Visit our new site at

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Giving 'til It Hurts Edition

This week's question is a timely one, given the increasingly difficult economic circumstances in which we find ourselves as a nation, as well as the increasing number of persons in need of physical or emotional assistance who are left to fend for themselves.

A new pastor writes
I can't tell you how distressed I am to be asking about this.

Our church has a discretionary fund for helping those who come around looking for assistance. As pastor I can spend up to $50 of this money at a time; $50 or more requires the concurrence of two deacons.

In the time I've been at the church (a little over a year) I've seen the need for assistance to individuals in our community increase. The rough economy is taking its toll on everyone, and those at the fringes get hit hardest and fastest. A number of people I've helped are one-timers-- a few dollars here or there helps them to pay a security deposit on an apartment or pay for food at a tough time. But we also have our "frequent flyers"--- folks I can count on seeing at regular intervals.

I have set my own limits here. I require a three to six month gap between episodes of assistance for folks who are regulars. Most accept this limit, even if grudgingly. But occasionally I encounter someone who pushes back.

J is one such person. She has consistently returned about monthly since the middle of last summer. For a while my limit held, but then she came in with a story so appalling that I broke my own rule and helped her one additional time. Since that day she has started coming to church on Sunday mornings (where she has been warmly welcomed by congregation members). Unfortunately, she uses the Sunday appearances at church and coffee hour to hit up members for money.

One recent Sunday she received a total of $60 cash plus a shopping trip at which someone paid for groceries and prescriptions. (Her needs are real, though some of her stories are questionable). I have spread the word around that I would like folks to refer her to me when she asks for assistance, but occasionally she will tell someone that I referred her to them, and they'll believe her. I have called her on this, and she denies it.

Last Sunday she appeared with a story that she had had a medical emergency which had caused her sheets to be covered with blood, and that she needed money to do her laundry "because her room stinks." I told her how sorry I was and said that we couldn't help her with cash, sorry. She then proceeded to tell the story to everyone she encountered until someone finally gave her $20, honestly, to make her go away.

I am increasingly frustrated with this situation. I read in the gospels that Jesus helped everyone, fed everyone, healed everyone without regard to "worthiness", but this woman is pushing my buttons big time. She has shared with me that she has a history of addiction to "hard drugs" and that she has lost custody of three children, but they will be returned to her early in 2009. I have asked her what her plans are for caring for these kids, since she is clearly unable to make ends meet for herself alone. She speaks of all kinds of government assistance that she expects.

I'm not feeling much like Jesus where J is concerned. I'm pissed off about her shocking people with her stories to get cash. But... maybe we should be shocked at what poverty and addiction does to people.

Matriarchs, help me. Please. Seriously.

Ann of responds:

Well - Jesus did not carry any money around as far as I can tell (remember - one coat, no purse) so that is one answer - give up being a social service agency. Seriously I wonder about Discretionary Funds and their usefulness. Most of us don't have the background to really find out what is going on to be very effective in assisting people. I turned ours over to a board to oversee in one place. In another the churches got together to hire someone who could do more than just give out $ - who could help people find all the community resources as well as help get them on track with budgeting and other services. Churches in our community had discovered that the same people were hitting up all of us.

I am not against helping people and no doubt the need will increase. Parameters and guidelines need to be set up. One is no cash - only vouchers or direct payment to the provider of whatever service is needed by the person in need. There is a role for advocacy to make the resources of the community more available to those in need -- going with people to help them sort through bureaucracies, etc. Sometimes it seems easier to just give the money - although the word spreads when one is an easy mark.

I think getting an outreach committee to oversee this is one way to address it. It gets people in the congregation involved who care about the issues. It spreads the word in the congregation about needs and challenges. But it is distressing and hard to say no and not feel guilty when most of us are in fairly comfortable circumstances. For me it is either just give it away and not worry or set up as system and hope you can do some long term good.

