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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — It's the economy, again

Another week of better late than never. Sigh. Hopefully, this won't continue for too much longer.

The other day, a friend of mine mused in her facebook status message that it feels more like we're in a depression than a recession, and many folks had to tough out the winter with lose-lose prospects, like having to choose between the mortgage/rent or the heating bill. At first, it doesn't pinch that much, but if you can't catch up in the cycle, the cycle catches up to you.

Or, more likely, someone in your congregation. As one of our number queried:

A family I know is putting on a good front at church but I know they are at the edge of becoming homeless. How can churches minister with those suffering from economic problems in this current time? What has been done before?

There aren't easy answers, say the matriarchs. Sometimes people are too proud to ask for help, and even less amenable to receiving it. As Jan says, "In a perfect world, churches happily circle the wagons around a family like this without any embarrassment or shame or awkwardness. But we still live in a world where everything is 'fine' when it's not, and instead of being free to share real life with each other, we still keep up a good front because of pride or the need to appear to be 'successful' in every way." All of the matriarchs noted that they, too, see the hard times pressing down on more people.

Some advice from them, then:

From Jan:
Our congregation has a fund for emergencies whether the emergency is a transient with rent needs or a church member who can't afford to go to her grandmother's funeral across the country. Is it possible to gather a small group of loving, supportive church friends to cover the needs of this family for the next three months? You could call it the Acts 2:44 Team or something (less dorky) than that. "One-anothering" is an essential part of being the church together (love one another - John 13:3; serve one another - Gal. 5:13; comfort one another - I Thess. 4:18, etc. etc.)

We have a family in crisis in our congregation and someone has anonymously agreed to cover their mortgage for the next year. It makes me want to weep. This is what the church is all about.

From Abi:
This is a good question for these times. I can only begin to imagine the anxieties for each of you: those in need, you, and the church members. Start by finding out what your resources are, and then make use of them. Often people will help naturally once they know, though not always though.

We are helping a family who has long-term medical issues. So far, we've had fund-raisers for them, advocated for them, and helped them affordable
housing in addition to pastoring them.

From Earthchick:

I would suggest a handful of ways to minister to them, none of which would necessarily provide a concrete solution for their problem.

1 - Pray for them. Definitely yourself, but also as a community if they are willing for their situation to be known. If they don't want the entire church to know of their difficulties (which the phrase "putting on a good front" suggests), then perhaps they would be willing for a small prayer group or Bible study group to know and to pray for them.

2 - Refer them to resources in the community. Obviously, certain agencies and resources are available for any individual, but sometimes churches have better connections, stronger networks, or access to resources that individuals won't. Investigate agencies that help with employment and/or housing, and go with the family yourself to some of the places that seem likely to help them get assistance they might need.

3 - Offer funds from your discretionary/benevolence fund. I do not think money from the church will solve their problem, though money is likely what they feel they need most. Whatever you might be able to help them with is not likely to keep them in their house. But a small amount might still help them in some critical way, and mostly it is a tangible indicator of your concern. When I have known of a family or individual in our congregation who is struggling financially, I have sometimes written a check for $250 or $300 to them, even if they haven't requested financial help. (Our disbursements from this fund are always confidential.) The amount is too small to "fix" their situation, but it is enough to help them in some important way, and most of all it helps them know they are not alone.

4 - Be a good listener and friend. They need economic stability, job security, and to stay in their home. Chances are that you and your church cannot provide those things for them, though you may be able to assist them in finding the resources to make those things possible. What the church can provide is companionship and care. They need to be assured of their ongoing place in the community regardless of their financial or housing status. They need good friends who will listen to them as they express their anxiety and grief over what is happening. They may need people in the church to step up and offer them temporary shelter. The church cannot fix their financial problems, but the church can certainly be a refuge for them, and part of that ought to rightfully mean that someone opens their home to them if it comes to that. If the family will allow you to let others in the congregation know of their plight, you might be surprised with what your church members will come up with by way of concrete response.


  1. I have one more suggestion to add to this loving mix:

    Somewhere in each congregation is a person or persons who know how to renegotiate with banks and mortgage companies.

    This family may need an advocate to assist them in renegotiating their mortgage. Most lenders would prefer to work with their clients than foreclose on them and there might be a way to do this with your family.

    After praying.

  2. On the first Sunday of each month our congregation has a "helping hands" collection for our discretionary fund. Even though we're in an economically depressed community, we tend to collect a decent amount of money each month. We've used this money for things like filling someone's gas tank en route to a job interview...paying for a phone card...paying for school necessities for a child.

    We are also considering sponsoring a series of classes on financial management.

  3. Er um, that would be assuming it's a mortgage issue and not a rental issue.

  4. Our church has a "community care" column in the bulletin as needed. (We are large enough a church that we can do this and no one really knows who it is.)

    The person who has a financial need goes through a screening process. (There's no slush fund for someone who can buy designer handbags but can't pay the rent. It happens!) The ad will say something like this: "a family here at JC needs $2500 to catch them up on their mortgage." or "a single mom with children needs assistance with medical bils ($875)" Then congregants are invited to help by giving above their regular offering with a check to the church with "benevolence" on the memo line. The person gets a check made out to whatever is needed (electric company, Dr. Jones.)

    For people who seem to be "frequent flyers" with constant financial requests, our church has people who help them with budget and financial management. It has been a good system, though people who want large sums paid discover that there is no casual handing out of checks. The recipient does not know who paid the funds, only that one or more families have chosen to support them.


  5. i have a slightly different take - i mean the $$ advice is good & solid stuff. we too have a discretionary acct. and i've given "gifts" to folks from that...

    the slightly different take - is from the pulpit. are the sermons connecting with the broad spectrum of folks who are hurting economically, but who are also experiencing sagging hopes & dreams? where's the proclamation of the hope we have that keeps us going even when we are depressed, and struggling to pay bills, get dressed in the morning and just keep going. thsi family needs to hear they are not alone and isolated...

  6. Nobody said anything about working for justice. Besides helping individuals in need, we should be exposing and working to change the structural inequalities that are currently built in to our economic system.

  7. Well said, HC and Melani, and everyone.
    We often hear reluctance to share with the church family when a family is in crisis, which is a shame. I like the community care program at Deb's church that allows anonymity while still letting congregation members help one another.
    We need to be advocates in a variety of ways...and one is to teach better financial stewardship. We are getting ready to have our first Financial Peace University class, and there have been several in the area. A great way to reach out and offer preemptive help to the community.

  8. My pastor frequently touches on issues of the economy, in an non-partisan and global way, with frequent nods to thinkers like Walter Wink. He doesn't necessarily supply political answers to questions of economic justice, but points out that our lives are often at the mercy of the "powers and principalities," and while we may feel powerless in this situation, as people of faith we have the means to give one another and the people around us both spiritual hope and practical help as we rearrange our own financial priorities and reach out to others.

  9. There is a program on family finances that some have offered with success - opens up the conversation without pointing anyone out. here

  10. I've seen/heard Dave Ramsey on TV/radio, in the context of secular programming, and thought he had some pretty wise financial advice. I've not heard his more "faith-based" presentations. Would they be something that Upper Midwestern Looterns could relate to, in the context of theology and style of Godtalk?


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