The Voice: Winter 2003

The Voice

Vanderwoerd earns Ph.D. studying faith-based organizations

Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd, assistant professor of social work, successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at Case Western Reserve University at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences in Cleveland, Ohio. His dissertation, which researched the effect of government funding on faith-based organizations, was the culmination of over three years of study, which began in 1999 with an intense six-week summer study program.

“That first summer is known among students as ‘theory boot camp,’” says Vanderwoerd. “It was basically preparation for the research that I would be doing for my dissertation.” He attended these classes for three summers in a row, in addition to doing work on his dissertation.

Vanderwoerd says that some students have already picked a topic before they start courses, but he preferred to explore a variety of areas through his courses before settling on his research focus. His work with the Siouxland Association for Public Justice and his familiarity with the leadership given by the Center for Public Justice on the 1996 welfare reform law encouraged him to delve into the issue of faith-based organizations and the controversy regarding whether or not they should receive government funding.

“I chose my topic before the 2000 election,” says Vanderwoerd, “but the feeling at the time was that this was going to be an important issue no matter who won.”

Vanderwoerd looked at two faith-based organizations that have received government funding, interviewing leaders and observing practices to determine if they have managed to maintain their religious character or if they have become, as some fear, “secularized.”

“The evidence suggests that these organizations were able to have their cake and eat it too,” says Vanderwoerd. “They received government funding, and were able to maintain their religious identity.”

Vanderwoerd found that this integrity stemmed from a worldview that blurred sacred and secular distinctions. These organizations, while very rooted in their religious beliefs, were more than willing to implement secular policies and theories of social work.

“I asked them if they could show me what is religious and what is secular about them; they couldn’t do it,” says Vanderwoerd. “To these organizations it’s all religious, not simply because of what they do, but because of why they do it.”