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Ministry assistants cautioned on benevolence in the 21st Century

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–The church secretary was startled by the sound of someone clearing his throat, and spun around in her chair. “I need some money for gas. Can you help me?” the unshaven man asked. A cursory look told her he was not a church member, and his unkempt appearance suggested that he had fallen upon hard times. In that instant she knew both compassion and fear. Certainly he needed help. But had he been drinking or using drugs? Was he dangerous? she wondered.
This scene is played out thousands of times each day in America’s churches, according to Joan Hostetter, a workshop leader addressing ministry secretaries and assistants at the recent Ministry Impact 2000 Conference, at LifeWay Conference Center at Glorieta, N.M. Many churches are just not ready for the increasing needs of both church members and indigent persons.
“Fifteen years ago, our church put a spire on our building which was visible from the highway,” remembered Hostetter, administrative assistant for the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Landisville, Pa. “Up to that time, we had never had a person just walk in the door and ask for help. But ever since, they have been coming, and they are coming now more frequently than ever.”
Her first experience broke all the rules she now teaches to others. “He was a clean-cut man, and I was at the church alone. We had never discussed what to do in such a situation, so I opened the petty cash drawer right in front of him, gave him $25 and asked if he would like a word of prayer. He thanked me and left.
“Two days later, his picture appeared in our local paper. He was a car thief. I felt like a sucker. I was angry that he had taken advantage of our church, and frightened about what could have happened to me. I knew we had to address what to do in this situation, or next time, the consequences could be worse. Colossians 4:5a says to ‘be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; making the most of every opportunity.’”
She then outlined several steps that churches can implement which will allow them to offer assistance when it is needed, but help lower the possibility of being taken advantage of:
1. Establish policies and procedures. Hostetter said her church has several rules that simplify the benevolence process. “We interview them up front, and let them know that we can only help once, and we never give cash. We have arrangements with local restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations to provide help to people up to a certain limit at our direction, and then we reimburse them.”
2. Keep a card file. “A photocopy of their driver’s license gives us a name and a picture which allows us to identify someone who is trying to take advantage of us.”
3. Exchange information with other churches. This allows all involved to discover people who may be “making the rounds.”
4. Treat each person with dignity and kindness. “Jesus did tell us that ministering to those in need was part of his ministry, and it ought to be part of ours,” she said, quoting from Matthew 25.
5. Be prepared to respond. Know phone numbers and directions to area food banks, clothing banks, and cooperative community aid programs. Several participants in the workshop mentioned that in their community, the local ministerial alliance worked together to provide resources for aid, but allowed the police department to administer aid. This discourages those whose motives are wrong, and provides safety to all involved.
6. Act as though you are not alone. Don’t hesitate to call the police if you feel uneasy.
7. Never give anyone a ride. If someone cannot get to the food bank in their own car, ask police for help.
8. Have a security system. Hostetter suggested steps that even smaller churches could take to improve safety when the secretary is often at the church alone. For as little as $400, she said, a doorbell, intercom, and lock that can be unlocked with a switch, allows the secretary to use discretion regarding whom she allows in the office. Another helpful but inexpensive aid is a Dutch door to the secretary’s office. The top half allows people to see and speak with her, but discourages them from entering without her permission.
Hostetter agreed that churches want to create a warm and welcome atmosphere for everyone, but “the days when we can just leave the doors open day and night and allow anyone to wander around our facilities are over.” She also said churches today are often seen as easy targets for burglary and vandalism.
She then shared how her church funded the benevolence ministry. “We call it our ‘Friends in Need’ fund. Through free-will gifts in special envelopes, her church receives $6,000 to $10,000 a year for use in meeting congregational, community and indigent needs.”
All recipients of money from the fund are assured of confidentiality. A committee or team should administer the fund, which also serves to take pressure off the secretary. Participants in the workshop shared how their churches allowed persons to serve the needy. The most common approach was a special offering taken whenever their churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper.
“While it’s important to be a good steward of the Lord’s resources and try to screen out the con artists, you can’t always know the intent of those who ask for help. Don’t confuse Christian charity with poor judgement. At the same time, be willing to err on the side of grace. It is better to be taken by a con artist than not to help someone who is truly in need.”
The pastor-staff leadership department at LifeWay Christian Resources, Nashville, Tenn., sponsored the Ministry Impact 2000 Conference.

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  • Ed Rowell