Thursday, April 11, 2013
Ask the Matriarch: Helping Hands
The small rural church I serve has many different needs. We currently have two people (one a member and the other attends regularly) who many members have helped, individually with finances (rent, utilities, groceries, etc) They each have very different stories and the one person is now 1 year drug free.
I suggested to the mission committee that a "Helping Hands" fund be established with guidelines for the use of helping church members and those who attend regularly. The community has a food pantry and some other emergency funds available as well. However, the two people in our church have maxed out their limit with those agencies.
We want to be able to help people; we want to put them in the best possible situation to succeed, but at the same time we also do not want to enable poor choices when it comes to money and accountability.
Our guidelines include that all funds will be paid to the creditor; that we may ask for a list of their income/expenses/month; and that we might refer them for financial counseling. We also will have them sign a covenant to repay the church when possible so that we can continue to help people. The committee named a set amount to spend each year and when that amount is reached we say, "the funds are all gone." I realize this does not stop individual members from being approached. All the requests will go through the mission committee and not the pastor.
Perhaps I am a bit cynical. but there is always a "check coming" or a "job interview" or "it is someone else's fault", or something which leads them to ask for help.
Any thoughts/advice would be appreciated. Thanks.
The good news is, the Matriarchs support you. The bad news is, there are no easy solutions.
Here's a word from kathrynzj:
It sounds like you are putting some really good things into place. A book that helped our staff wrestle with this question is When Helping Hurts - How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I recommend it to you because although there is no '1 size fits all' approach to these situations, I found my mind freed from the "What would Jesus do" guilt that I always burden myself with when it comes to these tough decisions. We were able to discuss what might work in our situation and we were still on the same page together even when some of the results were disappointing (a refusal of assistance once financial counseling was an expectation in return for that assistance). I think your cynicism is well-placed and I am thankful for your spirit of willingness to find a better way rather than shut down all assistance entirely.
RevHRod acknowledges this is a tough one:
My only "advice" is that you stick to your policies. They are there to protect the interests of the congregation, avoid haggling and provide a healthy level of assistance to those who are in need. Even then, there are going to be times when you are lied to or conned. The thing is, I am pretty sure that when I die and go to heaven, God is not going to give me a lecture because I let myself get swindled by someone who asked for my help. So go with your gut and whenever possible, make decisions like this in committee.
Terri at Seeking Authentic Voice shares that this part of ministry, like the question, is complicated:
The needs are endless. Anything we might offer is just a tiny response to a much bigger, systemic problem of poverty, lack of employment, poor wages, poor health care, even poorer mental health care, which encumber our communities in this country. I find it perpetually overwhelming to think about, and increasingly difficult to know how to respond to the people I encounter.
That said, I do not feel it is my place to judge the worthiness of another and their request for assistance. I really don't want to hear their "stories" which may or may not include real details of their life circumstances. How humiliating for them to create and tell these stories over and over. I have come to believe that if a person is so desperate, for whatever reason, that they come to the church seeking assistance, then help is what I will try to give. I tell them up front that I don't have much, a simple $10 gift card to a local grocery store and gas station chain is what I give. I give out $100 worth of these every month. We do try to rotate around and not give to the same people every month but that also depends on the number of requests. I stopped the process where I, as the clergy person, had to be the one to make the determination. The parish administrator who is in the office more than I is allowed to give them out. She also keeps track of who has come in and tries to balance the needs from month to month. Its messy and complicated, but it avoids me needing to determine who qualifies and why. We also collect food for a local food pantry - but almost always give away the food to people in need before it ever gets to the pantry. This makes me think we need to start our own pantry...
It seems to me that the process you are trying to implement is one that offers a good opportunity for balance and integrity. There will always be people who are using and abusing the process - but in my mind that is just symptomatic of deeper problems of need and perpetual poverty and a public aide system in this country that teaches poverty survivors to be manipulative as a means to getting some needs met.
I have been facing this question for fifteen years of ordained ministry. It is one of the most difficult challenges of ministry - how to respond with integrity and respect the dignity of the person and hope that one is also being a good steward of the resources offered up by the parish.
You may find some good food for thought in Sara Miles' book, Take This Bread, and her website.
