Post Author: Askie
I’m a new pastor in a small farm town. The church is on the main road through town and I live in the parsonage next door. Across the street is a gas station/minimart. The previous pastor was known to help whomever knocked on the door with money for gas, food, etc., so I’m getting knocks from people looking for help. So far these people don’t live in town, they’re passing through, and five miles further down the highway is an enormous casino. The church members and my denominational leadership do not expect that I hand out money from my front door, and so far I have not. But I feel like a terrible person, the falsest of Christians, and the most hypocritical of pastors when I turn someone away. What do I do?
You are not the only one, sister. This is really hard stuff, and so many YCWs (and others) face it too. Many of us share those feelings of guilt, hypocrisy, and self-doubt as we set boundaries around whether, how much, and under what circumstances we will help people in need.
Those moments of saying no and turning people away give many of us clergywomen a little “WWJD” shudder. They make us all feel like terrible Christians and terrible pastors. After all, Jesus said “Give to everyone who begs of you” (Luke 6:30), right? And yet, Struggling, have you noticed that there aren’t any stories of Jesus handing out cash in the towns of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem? He surely encountered people begging for money (blind Bartimeus, for one), and yet no stories are recorded of him opening his own wallet. He gives, certainly, but he gives in other ways: food, healing, time, love, forgiveness, wisdom. So take heart if you’re not willing or able to be your town’s ATM. There are other ways to handle this.
- Redirect requests away from the parsonage: There are some great advantages to living next door to the church, but being easily accessible 24/7 is not one of them. It’s not fair to you (or your family if applicable) to have to field these requests at home. It might not always be safe, either. Could you put a laminated sign up on your door, indicating that anyone in need of assistance should contact you at the church during office hours? You might include business cards with your office phone number, or brochures pointing them toward other resources in the area. While you’re at it, stop over at the gas station and let them know that you won’t be dispensing funds from your home – they may not realize that you’re not continuing the previous pastor’s practices, and may be able to set the record straight with some of the people asking you for money.
- Get community support: Your congregants don’t expect you to hand out money from your front door, but what do they want? This is their church, after all! Talk with your lay leaders to see what kind of assistance they want the church to provide, and how it can be funded (hint: not out of your pocket). If there’s a local ministerial association, or even just other pastors in the area, reach out and see what insight they might have. You might be able to work together to create a dedicated fund for emergency relief, with colleagues who can hold each other accountable for using those funds appropriately.
- Refer, refer, refer: Rural areas don’t always have a lot of resources to refer people to, but start making some phone calls and sending some emails. Hopefully, you can develop a list of agencies, programs, and counselors that can meet some of the needs that are arising at your front door, in your community, and in your congregation. Be sure to ask for advice from the community, as well. There may be programs you have not yet discovered since you are new in town.
- Be cautious about cash: Whatever solution you come up with, be cautious about giving cash. While we want to take people at their word, we also want to steward limited resources as best we can. Sometimes that means being a bit skeptical about tall tales that boil down to “only cash will help.” Different clergy have different ways of giving non-cash assistance. Some options include gift cards to the grocery store, vouchers for the gas station, writing checks directly to utility companies, or a referral relationship with a local thrift shop. Be creative with other possibilities and options, as well! It’s good to seek to aid people in need, but you can also do your best to make sure your congregation’s money doesn’t go directly into the slot machines.
- Give thoughtfully: You mention feeling like a bad Christian and a bad pastor when you turn away people at your door asking for cash. I’m sure you’re not, Struggling. Those icky feelings are signs of honest, faithful engagement with an ethical dilemma to which there is no perfect answer. One way you might find some comfort from the guilt and worry is to remind yourself of the ways you do give… so make sure that you’re giving in ways that you feel good about! Find organizations that do great work in your community, and give money and time, generously and cheerfully, as you’re able.
- Be a good predecessor: Wouldn’t your life be better right now if the previous pastor of your church hadn’t given out cash at his front door? I hope that he will learn (and we all will remember) that the decisions we make set expectations for the pastors who come after us. When we meet pastoral needs out of our personal wallets, people will expect that of the next minister. When we skip our days off and work through our vacations, people will expect that of the next minister. When we sacrifice our family’s well-being for our congregation’s needs, people will expect that of the next minister. So care for your congregation well, Struggling, but set good boundaries – not just for yourself, but for the pastors who will come after you.
I hope that helps you a bit, Struggling. I hope you have good, productive conversations with the other folks in your community so you don’t have to navigate this alone. And I hope your ministry with this congregation is fruitful and Spirit-filled.
Image by: Roadsidepictures
Used with permission