Reprinted from the Chalmers Center.
“Am I really helping this person? Or am I just handing them another band-aid?”
As a deacon serving in a local church, these are some of the most difficult questions I’ve faced. Nearly every week, we meet with people from our congregation and our community who are asking for financial assistance.
In the bustle of ministry and daily life, it’s not easy to respond to these situations with the patience, wisdom and grace required of followers of Jesus. When we’re responding to multiple requests per week, we don’t always take the time to pray, consider the details of each scenario, and make wise decisions about how to help people in need.
It’s hard to recognize the subtle signs that your help has enabled or harmed someone. I’ve experienced the shame and frustration of realizing that my church’s good intentions have become unhelpful.
So, how do you know when your help is enabling someone? And what should you do about it?
Know the Signs
Often, the real issue isn’t that we’re helping someone too much. Usually, it’s that we’re providing the wrong type of help – applying relief in situations that call for development (see When Helping Hurts) – and in the end, setting up transactional relationships with people that dehumanize everyone involved.
There some warning signs that your help could be enabling someone. However, be very careful. On their own, none of these signs necessarily indicate that you’re enabling someone.
What you want to watch out for is a pattern of behavior that could include a combination of these things:
- They ask for assistance regularly – but aren’t experiencing any extenuating life circumstances (such as health issues or job loss) that explain the need.
- You only hear from them when they need help.
- They’re reluctant to discuss any details of their situation.
- They consistently need help with the same bills or with a particular amount of money.
- They ask multiple people at your church for help at the same time. When someone says no, they move on to the next person. Or, they ask different people for help with separate items to mask the total amount of help they’re receiving.
What to Do About It
When you’ve recognized a pattern of behavior, resist the temptation to “drop the hammer” on people. Instead:
- Assume the best. There are many reasons that people asking for help may behave strangely. They may feel ashamed. They may be experiencing trauma. They may have had bad experiences with “church people” in their past. Ask questions – even difficult questions – but approach people with love rather than suspicion.
- Follow the biblical model for conflict resolution. Matthew 18, Romans 12, and James 1 offer helpful guidance for lovingly responding to others when they sin against us. When you observe a troubling pattern of behavior, meet face-to-face with the person in question to discuss the situation in love. Bring someone along for accountability.
- Never give a flat “no.” There are times when it’s appropriate to refuse to help someone financially. However, when you won’t help with money, be ready to double down on helping people in more relational ways. Be prepared to walk with people long-term in mentoring relationships and provide help in the form of budget coaching, financial education, or jobs-readiness training – or connect them with other churches or ministries that can. If you can’t help with those things, remember that your church can be a family to this person.
When you don’t offer money, some people will just move on. That’s okay! The goal is to respond in a loving way that is faithful to God’s call to love our neighbors.
Helping that Helps
Benevolence ministry can easily put us in a reactive mode where we feel like we’re constantly dealing with a crisis. It’s important to invest time and energy in shifting toward a more proactive approach so that you can provide the right help to people.
Making that shift is a long process – but here are a few ways to get started:
- Treat people like image-bearers. Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we just want to pay people to go away.But that’s not faithfully living out the gospel. Instead, make an effort to develop real relationships with people. Get to know their stories, their children’s names, their dreams for the future. When appropriate, invite them into your life and your home. Eat together. Be a real friend to them – even if they don’t reciprocate. Although it may feel like we never see “results” from these interactions, the Holy Spirit can use them to work in our hearts in incredible ways.
- Develop clear policies and processes. No policy or process is bulletproof – we always need to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance in these difficult interactions. However, if your church doesn’t have any written policies or procedures in place for dealing with these situations, they can quickly get confusing. Don’t think of these boundaries as walls to keep people away, but as rails for healthy relationships to run on.
- Keep good records. It might feel strange for your church to keep track of who you’ve helped and how much you’ve helped them with. However, these records are actually a tool for loving people. Good records allow you to follow up with people, avoid enabling behavior, and even celebrate together the good things that God has done in their lives.
- Communicate. When someone in your church or community asks for help, confidentiality is key. But don’t allow yourself to be isolated from others. If you’re a deacon, keep your fellow deacons updated on these situations. If you’re a church staff member, make sure you have a team of people helping you with benevolence. Get together regularly to share information and pray for the people that you are involved in helping.
I can only scratch the surface of effective benevolence ministry in a blog post. Check out our book Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence for more ideas and templates to help you engage in healthy benevolence ministry!