Blessings and prayers for you as you live this journey of pastoral life. It is an ever evolving one.
The inimitable Crimson Rambler points out:
Ah yes. My MDiv took seven years to complete and at no point in that process did anyone even mention that PEOPLE WERE GOING TO ASK ME FOR MONEY.
It was the very first thing that happened when I became identifiable as a clergywoman.
It's still problematic. I think our enquirer's policies are sound; we do want to help, we don't want to reward "mendacity."
The difficulty is that the people who approach us are almost never "in terrible trouble, and that's all" OR "dreadful liars, and that's all."
They're nearly always both.
Paying funds to the creditor is a good policy; supplying aid-in-kind is another. (If they ask for money for gas, meet them at the gas station and do the fill-up yourself. If they ask for money for a bus ticket to a job etc., meet them at the bus station, and so forth.) It can be a big help to have a parish credit-card dedicated to this purpose.
And it's quite all right to say, "the funds are all gone." I also used to ask a return favour -- "I can give you this much, but please don't tell anyone else where you got it"; and often that request was seriously honoured. Otherwise I found it was like throwing a crust to a pigeon -- instantly there would be a dozen more applicants!
Somewhere St. John Chrysostom, who knew a thing or two, says that you should give in response to all requests, not very much, but never investigate the "story," because the genuinely needy will be embarrassed and tell unconvincing stories, and the hardened con-artists will have their tales all polished up.
The other tactic that is important is ecumenical consultation, even in a very small community--because there are people who work the help-from-a-church process as if it were a full-time job, and live quite comfortable lives as a result. Call your fellow clergy! Pass the word around!
We kept a running file on persons who had sought help, and shared it with other parishes and denominations.
All that said...every so often, there were returns of thanks, or even repayment of financial help, which floored me completely.
In my last call, the church used a local grocery chain's gift cards as a fundraiser. The Deacons would purchase a supply of the gift cards for the pastor to distribute as needed. This helped both the church and those passing by our country crossroads. We also kept a small supply of gas certificates for the one gas station in town. In our situation, we needed something in the office that would keep people moving along the way. As in so many aspects of ministry, location matters. Two women in an isolated church building may need a different strategy than is required for a well-staffed church with better security.
More local (town or congregation) requests for over $50 were handled by me in conjunction with the Deacons, and in that case, we would assist with heating oil or medication expenses by paying bills directly.
Finally, Rev Red advises keeping the congregation in the loop:
I have served most of my ministry in rural areas and the needs in the community as well as the congregation always seem to be many. There also are often a few who are wanting fish rather than learning to fish. In other words, a hand out not a hand up. This said, I believe creating a committee and a fund within your congregation is a good start to dealing with and helping all in a positive and caring manner. I like the guidelines you have set up including counseling, the covenant to repay so that others can be helped and being able to say the funds are gone when they have been depleted..
You may also want to have some kind of a limit on how often each recipient can ask and also how much can be distributed each time.
I believe that it is also important to let your congregation members and friends know that this fund is available and to encourage them to work within this fund's framework. This may help with the appeals to individuals and also empower them to say no without a lot of guilt. It may also cause those who are going to individuals to reconsider doing this as well.
I too have become cynical at times over the years. I do not buy that unlimited help is the best option and that helping again when a contract with the helping agency has been broken numerous times. I really struggle when I know there are children involved and they are the ones who will end up being hurt the most by a cold house or inadequate food. However, when this is the case there may need to be intervention in other ways to insure that minors are not being neglected or abused.
Another factor that I find to be important in small communities or large ones is some way of helping agencies communicating with each other. The best help networks I have seen in the communities I have served are the ones administered from a central location whether for the transient or the local population. I could tell all kinds of stories about the creative ways used to get funds or other help from every church in town on the way through town to get to the next town to repeat the process.
I hope some of this helps. I am looking forward to seeing all of the responses. One of my small congregations has just started a Food Pantry with monthly distribution of food boxes which has grown quickly in two distributions. We do not have any requirements as an agent of the larger food bank in our county. At this point we have no guidelines for who can receive the food other than an address and numbers of persons of what ages in the household. We hope to be able to continue this way. We shall see.
What is your experience? Please let us know in the comments. If you have a question for our panel, please send it to Ask the Matriarch.