And from our Rector in Hawai'i (where many of us might wish we were rectoring right now!):

No one, even people in need, are entitled to approach people in a community concerning whatever it is that they need. This is a variation of panhandling. Two things: J needs to be talked to very firmly and told that the parish can no longer help her because there are so many other people who also need assistance. Give her a list of other places she might go for assistance. Secondly, members of a community do not hit each other up for money. She cannot remain in the community if that continues. Along with telling her this, also make an announcement during Sunday services that if J approaches anyone, you'd appreciate it if the approached parishioner would escort her over to the rector to discuss the need. Explain to the congregation that the parish (you) have been working with J to help her out; but giving cash is not helping to resolve the problem and only serves to make people uncomfortable.The parish needs to maintain some sort of boundary on how needy people are helped -- harassing parishioners, however, is not okay. In some cases, some of your own parishioners might not be coming as regularly if they feel they have to deal with J's panhandling.

On second thought, it might be good to bring this up at the vestry meeting and ask them how they would suggest you handle this. Some of them might have been approached by J as well. With vestry developing the guidelines, you'll have a better chance that parishioners will follow those guidelines. Even inclusiveness and charity and assistance all have boundaries.

This might sound a little harsh but there really are needy people who will get as much as they can, especially when drugs are involved. Sounds like J is going to continue doing this until she is asked to stop. If she doesn't stop, you can suggest that the police might be helpful in this case. I don't think you'll get to that point, but sometimes it's necessary. If she doesn't panhandle, she's very welcome to join the community.

Earthchick adds:

The first thing I have to remind myself of in this kind of situation is that I am not Jesus. (I shouldn't need the reminder, because all evidence makes it clear that I'm not.) It may seem that Jesus helped everyone without limit or exception, but I am very clear about the fact that I am incapable of doing so - and trying to is a very unhealthy situation for both me and the people I try to minister to. I think it's time you draw some very firm lines with J, lines that it sounds like you need to make clear not only to her but to your congregation as well.

I think the cash flow from you and your church members has to stop. In our congregation we have a set of policies in place for our discretionary fund. The first one is - no cash. Every gift has to be made for some specific purpose - if a person needs help with rent, we write a check to their landlord. If they need groceries, we write a check to the grocery store. We do not keep cash on-hand, and we do not write checks to individuals. It helps to be able to say "This is our policy and there's nothing I can do about it." This takes more work than handing out cash, but it also helps us be responsible with the money that people are giving to the discretionary fund - we know that the money is going for actual critical concrete needs.

Additionally, we work very closely with agencies who are actually equipped to assess need and appropriate resources. We send these local agencies money and we refer people to them. If these agencies won't assist someone who is requesting help, we know that there are good reasons (i.e., their story didn't check out). This has been a crucial part of our work with the local poor and addicted. Ministers and individual congregations shouldn't bear the burden of helping people alone - we really must work together with local social agencies. Not only do these agencies help people we send to them, but the agencies know they can call on us for financial assistance in certain situations. We know we can trust these requests.

It does not feel good to say not to people in need. But the situation you have gotten into with J is not helping her. It is enabling her and draining you and your congregants. She needs the long-term support that social agencies might be able to help with, not the quick and easy fix of a fistful of cash. I know this is not easy, and I hope you and your congregation can find healthy ways to love and support her.

from Soprano in New Jersey:

Ah, it's so hard to know the desperation of the poor. On the other hand, it's so easy to romanticize poverty in general and the needs of the poor in particular.

I remember one particular situation when we were walking back from the office of a friend who is a devout RC and a lawyer. He was on his way to a special Mass for lawyers and began talking about his faith.

On our way to the garage to fetch our cars, we were approached by a homeless man, asking for 'spare change'. A woman in our company reached into her coat pocket and produced a small hand full of change and gave it to the man with a warm smile. As we walked on, the lawyer became very angry.

"How do you know he's not going to spend that money on alcohol or drugs?"

She looked at him and said, "How do you know that wasn't Jesus?"

Right. Everything we have is not ours, it is God's. And, do we also have certain responsibilities to be good stewards of all that we have been given, do we not?

Is it really good stewardship to give money which might be used to contribute to a person's demise, or should the 'free will' given to us by God also be extended through us to others?

I can't tell you what to do. I can only tell you what I do - what works for the way I see the world works and what feels right to my soul.

I carry around food gift cards with me in $25 amounts, which I give out to those who are in need. You can get them from local grocery stores like Stop 'n Shop, Shop Rite, Giant, etc.

