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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.

Contemplative Chaplain

Jennifer who blogs at An Orientation of Heart notes...

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.

Muthuh+ adds...

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.

And from Mompriest, blogging at Seeking Authentic Voice

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.

All we lack are your experiences and insights...but you can contribute by using the "Post a Comment" function. Please...join in the conversation.

May you live in God's amazing grace+

rev honey


  1. I echo all this and add a few other things from my time as rector of a small town parish:

    1) When the fund is used, tell the congregation. I would put something like this in the bulletin. This week we helped a family buy groceries and a man get back home on the bus. It keeps the fund before people so they may choose to give to it.

    2) Get a sense of the trends for those who need assistance. I found I gave out more in the days just before the monthly social assistance or pension cheques arrived (the 26th). Many assumed I would give more in the winter to help with fuel, but I actually gave out more in the summer because we were on a major highway and lots of people were passing through needing some help

    3) Talk to the other clergy in your town. Share experiences. Some folks will bring a different story to every pastor in town. Also, have a ready list of social services available in town.

    4) Most importantly, be safe! If your safety is becoming an issue, you may want to assign volunteers for a certain time period every week. Word gets around. It will soon get through the grapevine that your volunteers are available on Wednesday afternoons and that's the time to go.

    5) And, sadly, remember that a lack of preparation on their part does not constitute an emergency on your part. My anxiety goes up with their sense of urgency, and I would have to remind myself that, with many, they could have called me anytime in the past two weeks, not now at 11:00 at night when I am in bed.

  2. as a layperson I very much like suggestion #1 in the comment above. It would help keep me connected to the needs and feeling accountable to contribute to the fund.

  3. I also love #1, and wish I had thought of it. I always reported my encounters with the folks who needed help to the church governing board, but never thought to tell the congregation.

    My small off-the-beaten-path congregation went years without anyone asking for help off the street, then a gentleman in the next town began regularly circulating through churches in our county. We pastors were able to coordinate our efforts, making sure that no one church helped beyond their capacity to do so.

    I frequently got phone requests because our church was kind of hard to find on a map. I was able to refer most callers to the Interfaith agency in the county seat that was well situated to respond to a number of needs.

    The most unusual request I got? A woman called and told me she was allergic to cleaning products and to cat litter. She wanted to know if "some church ladies" would come clean her house and empty her litter box every day.


  4. Our church has a discretionary fund -- Hope's Helping Hands. We pass the hat around at the beginning of each month, asking that people just give whatever pocket change they can spare. I'm always amazed at people's generosity in our small, definitely non-affluent congregation -- and I'd echo the observation that giving people the opportunity to help others in this way is as important in its own way as the actual assistance generated.

    Sure, we've had people abuse the system; for instance, we gave a substantial amount of money to one individual to fix her car so she could go on job interviews...only to find out that she had abused the generosity of other congregations, had adequate resources for this and other of her stated needs. On the other hand, we've been able to help households stave off having their utilities turned off; we've helped people not have to choose between paying for their meds and paying for a week's groceriess; we were able to assist 12 local families with various needs last Christmastime.

    I also agree with the suggestions to try and provide gift cards or goods in kind rather than just giving money, and to network with neighboring churches in order to make sure that "frequent flyers" aren't abusing the system. And keeping the congregation and council informed of who received what and why is also a good idea that promotes accountability and keeps people bought into the program.

  5. In our town the churches have created a separate entity that deals with such requests. The congregations fund it, and then the church do referrals to that agency.

  6. Jules, I am cracking up at that lady's request!

    My approach has been like Mompriest's. I never give cash, period. Gift cards to the grocery store a few blocks away, or sometimes I will walk across the street to the gas station and meet someone in their car there. We contribute to a local food pantry, and if we have food that hasn't been taken over there yet, we'll sometimes give someone a box of cereal or similar from that.

    I heartily agree about finding out what others in town are doing and if there are any chronic recipients abusing the system.

