You are trying to focus on your work when someone comes in the door asking for gas money, or rent money, or funds for food. So what do you do? Do you hand over the money? Do you respond that “we don’t do that kind of thing?” Or what? When my wife Julie and I first started dating, we were both working in local congregations and were each responsible for our congregation’s local need fund. Early on we had a discussion about how we should handle those funds. Should we just give to those appearing in need? How does knowing that we only have so many dollars to offer impact how we help? Do we give it without asking for anything in return? Is it good to challenge people to ‘give’ in order to ‘receive’?
Here are some thoughts, molded over years of working with those in need, that drove how I used those funds to minister:
- The reality is that we do only have a limit amount of funds to offer. Consequently we need to use them wisely and put in the effort to have them go to the right situations. Some situations are easy to throw money at in order to meet our need ‘to help’. Many people tell a powerful story. Sometimes we can be tempted to give money just so we don’t have to say ‘no’ or to get people to leave. It is hard work sifting through the stories and doing some checking to see if the story being told is true. That might mean making a call to the business they say they have been hired by. It might be asking a few more questions to see if the story fits. It might be taking a break to pray and seek the Spirit’s guidance about what to do. We need to be good stewards of what we have.
- The reality is that churches are sometimes used as an easy ‘cash machine’. I recall discovering, after being told a story that tugged on my heart strings, that we were this family’s gas stop on their annual vacation trip to grandma’s. They would head north to Grandma’s equipped with a tear jerking story intent on having churches pay for the trip. Realize that sometimes the church is seen as an ‘easy mark’ to get cash from.
- The reality is that good records can be a tremendous help. When I served FCC of Guthrie,
Oklahoma our ministerial alliance decided to keep combined records of who had been helped by
each of the congregations. I volunteered to be the one to keep track of what was done by each
congregation. This information was available for ministers to call in and check when people
requesting help came by. It was very helpful to have the insights and experiences from other
congregations in checking stories and evaluating situations of those coming through our doors.
These records helped each of us to make better decisions.
- The reality is that asking for a response can help reveal who really is wanting help and who just wants a quick buck. Over the years it was interesting to see how many people ‘in desperate need and willing to do anything’ didn’t want our help if it meant they had to spend some time doing some work for us. Whether it was sharpening pencils, picking up leaves, straightening the sanctuary, or something else we found ways for people to offer something in order to receive funds from us. This wasn’t for our benefit but because we felt like it helped identify those that really wanted and needed help as well as gave people a ‘dignified way’ of receiving help. Many people commented how being able to offer something back helped them maintain their respect.
- The reality is that this can be a dangerous situation and so we need to be sure to maintain a safe situation. This includes making it safe for the person seeking help; don’t have them do things that are dangerous. It also includes making it safe for church staff and members. You don’t know whether that person coming in your door is violent, is emotionally fragile or is feeling desperate and willing to do whatever to get what he or she needs. Be careful about leaving people alone, putting yourself in vulnerable situation, or in exposing sensitive information. Be careful to treat those coming for help with dignity, respect and love.
- The reality is that we cannot do everything or help everyone. At times we can desperately want to
help but not have what is needed. That can be heartbreaking. In those times we need to remember that God’s church is bigger than we are. In those times we need to lift up those individuals and lay the situation in the Lord’s hands. At those times we need to have built a network of resources that we can reach out to in order to find the help needed.
One of the greatest challenges in ministry is finding out the best way to bring the love of Christ to those in need. This takes more than just randomly giving money to people. Instead it demands that we delve into people’s situations, take the time to hear their story, and to respond in ways that show respect and offer dignity.