Also, I will pay directly to the pharmacy or utilities or insurance company or landlord. After the second request, I will have a conversation with the person about a systemic approach to the problem. We'll begin to talk about drug rehab or employment resources or job training. In at least two instances in the last three years, I have worked with other pastors in my community about helping to pay for a course to train two women as nurse's aids and in another two cases, two nurse's aids to become med techs.

And yes, when I leave the house in the morning, I also take the spare change from the top of my dresser and put it into my coat pocket.

You just never know when you're going to meet Jesus on the street.

And from Jacque:

Oh, I can feel the level of frustration! I serve an inner city congregation with people coming in asking for assistance on a regular basis. The good news is that we have an ecumenical urban outreach ministry with food pantry, and emergency assistance to which I can refer folks. People still come to me both during the week and on Sunday mornings, asking church members for money as you describe.

First, I would say that if we are to help people, we do have to accept the fact that sometimes we get conned. I'd rather help folks who truly need it, even if means giving to the occasional con, than to turn away those who have real needs, because it wounds my pride to be conned.

Second, when I have concluded that someone is conning, then I know that I am not helping them by continuing to feed into the sickness. (My conning, I include those who do have real needs, but have found ways to manipulate others to get money or goods rather than working on real solutions to problems.)

Third, we do have a call to help people in need; however that does not mean that our attention should be turned from other ministry every time someone asks. Everyone needs to live within appropriate boundaries. For everything there is a time ...

So, sometimes I do end up giving people money. But when I do, I try to make it clear that this is a one-time, rare occasion and that from this point they need to go to (in our case) Isaiah 58 Ministries, which is open 5 days a week from 10 - 1:30. And this is the phone number ....

I've come to notice how many people have a 'sudden' emergency on Sunday afternoon and cannot wait until Monday morning. I let people know that there is assistance, but that they have to plan and uses the services available like others do. It does not help people to become responsible if they never have to think ahead, make resources last, etc.

I've told people who are shaking down the congregation, that they simply are not allowed to do so. I believe the congregation should be able to come to worship and Sunday School without being hustled for money. At the same time, the congregation needs to realize the needs and issues of the community. Therefore I need to include them in discussions about how WE are responding to those in need.

We had one couple who joined the congregation in order to be able to have access to people to get money time after time. The leadership of the congregation discussed how to respond. We offered a variety of kinds of longer term help that were not what they wanted (not money and resources in their hands). I had also let them know that asking for money was not appropriate. When they discovered they could not get what they wanted, they left.

From a Wise Layperson:

I don't really have an answer for this one-- though it does occur to me that ground rules might be a place to start.

It seems like this woman is turning this church into her own personal beg-a-thon (what we call the pledge drives on PBS). I know I would (and have) felt put off when one person comes to dominate the discussion at a church.

It is important to remember that everyone at the church, rich or poor, sane or in mental distress has needs that they come to church to have met.

In a more perfect world the church would band together to help this person _and_ the person would be healed by that action. Unfortunately the world is a lot more complicated than that. It sounds like what this person really needs is professional help and what your congregation needs is to have an upfront discussion about how it will live in the world and what the ground rules are for dealing with this and future situations.

Can you help her? I have no idea-- but without groundrules you run the risk of driving other members of your congregation away.

My advice boils down to:

1) If church is becoming "all about J" then there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

2) Get some advice from a mental health or social work professional for how to handle this before it gets too far out of hand.

My own experience:
Many years ago, a man started coming to our church. We had announcements in the middle of the service and he would, without fail stand up and give a long, rambling sermonette about his cause of the week (usually it what what movies were 'unchristian'). Many people in the congregation found this irritating and disruptive of their worship. For a while we all tried to be the bigger people and let him have his time-- he was obviously not quite all there and we wanted to be welcoming and 'good christains.' We did try various low-key ways to approach him and get him to tone it down. He did not respond to any of them.

Finally we decided that it was not working. His constant disruption and lack of respect for our boundaries was getting on most peoples' nerves and making worship a chore. So we changed the service. We moved the announcements to the end of the service and for several weeks skipped parts of the service that invited congregants to share.

