence of Action" to explore the connection between faith-based efforts and rigorous research. The two-day conference in San Antonio brought together some of the country's leading scholars, intermediary organizations and faith-based groups in an effort to begin an important dialogue about how these groups might more intentionally work together to produce more effective outcomes.
Speakers included Fred Davie, president of Public/Private Ventures; Heather Clawson, principal with ICF International; Joe Batluck, president of Teen Challenge's Training Center; Richard Ramos, president of the Latino Coalition; Robert Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; and Rev. Wilson Goode, director of the Amachi Program.
"The conference marked a first by bringing together some of the top practitioners and thinkers in an honest dialogue about they might work together to improve the life prospects of so many in our society that need help," said Susan Weddington, who serves as president of the Austin-based OneStar Foundation, a conference co-sponsor.
The conference addressed the influence of religion and faith-based efforts in addressing social problems, ranging from literacy and housing to health care and crime reduction, and promoting prosocial behavior, said Dr. Byron Johnson, professor of sociology at Baylor and co-director of the ISR. However, Johnson noted that some faith-motivated practitioners - who provide such diverse social services as childcare centers, offender rehabilitation programs for youths and adults, drug treatment, shelters, housing rehabilitation, after-school programs, literacy, mentoring and welfare-to-work programs - sometimes aren't aware of the need and value of objective evaluation and research.
"At the conference, we were able to introduce practitioners to various research methodologies that might be useful for different faith-based approaches to the delivery of a host of social services," Johnson said.
"There's often a tension between researchers and those whose programs scholars seek to evaluate, and there are plenty of valid reasons why these groups have been skeptical of each other over the years," said Stephen Monsma, a senior scholar of the Henry Institute at Calvin College. "Nonetheless, it is high time we move beyond these differences if we all agree it is important to deliver the most effective interventions possible in addressing difficult to solve social problems."
Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, said his organization has learned "a great deal" through research conducted on various Prison Fellowship programs. Research, he said, helped identify what his organization does well, as well as areas in which it can improve its efforts.
"When researchers incorporate rigorous methodologies and research designs, it puts them in a place to discover what we do not necessarily see - providing vital and objective feedback that ultimately helps us in doing a better job for prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families," Earley said.
Dr. Byron Johnson, professor of sociology at Baylor and co-director of ISR, has conducted and published a number of studies on Prison Fellowship. "There is not one faith-based organization in America that has been more open to outside research and scrutiny than Prison Fellowship," Johnson said.
Stephen Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics in the School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, delivered a keynote address based on his most recent book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People.
Jay Hein, distinguished senior fellow at ISR and former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, also delivered a plenary talk on the "Future Prospects for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives."
Conference attendees attended a number of sessions on different types of methodological approaches to evaluation research.