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This lesson covers the types of religious organization and presents examples of each. The staggering number of religious organizations prevents great detail from being put into any example; this lesson is intended as a refresher or a starting point for interested students.

What Are Religious Organizations?

The world is filled with many different faiths. Religion is a source of strength to many people, especially during tough times. Religion can also be the source of friction between people of different faiths. Regardless of the actual beliefs of the religion in question, organized religions all have associated organizations to help them advance their goals.As groups, religious organizations are groupings of religious individuals that have a variety of different goals and purposes.

In this lesson, churches themselves are the first type of organization. Churches, whether traditional or modern, have structures just like any other organization. Other organizations exist to help the church itself accomplish its goals. Some of these organizations are linked with a particular faith, while others are not.

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Types: Churches

There are a wide variety of churches and individual denominations in the world. Churches are concerned with directly furthering the ends of the faith in question and ministering to the needs of followers of the faith. Often, if religious people don’t agree on matters of doctrine, some of them will leave one church in order to worship as they see fit.

This can spawn a different denomination of the same faith. The Christian church has many different denominations, including Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist. There are multiple denominations of the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well. Orthodox and Reformed Jews disagree about the interpretation and practice of Torah (the Law as put forth in the Hebrew Bible). Sunni and Shiite Muslims disagree, often violently, about the proper successor to Mohammad. Buddhism is divided into branches such as the Theravada and Mahayana, which are then divided into sects, such as Zen or Nichiren. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, there is staggering variety in the type and goals of religious organizations, even within what is technically the same faith.

Since many denominations are separated based upon the authority they claim to get their authority from, it is no surprise that most organized religions have a hierarchy of one sort or another. For instance, the Catholic Church is directed by the Pope and the College of Cardinals. Their authority flows down through various bishops and archbishops and then to individual parishes or churches. Various other branches of Christianity are run by councils at the highest levels, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. The ideal expression of Theravada Buddhism is the life of an ascetic (a monk or nun); as such, monasteries are important pillars of Theravada communities.

Type: Supportive Groups

Other organizations exist, some within churches, some independently, to assist in the goals of the faith.

The Salvation Army is an organization with outreach in most major cities in the United States. An organization independent of outside religious authorities, the Salvation Army was founded by William Booth in 1852. Performing religious services in a tent, Booth ministered to prostitutes, drunks, and other individuals that traditional churches might reject because of their lifestyles. The modern Salvation Army’s outreach efforts are aimed at the homeless and poor, providing meals, clothes, and other services to disadvantaged people.

Both the Catholic and Lutheran churches have social service organizations. These organizations help people with a variety of issues, such as mental health, care for the elderly, and social services for troubled teens, all at low cost. Social services aren’t the only services offered by religious organizations.

The National Jewish Outreach Program is a national program that helps to reach Jews that are not affiliated with any particular temple or group. This helps these individuals to feel less alone as they practice their faith. Finally, there are a variety of interfaith organizations, which function to bring people of different faiths together for common purposes. The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development is an interfaith organization that brings together members of various faiths interested in their goals of world peace and sustainable ecological development.Beyond the promotion of beliefs, some religious organizations are responsible for more worldly matters.

Any religious group that owns buildings and property needs to employ people to keep these physical possessions of the church in good repair. Some churches may hire professionals from the community, but others directly employ people. In either case, payroll services are a necessary part of dealing with non-volunteer personnel. All of a church’s facilities must be maintained, any applicable taxes paid, and personnel and clergy paid.

Types: Volunteer Groups

Though many churches do employ full-time and part-time personnel for a variety of functions, they often turn to volunteers to handle a variety of day-to-day and special functions. Not everyone engaged in the above organizations does so for pay.

Many organizations depend upon volunteer efforts. In many cases, it is the sense of community and fellowship that drive an individual to volunteer in order to feel like they are bringing something of value to the church. Some people feel that service to others is a demand of their faith, and this is true for many different religions. Also, volunteering may just feel good to people, as they feel that they have devoted time to a worthy cause.

Some organizations, such as the Salvation Army, may depend upon volunteers for the bulk of their day-to-day operations. The Mormon Church (The Church of Latter Day Saints) is run by a paid council of Apostles of the Church, but most of the administrative functions are handled by volunteers. People donate their time and money to churches for a variety of reasons. Many churches use volunteer missionaries as well. These individuals have elected to follow the church full-time and generally relocate to an area of the church’s choice in order to spread the message of their church. Some missionaries, such as Mormon missionaries, pay their own way into other countries – taking care of their own travel and living expenses.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we discussed religious organizations, from the Catholic Church to Theravada Buddhism.

These are groupings of religious individuals that have a variety of different goals and purposes. The first type of organization is a church. The church is concerned with directly furthering the ends of the faith in question and ministering to the needs of followers of the faith. They also use both paid employees and volunteers to handle a variety of day-to-day and special functions of the church itself. Often, churches have splintered away from one another – sometimes violently – which can be the case with Sunni and Shiite Muslims who debate over their prophet’s successor. This can also happen as groups of people seek to institutionalize changes to the spirit or letter of the faith.

These branches and denominations each have their own form of leadership, leading to different types of organization for each. Many religious organizations exist to further the goals of individual churches. However, many other organizations exist that are founded upon religious precepts but operate independent of an individual church, such as interfaith organizations, which function to bring people of different faiths together for common purposes.

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