Deprived of his soapbox, he stopped coming to services.

Was this the outcome we wanted? Not really-- what we wanted was for him to understand that worship was a communal act. He could join us but he would have to immerse himself in the corporate act of worship and not take over a part of the service to the detriment of most everyone else present.

He couldn't or wouldn't do that so all that was left to us was remove the parts of the service that seemed to be triggering his behavior and see what would happen.

I do think that if we had acted sooner we would have saved ourselves a lot of heartache.

For more from our wise layperson, you can visit to read an essay she wrote on being taken in by a con and how that felt.

And you...what would you add?


  1. wow that is a tough situation, I have dealt with folk who have presented real sounding needs before and later questioned their motives...

    One way in situations like the laundry might be to say sorry J I don't have any cash right now, but you are welcome to bring your sheets round and I will wash them ( but that might put your home at risk)...

    I do believe she needs to be tackled on this however as it is not a healthy place for her to be, nor is good for you or your congregation.

    Jesus issued challenges as well as healing, perhaps now is the time for a challenge!

  2. FT and I have lived through this type of situation with "user" neighbors who exploited their children and our concern for them as a tool for wheedling money out of us (money that we doubt actually went to help the children). I understand the frustration and moral quandary.

    A couple of suggestions from my own church experience: I once lived in a community where the local ministerial association established a protocol, similar to that of social service agencies, for emergency assistance; it worked in rotation, so the different churches in the community shared the burden equally; and it also helped identify "frequent fliers"/users of the system. It may be an idea to work out in your own community. I also echo the recommendation to, whenever possible, provide goods in kind, gift certificates, direct payments to creditors, etc., instead of simply handing people cash on a frequent basis. And I'd also echo the advice to seek the counsel of your council/vestry in dealing with this particular individual.

  3. Oh...and for goods in kind...take the price tags off and keep the receipts, or people may try to go back to the stores where you bought them and return them for cash. (We learned this the hard way, from our predatory neighbors, who returned the toys we'd given the kids for cash, for "fun" money for themselves. Grrrr.)

  4. While it isn't always possible to work through an agency to help meet needs, there definitely need to be boundaries and the vestry/board needs to set them. My diocese has clear guidelines for what I can and can't do but who to help and how is not included. So that's up to the parish. I would have the warden or elder make the announcement about no handouts to members of the congregation, though. It really does help if this isn't seen as the rector not wanting to support the poor.
    As for Jesus, I don't recall anyone coming to him a second time, do you? Of course, we have limited information about his ministry but can you imagine this happening?
    In the early days of the U.S., churches were the social service agencies. We aren't anymore and ought not to be doing that intense kind of work. We can help some and the suggestions about checks to landlords or utilities and gift cards to the grocery are good ones. On the grocery ones, I have worked with stores to make sure that those cards are not being used for beer and cigarettes.
    At the last vestry meeting, we were deciding how to contribute to the local ministry center. Last year, I used discretionary funds for that and the vestry insisted that ought to come from parish outreach monies. They also feel that my discretionary fund is used primarily to help parishioners in need. I thought that was an interesting notion.

  5. Well, I'm not a clergy person (though I'm on the road headed there), but I can say that I felt so empowered when I realized Jesus was not a "yes-man." He said no to his family, his most intimate disciples, and those who asked things of him (the rich young ruler). If meeting someone's needs enables them to continue to be a bad steward of their time, money, resources, energy, the most loving thing to do may be to say no. That said, it is definitely not easy. And I would imagine that it is harder as a clergy person. Grace, peace, and discernment to you all.

  6. Pastor Hawaii says " Secondly, members of a community do not hit each other up for money."

    This hits a nerve with me -because members of a community NOTICE the needs of others.

    I don't think giving money is the answer - helping her with laundry, taking her shopping, (so that the money can't be spent on drugs, booze etc) and pointing her in the direction of other help are all viable options.

    Frankly, giving her $20 to get rid of her stinks, because that's not being community minded either -and yet I bet many of us have opted out that way from time to time -because well quick solutions are so tempting.

