Offering financial help within a small group

I want to talk about when and how we should give money to each other.

I had started this post quite differently.  I had all these things to say about the growing decentralized power structure in the church.  They were deep things, and they were probably mostly true.

But they weren’t really important.

My experiences I think are more relevant to this topic than my contemplations about it.   I have been on a bunch of different sides of this issue.   This is probably why I don’t have clear solutions and easy steps.

During some of the darkest periods of my life I have been in a position of having to accept a sum of money from my small group.  (And actually, other groups that were quite close to mine.)

On more than one occasion I have been on the other side of that coin.  Within a small group I have given financially to someone else in need.

Currently, one of my ministry responsibilities is to work with groups that have needs that are larger than can be met within the group: I facilitate communication between groups, and do my best to direct people to amazing people and resources outside and inside our church.

I probably don’t need to spend much time elaborating on how difficult this is.    We have all looked at our brothers and sisters in need and wrestled with all sorts of things:

* How much should I sacrfice to give to the people in need?  How much should I ask my family to sacrifice so that we can give?

* How can I assess their decisions without being judgemental?  Am I just feeding into foolish decisions by giving them a gift?

* How many details am I owed by someone in need?  How much do I have the right to know how they got into this situation?  How much do I have the right to know about how they will use the money? 

*  Do I trust them with cash or make sure the money goes to what it is intended to go to?  How much do I have the right to dicate how my assistance is spent?

I think we’re all good at memorizing the scripture that supports wherever we come from on this issue.  I think we’re all equally good at ignoring the scripture that does not support where we come from.

What I want to do is simply offer up a few observations about financial need and then sketch out some implications that these observations have to small group management.

#1) There are very few problems which are completely about the money.

It’s almost a cliche to point out that the ways in which we handle our money is an extremely spiritual issue.  This is a cliche because it’s true.

Having financial troubles is so often a symptom of bigger issues.  It was for me.  As I look back, I think that maybe God was trying to get my head out of the sand through these financial challenges.  As I look around, I suspect that I’m not alone in this.

What’s worse is that financial troubles are causes of bigger issues, too.   There are intense emotional issues involved with financial troubles.    We live a society that has made an idol out of self sufficiency.  It’s a very shameful experience for most people to be in financial trouble.  It’s also a fearful situation, anxiety provoking and stressful.  It can cause profound relationship problems and tie into feelings of being a poor parent.  Finanical diffuclties attract blame and fear and shame and anger.  We ignore these at the peril of everyone.  

#2) There are few problems which are completely divorced from money

While it’s true that money is rarely a problem that occurs alone, it’s equally true that there aren’t many problems which don’t have a financial side.  There are many reasons which might prevent us from talking about the financial aspects of problems.  But this does not mean that they are not there.  As we wonder about how best to care for people, it’s important to wonder about whether there is a financial aspect to the issues we are helping each other through.

Even if there are little or no financial impact to the crises, helping the person through might require some money.  Perhaps they need professional services which they would not normally have access too.  Perhaps one way you wish to show your support is through some kind-of gift.  There is a certain way in which giving a hurting person money is a crass response.  But one form of mercy that we can offer people, sometimes, is simply the ability to get some relief.   If a person is hurting it would be crass to simply hand them a $50 and walk away.  But if a person is hurting, and that money was used to purchase a gift card to a local movie theatre, the relief might be just exactly what the person needs.

#3 It’s human nature to be a short-sighted helper.

There is a disconnect between the support we offer people and the crises that people experience.  This disconnect is located in our attention span.  Many crises last so much longer than the help we recieve from people.  When folks have given so much, after a while, it’s so hard to ask for more.  I know of so many cases, though, where those being supported in all kinds of ways wish that those helping and supporting them had paced themselves a bit more.  Sometimes we jump in, meeting all the needs that we find.  And then… we burn out, wear out, run out of resources.  And the person we were trying to help, they are back where they started.  We wanted to rescue them but all we did is offer them a brief reprieve.

A few implications

One of the things that’s worth noticing about the 3 observations above is that financial need does not exist in a vaccuum: they are often part of a larger pattern of problems, nearly every problem has a financial side, and people tend to have less endurance than problems.  In knowing how best to respond, it is sometimes helpful to recognize that the ways we serve people don’t exist in a vaccuum either.

There are two different things I mean by this.  The first is that it helps to demystify troubling questions by recognizing that money is not really any different than any other way we might serve a person.

I participated in an interesting discussion.  There was a great need and someone who was normally a dedicated, 10% tither found himself wondering if he might channel some of the money which would normally go into the collection plate toward that need.  This is a complex question.  I don’t think I’ll try and answer it here.  But for my purposes, the next step was an interesting one.

The next step was simply to observe that we feel that God is owed a variety of things, in addition to money.  Some of us feel that we owe God our time.  We work in a ministry, for example.  It is illuminating, I think, to explore the tithing question in this way:

What would you do if you saw a great need that you could meet with more time?  Would you channel the time that you normally feel is owed to God in the direction of that need, even at the expense of the church?

Or consider a second example: we might be grappling deeply with whether to give to someone in financial need.  Our hesitation might fear from the fact that we are enabling the person.  Giving them a financial gift might allow them to continue on a sinful or destructive path.

It does not answer all our questions, but it does help, to recognize a parallell.  We watch people who have troubles all the time.  We know that we can rescue them by doing all sorts of things.  It’s worthwhile to ask ourselves: how do we determine when to help and when not to, when it’s not a question of money?

The second thing I mean, when I say that we shouldn’t financially serve in a vaccuum is that we should do our best to offer support in a comprehensive way.  Money might be one way we take care of people… but it should not be the only way.  There are some ways in which money is easy.  It allows us to stay out of the dirt and still feel like we’re helping.  I think that our love will be most evident when it is multifaceted.  This helps also deal with concerns around enabling others.  Perhaps with the financial gift will come assistance in preventing the problem from happening again.