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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ask the Matriarch: Helping Hands

If you've served in a local church for more than an hour or so, you'll likely sympathize with this week's questioner:

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 Breadand 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.

A quick suggestion from yours truly:

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.


  1. We have a committee (the pastor is on it but does not chair it) and an annual budget. Reponses range from small amounts of cash for emergencies to quite significant loans - for example to someone who was starting a business, and for help with college fees (in these cases there is a repayment agreement with a flexible schedule).

    The committee is also tasked with exploring whether money is the only or best response. For example one of our members asked for help because a social security payment was late. She got some money to tide her over - but she also got help from one of the more assertive members of the committee who called the social security people and pressured them into getting their act together.

  2. We have a small fund based on a specific offering each month and a committee that administers it, with guidelines similar to those mentioned above -- no endless repeats, they supply fliers about local services, and they write checks directly to, say, utility companies or landlords, or they buy phone cards or deliver groceries, i.e. they don't just hand over cash. Every once in awhile they check in with me when something unusual comes up, but they've been handling it, and handling it well, since long before I arrived on the scene. Good thing, since I would have had no idea what to do.

    My field ed was in a downtown church, and there we kept a supply of bus vouchers and gift cards for local fast food places, as well as fliers for other resources -- there the requests were much more likely to come from homeless individuals looking to get through another day, while in the country they come more from families hoping to stay where they are for another month and to keep the utilities on and the kids fed.

  3. in a rural setting, kudos to you for being able to have a committee administer funds. it happens in the boonies here with housing requests/loans... but not much else, especially thru the church. the need for privacy is utmost in small town america.

    that being said, our local clergy, all 3 of us, work closely to determine who has called and what assistance was given. we each have our own discretionary funds but also a larger community assistance fund that we an all use. we've been working on 'policy' as in, if someone from nearby big city requests help from us "because all the churches in the big city won't help me"... do we offer assistance, or are our funds for local use only. that's where we lean... and we refer heavily to agencies in nearby big town.

    all that being said, we choose to err on the side of grace every time.
    have we been "taken" a time or two? probably.
    we also do not give cash. ever.

  4. Ahhh frustrated just typed a long response and then trying to publish it got lost. So let me try again.

    In the 15 years of ministry my husband and I have had to many to even count coming for money of some sort or another. How we dealt with that was a little different depending on the settin. But we've almost always paid for gas, hotel room, utility bill, etc in person or with a gift card.

    The situation however changes and is bound by a great amount of emotion when it's one of our own asking the church or other church members for help. I love the suggestions already mentioned about a covenant with the and asking them as they are able to give back so others can be helped. I wonder if instead of asking them to go to financial counseling if we couldn't have a system that used mentors that could work with them on a weekly/monthly basis encouraging them,, guiding them and teaching them how to get on their feet and then be able to stay there. I'm not saying that the mentor has to be perfect in money management because I'm not certain that exists but there are folks who made wise choices and know about budgeting, couponing, etc. I would also make it clear that the mentor is NOT to give them money or gift cards, that they would covenant with the church to have the individual come directly to whomever takes applications and offers the support. I think this might be a way for us to be offering a hand up and not just a hand out (love that saying since I heard it from a ministry in the Atlanta area)!

    In addition I think we need to be reminded that we can't help everyone and when you are out of resources or you have gut feeling about something (trust it your most likely correct) its ok to say I'm sorry we can't help you at this point, here are some other options for you.

    Lastly I'm thankful for this group and those who keep it together. The revgals are full of wise and valiant women and I'm grateful that I've found you all. Thanks for opening the door for me to be apart.