    I learnt a lot from a Salvation Army member here. Those in need she took to the store and bought a coffee or a bun or a loaf of bread, soap or shampoo etc and prayed with them (even if they were unknown to her) but she never gave money 'for the bus home' if needs be she'd walk themto the bus and handthe money to the driver.

    That's love in action and it camefromher pocket not a discretionary fund. I want to be more like that - but am a long way from it I'm afraid.

    want to echo too what pinkhammer wrote ...Grace, peace, and discernment to us all as we minister to the poor in our midst.

  7. There's a lot of wisdom here. I would simply echo the suggestion that you involve the vestry/council/board in the decision-making process. They need to understand the complexity of the issues, and you need support in handling this well. Don't go it alone. Peace.

  8. Always a hard time when people need help like this. I went thru several tries and ended up working with a formerly homeless woman who knew the 'tricks' and was good at weeding people out.
    We found that requiring an application weeded out those looking for quick money. Ask for family, income, housing cost, etc. Copy drivers license and other id.
    But sounds like 'J' is well into the congregation and needs some honest talk. I hate confrontation, but it almost always works.
    best wishes.

  9. A tough and frustratign situation.
    I offer very similar advice on gift cards, but try to find places with gift cards where alcohol and cigarettes are not sold.
    I m on crusade for grocery stores to have specially coded gift cards that do not allow their purchase.
    Also, not sure hwo big the church is, but if you put out "the word" to not give money to individuals who ask for it, then that usually gets around fast.
    Even a lettter in newsletter stating you do not refer to individuals unless you talk to them first.
    I (sadly) but finally had to tell one gentleman here that he was welcoem to attend our church services but could NOT ask for money and that people had been adviced not to give money.
    At tiems, the best we can go is not keep enabling others in their situations.

  10. Over the years I have had such folks attach themselves to the parish or to me. I finally began to understand that much of the behavior is co-dependancy and clergy are suckers for co-dependant behavior because we like helping people.

    You have to be willing to stop dancing the dance. It seems harsh-but oh so necessary for you, for her, for the congregation.

    Take her aside when she is doing her "dunning" of the members and bring a lay memeber with you and tell her that if she is going to ask for help she MUST come to you. She may not go to members because it is not the way your church handles alms. She may go away--and if she does, your attempt to evangelize her will fail. If she is willing to accept your correction, then she is able to learn.

  11. Your comment says, "I read in the gospels that Jesus helped everyone, fed everyone, healed everyone without regard to "worthiness", "
    I'm not so sure this is true. It is not true of the disciples either. Sometimes they would pick out one person to heal in a crowded place. Jesus fed some very large crowds but scripture does not say he always fed every crowd. In some places scripture says Jesus healed everyone but in some places he left because the people wanted to keep him there to continue, but he told them he had to go preach to others. We know he questioned people such as the Syro-phonetian woman who answered that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children's table.

    As far as worthiness being irrelevant, read some of the things Jesus said to the pharisees and religious leaders. He was not polite and complimentary. Jesus was no pushover for any person who came to him and expected or demanded things. Jesus was no doormat and we do not need to be either. Read Matthew 23:13-36 for one example.

    We might surmise that the disciples followed what Jesus told them to do after the resurrection. See what they do about serving the poor in Acts 6:1-6 and in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. Scripture also clearly says, He who will not work shall not eat!(2 Thess 3:10). Not everybody among the poor gets fed by the early church. They have standards. It is okay if we have them also.

    Your woman is being sneaky and defiant. She knows the rules, she just doesn't think they apply to her. Our church has a ministry to recovering alcoholics and drug abusers, which includes those in poverty and those who may have been in jail. They aren't all like this lady, only a few. It sounds like she is trying to make you, or anybody who will cooperate, her codependents so she does not have to change her behavior.

  12. Such needs are handled in our community by the pastors who work together and have a fund for such things. But cash money isn't given to people; rather a motel room is paid for, gas is paid for, groceries are paid for, etc. My church is closest to the highway, so has more people come in off the street. The pastor has to contact another pastor to get at the funds, not always convenient. Gift cards are kept for food emergencies. There is also a food shelf and a thrift store that can be opened in an emergency. I think this pastor needs to spread the responsibility for this situation and also set some boundaries.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.