Joe Carr’s church, Waynesville Baptist in southeast Georgia, is around 30 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart. With an earned reputation for helping local residents, though, he often has to make sure his church isn’t viewed as a superstore come December.
“Through the year we feed about 180 families a month through our food pantry,” says Carr, pastor of the congregation. “We also operate a clothes closet and each week fill up 15 backpacks with food that are given to needy students at schools on Fridays so they have something to eat on the weekend.”
Those efforts are done by a church averaging 50 in Sunday School and 80-120 in worship, by Carr’s estimation. Come December, however, their big-heartedness has to be tempered with making the most of their resources as requests for help rise dramatically with backstories that can often be less-than-trustworthy.
“You have to be careful to help, but not enable,” says Ricky Thrasher, Georgia Baptist Convention state missionary with Church and Community Ministries. “There are people in need, but churches are struggling [financially] too, so they have to figure out how to use their resources to help as many as they can.”
Talk to any pastor with some years of ministry under his belt and you’ll hear common themes when it comes to benevolence ministry. Advice from Thrasher, whose own experience goes back to his time as a pastor in the 90s, almost certainly drafts with those stories and has led to some suggestions.
Have more than one person handling the benevolence funds. “You need people with different spiritual gifts. One would have the gift of mercy and another gifted with wisdom. Without that you don’t mean to enable people, but that can happen out of your Christian love for them.”
Go by guidelines, not rules. “Unique situations happen. Learn to identify them.”
Ask good questions. “Find out if they’ve gone anywhere else for help and how long ago that was. Ask them to tell their story to you.”
Ask about their salvation. Most of the time expect to hear that the individual is saved, as their expectation may be it will help their chances. Thrasher has had those who said they weren’t saved, though. In those instances he shared the Gospel while letting them know their answer would bear no weight on how much assistance they received.
Take it another step. Ask them if there’s a way you can help them get a job, advises Thrasher. See if they have a reference or someone who will vouch for them.
“I’ve had people tell me it’s my Christian responsibility to help them,” adds Thrasher. “When I hear that my antennae goes up and I ask them why they feel that. A lot of times they say it means I owe them something.”
With limited resources and a growing number of requests, an answer of “No” will make people mad at times. “I just tell them I’m sorry and we can’t help them at this particular time,” says Thrasher.
Trust … but verify
The old Russian proverb made famous in America by President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War applies to a lot of situations, including how best to meet others’ needs. Before updating their records-keeping methods, Carr and his volunteers would keep track of food pantry recipients through information jotted down on scraps of paper. When the list of names grew to more than 400 – remember, ministered to by a church averaging 100 in worship – a trend was noticed.
“There were different people living at the same address who each would come in at times to get food,” he says. “The rule was for one household per month [to receive].” As a result, not as many homes could be provided for.
“We’re meant to be a supplemental food source, not a primary one,” he explains. “We’ve caught a number of people coming in twice a month. Some tell us that the church is supposed to help people out; we tell them they’re double-dipping, and it’s keeping someone else from being helped.
“We can get kind of overwhelmed with the number that come in, especially at the beginning of the month,” he admits. “You have those who appreciate it, but also those who take advantage of it. When I’m before the Lord, I’d rather have been too generous than stingy.”
In preparation for the increased number of requests in December, members of Waynesville Baptist donate to the church’s Christmas Committee, which identifies needy families and buys gifts for kids. “Before we got it organized we had helped the same people a few years in a row and they had kind of come to expect it,” says Carr. “Once the word gets out a church is helping, people come. Last year I had three people who live on the same road call us over a two-week span.” The food ministry of the church is helped greatly by a partnership between Global Hunger Relief and the state conventions.
Not just for gifts and food, but requests to pay utilities come in. Several of those needs are met as well. In fact, Carr paid someone’s light bill this week.
Guidelines, not rules
Aligning with one of Thrasher’s recommendations, Carr says churches need to be flexible according to the situation. When you’re open to that leading by the Holy Spirit, it can come around. “We helped a lady fleeing an abusive husband, and she wrote a thank you card,” he relates. “It was one of those rare times we got that sort of response.”
When she arrived earlier this year with a check for the church’s ministry Carr told her he couldn’t accept it and there were no strings attached to the help she received. She’d have none of it. “She said she was in a place where she could [give back] now and I couldn’t talk her out of it. She wanted the check to go toward helping someone else.”
The pastor can relate to those conflicted about helping everyone you can, but being wise about it.
“You can get cynical,” Carr admits. “I’ve heard about every story imaginable, but I’d rather be taken advantage of than leave someone out [even though] I have to cut back on the amount we give. When we do that, it allows us to help even more.”