    1. Since I could for some reason use my Wordpress login this time I'm also G-Free Rev and my blog is here:

  5. There is much wisdom from the matriarchs already. As Hot Cup Lutheran mentioned, you may want to be in conversation with other pastors in your area. We had a gentleman who would visit each of our churches looking for support for the same need (not sharing the bill between us, but "overpaying" it, which essentially saved him going around month by month to pay his utility bill or his car insurance). We have a public-private partnership in our county - churches and the county contribute to a fund for rent, utilities and such, an there are qualified social workers on staff who do the screening and actually determine if there is a more systematic solution to the person's financial woes, and that has helped us tremendously. It is a great thing to have people with the skills necessary to really help those in need.

    We follow many of the same policies others have talked about. We don't give cash. We have an arrangement with a local gas station that if someone comes in looking for help with gas, we call the station and send the person down there. If we give gas cards, folks might use them for the beer and wine sold in the gas station/convenience stores in the area.

    It becomes a very different kind of challenge when it is a member of your congregation, of course. when folks know the person's story, they may want to help directly, and they may want to give more than they would to a stranger. That may not be theologically well-grounded, but it's human nature. We try and encourage people to work through the church so that we can help find a more comprehensive solution. We also sometimes say no. Not easy, but sometimes the right call.

    I have told folks that I am happy to hear their stories, but that doesn't affect whether or not we give - it's a function of what we have available in discretionary funds.

    On rare occasions, when I have covered the cost of counseling for an individual with a drug or alcohol problem, I have made a condition of the payment the ability for me to touch base with the counselor...provides an accountability point for them. I don't need to know all that's spoken of, just that they are actually going to the sessions and making a good-faith effort to work on their problems.

    There is no easy answer...peace be with you.

  6. Another thought for those in the US and Canada is United Way's 211 number. It is accessible and free from any land line. They provide location-specific referrals. No, they don't send out gas cards, etc., but it is a read flag for me when I suggest it and the person says, "They said they can't help me..." because they offer referrals, not specific help anyway.

    1. Yikes, typing in a hurry...sorry for the typos!

  7. The community where I live (not the much smaller one where I pastor) has two layers for this issue:

    First, all churches funnel their support through a single agency, the Good Samaritan Center. The director there is the one who makes decisions about whom and how to help, under guidelines developed among the churches. Each church has the freedom to help its own members, but everybody else is referred to Good Sam.

    Second, that agency is part of a larger emergency assistance coalition, which meets every week to discuss requests for assistance. It includes both government agencies like the Housing Authority and non-profits, and every agency that might be "hit up" for assistance participates or, if they can't be there, shares information. That prevents two problems: People falling through the cracks because everyone thought someone else should be helping, and people who attempt to double up on assistance. It enables the assistance available in the community to help the most people in the most effective ways.

    The community in which I pastor is much smaller, and the church really is the only helping entity there. We have a food pantry and manage surplus commodity distributions as well. We hand out gas vouchers to the local gas station. We make lots of referrals. We know the circumstances of the locals, and they know we know, and with people "just passing through," we provide prayer, a meal and gas or a ride to the next town.

    I agree with what someone said above: The truly needy usually have simple stories, and elaborate cons make me suspicious. We don't require people to humble themselves, but to the best of our ability, we do require honesty and sufficient information to have some idea that we're making an informed decision about how to utilize our resources.

  8. Networking with other churches in your area is key. So is being firm on your limits. It may mean that you set another ground rule for your needy folks, which is that if they begin soliciting help from individuals in the congregation, that you will cut them off from the church's funds. In other words, they only get to dip into your community's funds once.

    There also does need to be, as others suggested, some education of your parishioners into the right and wrong way to support those in need.

  9. There is sometimes a very fine line between enabling and helping. My parents' church worked closely with a community charity to care for people who had needs. They gave generously TO the charity, and then sent people looking for help to them. Some of the other area churches were partners with them. Between their joint efforts, they have had a huge impact. Check out their model of ministry here:

    The director of the program asked the churches to stop giving out gift cards because they were used as currency (sadly) to buy street drugs or pay prostitutes. Any direct aid given by the churches went (in check form) to the utility bill or the rent.


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