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Thursday, August 19, 2010
Ask the Matriarch - "I was hungry, and you..."
Meet Contemplative Chaplain...a newly-minted solo pastor wondering how to care for those who come to the church seeking aid
I am new to this congregation and have never served a solo pastorate before. We have a relatively small congregation of only 75 or so at this point. At my previous pastoral placement (where I was one of a staff of eight!) in a relatively financially comfortable small town, we didn’t deal much with transients or people coming to seek money from the church. While our church contributes regularly to wider mission and serves once a month at the local food bank, there has not been a pastor’s discretionary account set up to assist people in need who show up on our doorstep. This week someone stopped when I was alone at the church and I gave her $10.00 of my own cash and some toilet paper from the church bathroom (it was what she said she needed…). However, some elders in the church are now telling me that I am a “soft touch” and cautioning me about what I give as word will get out all over the city that I give money away (the previous two pastors, apparently, had a hard line on not giving away money or food but had a list of community resource locations for people to go on their own).
I understand that we don’t want to be “taken advantage of” as a church, but I cannot feel as if I am a true disciple of Christ without giving something to someone in need. How have your churches handled this situation and what do you see as options for churches? Food vouchers? Gas cards? A cut off on how many times people can ask?
All of this just makes me confused and sad, and I want to do the right thing.
This is a great question, and an ethical struggle for many clergy, I think.
I’m glad you have elders who are aware of the situation and who are offering you advice and counsel based on their community.
If I served a church that did not have a pastor’s discretionary fund and felt that such a fund were needed, I’d sit down with the Mission Committee and think about the need with them and if they perceived the need, would then work with them to establish guidelines and amounts and all of the accompanying policies. I’ve served churches in urban and rural and suburban settings and the desires of each congregation have differed. However, in all settings, groups in the life of the church (the women’s group, the men’s group, the youth group, the mission committee) as well as individuals have contributed to the fund as they wish. Sometimes they’ve budgeted funds to contribute and sometimes they’ve been more spontaneous gifts, particularly individuals who recognize that needs arise to which the pastor can respond.
If your church wishes to set up a discretionary/emergency fund, it would be wise to think about what feels right for your congregation and what feels like an emergency. For many years our congregation had no policy and had many returning visitors who asked for help for years. Our policy is that we do not give cash.
I think it’s a reality in many communities that word spreads quickly about assistance, so having guidelines you can follow allows you to be clear with all who come to the church for help. It also allows your partners in ministry (the congregation) to feel as though their contributions are being wisely shared.
Dear Contemplative Chaplain,
The giving of alms has been a conundrum since biblical times.But my advice is always to err on the side of charity.In my last small town, I was a member of the local council of churches and we had a voucher system that all of us contributed to that helped us from being “taken” by those who make it a practice to take from the Church.If you do not have access to that, check with the pastors of churches around you. (It will also give you some allies)
Your parish needs to have some fund for alms for THEIR sakes.Alms are a necessary part of the Church’s ministry and life.It also raises the consciousness of your congregation.People in the congregation should be encouraged to give to such a fund.I avoid Pastor’s Discretionary Funds because its use can be so easily distorted, but there does need to be a way to fund this kind of alms giving. You need a fund to which you have access but it must have some checks and balances and be fairly confidential.Sometimes a parishioner might need to make use of it without the whole Church knowing.
In one church I knew that my alms fund was being used as the unofficial “check guard” for a poor family that lived near the church.They always paid their borrowings back so that others could have an emergency fund too.
Alms giving is such an important part of being a Christian.If your church is not used to such a ministry, you will need to do some teaching to your council or your deacons.I met Mother Theresa once.I have never met someone so touched by God that it radiated out from her.She said, “Give until it hurts, only then will you know what Christ’s sacrifice was about.”It is an important piece of lived-out theology.
This is a very delicate subject and one I have struggled with. In two previous parishes I served we established a response policy to give me some guidelines from the leaders. In each of those places I did have a discretionary account and wanted to use those funds with integrity and respectful of the desires of those who contributed to it. In both places I also had the counsel of other local clergy and even social workers and other agencies to help guide our decisions.
That said, in the small church, where I was often there alone, we decided that I would not answer the door or respond when I, or any other person, was working there alone. When there were two in the office, as was the case during posted office hours, we would invite the person into a public place where I could sit and speak with the person but still be seen from the office. It afforded the person some privacy since no one else was nearby but me some safety since we could be seen. We then purchased gift cards for a local grocery store and local gas station, in the amounts of $20 or $50 for food and $10 for gas. I could decide which and how many of these gift cards to give to each person. I also let the person know that I kept a list of who I gave to and that I would be unable to help them again anytime soon. With this policy in place I only had a few people who came again and again – and even those only came about three times a year – which seemed very reasonable to me.
In my second parish we only gave out gift cards to the local grocery story, but it had a gas station attached to it and the cards could be used for that as well. I also established a working relationship with the local community resource agency who helped people with bigger more systemic issues like housing, medical care, and rent. The policy was that I would send those people, who needed more assistance, to this agency and they would do the intake work and strive to solve the big problems. They would contact me and the other churches in the area if the person needed cash for items that their guidelines would not cover, like an auto repair, or a more expensive rent payment. The agency kept track of folks and would let us know when a scammer was going around. I really liked this process because I felt we were making a community wide effort to help on a deeper level those who needed it and at the same time I had the opportunity to give a gift card to someone who really just needed a little food or gas. So, an agreed upon policy from the congregation which will hopefully include the gift cards is one way that has worked well for me. The beauty of cards is that they carry some intentionality to them, one more step a person would have to go through if the really just wanted cash for drugs. I try not to prejudge people, what they do with the gift we give is their concern. But I always hope they use it wisely.
Lastly, I always offered a prayer with the person before they left, one that wrapped up their concerns and asked for God’s blessing and guidance. You have my prayers as you discern a response to this profound community concern.
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