It's a concern. Especially in the recession. Especially in our congregation, where we have been blessed beyond all expectation in the area of finances. Especially when you don't want to turn Jesus away in an attempt to be good stewards.
So we have some guidelines that have helped us make benevolent decisions in recent years. I hope they help us balance ministry to "the least of these my brethren" with being good stewards of the congregation's hard-earned dollars.
Our guidelines are neither perfect nor foolproof. But I offer them for you to consider in your areas of ministry:
1) When people approach the church asking for help with rent, utilities, food, or travel, we have them complete a thorough questionnaire. That effort alone helps to separate the truly needy for those who travel from church to church to church as a means of survival.
2) We do not entertain requests on Sunday morning. Sadly, those who take advantage of the situation (others might call them 'scam artists') know that church staff & volunteers are busy and distracted on Sunday morning. So churches will often write a quick check to a) alleviate their own guilt and b) deal with a problem speedily. To counter that, if anyone comes to church on a Sunday morning asking for financial help, we simply ask them to come back on Monday when our office can handle their request.
3) We also do not provide travel assistance. People often show up at church telling us how they are "on their way" to Tennessee or Georgia and need gas, food, or lodging. There is simply no way to verify the claims. Several years ago, we helped such a traveler . . . whom I saw the next week motoring up I-77 towards uptown Charlotte.
4) We are quick to help with light and gas bills -- especially if children are involved.
5) We reserve larger gifts for rent & mortgage for people who attend the church. In 2009 we have been able to prevent a number of evictions and foreclosures among the people who call Good Shepherd home. Again, if we are going to make that much of an investment -- $800 to $1,000 -- it really helps to know the people personally.
6) In May of 2009, we gave a one-time gift of $40,000 to Crisis Assistance Ministry and their mission of rent, utilities, and dignity. You can read about that day here.
Benevolent ministry is a delicate balancing act. While we hope to err on the side of generosity, we also want to be excellent guardians of the funds entrusted to us.
These guidelines have helped us take steps towards that balance.