    The other side of the need to give is the need to draw boundaries. We had a person who first used our phones and bathroom, and received occasional food along with a drink of cold water. Eventually she set up night-time housekeeping in front of the church. Even then, we were okay with it. But when she started leaving cigarette butts, human waste, and dirty toilet paper there, we had to draw a line. In the end, we had to enlist the help of the sheriff, which required putting up a conspicuous "No Trespassing" sign...just what every church wants :-o

  7. Oh the irony! It's a little strange to answer this ATM after I spent time on the phone this afternoon with our local police department giving information about a man our church has assisted who looks STRIKINGLY similar to the composite picture of an attacker/Peeping Tom they put in the local paper today. You gotta do what you gotta do.

    We don't give out cash. We don't keep cash in our building. I don't really even keep cash with me either, so I don't ever have to lie and say I don't have any. I don't feel bad about that at all. I take very seriously both the call to assist those in need and the responsibility of stewardship of the congregation's resources. Any assistance we give is to a third party.

    We have a smallish "Benevolence Fund." I guess it depends on the size of your church or your budget. Ours started this year with about $1200 in it, I think. Our Maundy Thursday offering added to it, a few random donations have helped, and I think the deacons are considering a fundraiser to put more in. As the pastor I'm allowed to approve expenditures up to like $50, I think, but I RARELY take responsibility for that. After having worked in a downtown church in my previous call I know how the word gets out and how busy it can get for a church that gives assistance in this way. I have told the church basically that if they want to do this ministry they need to support it with their time and efforts and not expect it to all fall on me. I don't mean that meanly, but it can take a lot of time if you are willing to give immediate assistance to walk-ins. It takes time from some of the other ministries they expect me to do.

    So, a cool system has developed that I think works even better than hand-outs. We have a 3 person team that addresses requests. They can spend up to $500 on any one person without approval from anyone else. Anything more than that has to have session approval. When a request comes into the office (in person or by phone) we simply take contact information and let them know a church member will call them back within 48 hours. If the needs is more immediate than that we give a heads up to the team and they usually call back much quicker. A team member gathers all pertinent info - - household members, bills overdue, eviction threats if that's the case, whatever - - and then makes a recommendation to the rest of the team. Often the information gathering also turns into advocacy. The team will talk to utilities to (often successfully) try to get bills lowered. They know the different kinds of assistance available and try to get the person plugged into those and help with the ones no one else will help with. They try to help in cases where the help will matter, not in those that just delay the inevitable for another month. We don't find that to be good stewardship. If helping is going to keep someone in their apartment one more month, but with no plans for employment and no other income we know they will be in a shelter the next month, we likely will not help. I guess it sounds harsh, but truthfully much bigger help can kick in when they are in a shelter and case managers and social workers get involved. We help them get in touch with those kinds of folks when that's the case, but if the financial assistance isn't really a step forward we will choose not to get involved.

    That's a long answer, but I think it's a really decent system we've got worked out. We keep no more than $100 of gas cards on hand (in $20 increments) to give out if, frankly, the secretary and I feel nervous or threatened and we just want to help move someone along out of the building.

  8. Our small rural church has an Emergency fund, which is used at the pastor's discretion. For several years we were without a settled pastor and I was one of the folks (I'm a lay leader) charged with the use of the fund. Now that we have a settled pastor, the dispersal of funds is back in the pastor's hands. Our fund is not large, usually not more than $500 at a time. Like others have said, we never give cash -- we will write checks to the electric or phone company, to the pharmacy, or to a landlord or to the oil company. We run a food pantry so we usually provide a grocery bag of food, rather than a grocery card. We also maintain an emergency shelter in our church, so we can sometimes help with temporary shelter. We have paid for a night's lodging sometimes with the fund too, or for car repairs. We try to inform the congregation about our dispersal of funds, and we certainly let the congregation know when the fund is getting low. We have an offering plate in our narthex for the Emergency Fund, and at least on Communion Sundays (once a month) we call attention to the need for emergency funds. Our church office also is tied into other community resources. The other guideline we have is that we don't usually give one person more than $100 at any one time, unless there are extenuating circumstances.


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