Chapter 4: Training Clergymen to Change Community Structures by Robert H. Bonthius

Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., (Ed.)

Chapter 4: Training Clergymen to Change Community Structures by Robert H. Bonthius

This chapter is addressed to clergymen who wish to improve their ability to engage in social action, not by themselves — a mistake that can be fatal! — but as leaders of men, their congregations, other groups. It is written in the hope that laymen will read it, too. The way that it is set forth must be taken by the clergyman and a group of concerned laity. It is a way of shared concern, shared leadership and above all, shared risk.

The first part has to do with what it takes to initiate and to continue significant social action. The second part tries to answer the question, How can I, a clergyman, get started? Both parts are based on experiments in training at Case Western Reserve University in the Internship Program for Clergy. Both parts draw on other research, including that which is in process at CWRU in Cleveland, the Urban Training Center in Chicago, and the Metropolitan Urban Service Training Facility in New York City.

The Support the Clergyman Needs

Significant social action requires four supporting groups. By “significant social action” I mean that which is aimed at changing the structures of society. Most of the action churches engage in is symptomatic relief, not structural change. Symptomatic relief is any action which relieves suffering without altering the system which produces it. Tutoring in the slums is an example. To be sure, it is significant in that it helps an individual child, and that should not be discounted. But it is relatively insignificant, because it does not alter the system which is producing millions of such needy children. Significant social action works for alteration in the contents, methods, personnel, policies, and tax structures which make that educational system what it is — a ghetto school. Changing the teacher-pupil ratio might prove to be a significant social change.

To initiate and sustain this change the clergyman needs help. He must have sustaining relationships of various sorts inside and outside the religious organization.


1. Church task force


3. Consultants – – – – – – – -Clergyman – – – – – – – – – -4. Peer group


2. Community change agency


1. Church Task Force. The clergyman needs allies in his constituency — congregation, higher judicatory, whatever group he represents as leader. Theologically, in terms of mission, he has no business going it alone. Politically, he cannot. He must be able to know there are those who are with him, those who want action, too, those who will “go” with him. This group need not be the majority of the congregation or other church group. It might only be 2 percent of the constituency. It depends on what 2 percent! They ought to include some articulate, respected people, people with the power to influence others. If the risk is high, the clergyman needs to figure whether or not he and his allies can outmaneuver the opposition. (This is not easy in a congregational type polity. It is easier in a presbyterian type — here the main thing to do is have a majority of the Session on your side! An episcopal polity is still another matter; a great deal depends on whether the bishop is pro, con, or neutral. But here, too, a lay constituency that is with the clergyman is vitally important.) A clergyman who cannot involve some of his people in a task force with himself is probably slated either for ineffectiveness or dismissal.

2. Community Change Agency. Next in importance for a clergyman is his connection with a community change agency — reformist or revolutionist in approach, i.e., working within a structure for change or organized outside existing structures to press for change.

A community change agency is any group, organization, or task force that has arisen anywhere in the area to redress a wrong, attack an injustice, heal a hurt, remedy a lack, stop an aggression, protest a practice, demonstrate a need. Be careful that its strategy is not one of symptomatic relief rather than structural change. If it is the latter, seriously consider relating to it. A clergyman must have roots or find them in some secular agency that is actively engaged in change action. Otherwise he will know little of what the problem is, what needs to be done, or how. Such an agency gives him perspective, a fellowship outside the church, and a lever with which to get the church task force involved. Except in rare instances, a church body neither initiates nor sustains social action alone. Normally, a church task force has to have a community change agency with which it can link itself, and through which it can channel its energy for social change.

3. Consultants. This is a growing group of persons to whom the clergyman needs to be related. They are anyone who is an expert on some aspect of analysis, strategy, or theology. Books can be consultants. More often consultants are “living books” in the community. A consultant on poverty may be an ADC mother, a caseworker, a sociology professor, a Salvation Army officer, a black nationalist. A consultant on strategy may be a union leader, a politician, a specialist in organizational behavior at the university, a corporation executive, or a youth gang leader. No one can be ruled out as a possible consultant. The need of the clergyman is to have a growing group of persons to whom he can turn in crisis or for planning to get facts, find out what is going on, secure judgments, seek advice. Periodically, a clergyman should take time off from parish duties and spend all of his time with consultants, e.g., in an action training program, a group process lab, or an urban studies institute. Ideally, some of his lay allies should do the same.

4. Peer Group. A fourth supporting group no clergyman can do without is a peer group — like-minded persons of his profession in or outside his denomination. He finds comfort and challenge in such a group. On occasion he finds it politically important either for himself or for one of his peers. It does not have to be a large group. It may not meet officially. But it is a “beloved community” nonetheless. In the worst times it is the local version of “the seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” In the best times it is “the boys whooping it up after the game.” (There are times when the good guys win even in “this naughty world.”)

How to Get Started

There is a way to get started in social action that is equally useful for clergy and laity, and equally useful as a start and as a style of continuing involvement. It is the basis of social action in that it provides the sensitivity to social problems that is constantly needed to know where the action is.

The way is this:


Change Agents



1. Victims. These are the people who appear to be the sufferers in the situation or those who are the rank and file. They are the ordinary citizens, the men in the street. It is a matter of first importance in understanding a social problem that you get to the person who is on the receiving end of things. Generally speaking, these are obscure people, although in unusual cases they may emerge as spokesmen, voices of the powerless. The mass media may have given them prominence at one point or another, but this is not usually the case. Victims have to be sought out. They seldom come to you.

2. Change Agents. Individuals speaking for the victimized; persons working outside existing organizations or within them to bring about structural change; “natural” leaders of men in the street, who know their problems and feel their concerns; concerned persons in established organizations who see the need for change and are working for it — these are change agents. They are important sources of information and understanding.

3. Powers. Powers are people who are decision-makers in the established organizations of society, the organizations which by and large control the systems, determine the policies, provide the money and make it. A particular power may be a “front man” or a man behind the scenes. He may have power, or he may advise those who do, or he may simply represent them to the public.

4. Experts. Many other persons need to be taken into consideration. They may be lumped together as experts. They may be thought of as consultants. An expert is anyone with an interest in the problem but not a vested interest, anyone who has accumulated a fund of knowledge through contact with the situation over a period of time. The expert may be a scholar, a reporter, an articulate person without formal education, a business researcher, a government worker, an archivist, a long-term resident of the community in which the problem exists.

In addition to personal sources, there are written sources of information which can get the inquirer further into the scene. These consist of statistics, surveys, news or research reports, monographs, books. They may be obtained from public institutions or private files — with permission, to be sure!

The course of such sensitivity to social issues may be diagrammed as follows. And it can be followed in getting to know any social issue.

Written Sources Oral Sources

1. News media — papers, radio, TV 2. Agents (in order of importance)


b. Change Agents

c. Powers

3. Documents (other than news media) d. Experts

Anyone who is willing to risk the time and association with people who are strangers to himself and living in different ways than he is can get where the action is. It is a matter of personal investment in people, especially victims of injustice. The most casual reading of the Bible suggests that the prophets knew social problems because they knew victims, change agents, and the rest. But this cannot be carried out alone, at least not effectively, because support groups are needed. Getting very far into action requires the build-up of allies within the church, in secular change agencies, among peers, and with consultants.



For additional reading

The best reading on this subject has yet to be written. But there are some well-known starters:

Warren, Ronald L. Studying Your Community. New York: Free Press, 1965.

Young, Pauline V. interviewing in Social Work. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1935.

Mills, C. Wright The Sciological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.